Cleaning (God’s) House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  John 2: 13-22.

Few paths offer a quicker road to trouble than criticizing someone’s religion or their politics.  Almost certainly, Jesus knew that about us, and travelling down that road got Him killed.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Jesus criticized both the religion and the politics of the Judean authorities of that time.

The Temple stood as a monument to something sacred and holy:  it represented the intersection of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of the Living God, and a visible symbol of both national identity and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.  Most people would perceive an attack on the Temple  as an attack on the faith (and the nation) itself.  These events took place as the city of Jerusalem swelled with the Passover crowds.

All four Gospels record this event, one of the few occasions on which Jesus became deeply angry.  In the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves.”  John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as opposed to the synoptic Gospels which place it much later.

Jesus apparently became enraged upon observing the barriers thrown up by the priestly authorities, barriers which stood between God and His people.  For example, because Roman coins were forbidden in the Temple, they had to be exchanged (at a substantial discount) for the currency of the Temple.

The Temple authorities also collaborated with the Roman occupation, and Jesus overturned that table as well.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus  insults the Temple culture, calling it a “marketplace.”  Trading on access to the Holy was then, and still remains, a special kind of blasphemy.  Jesus became enraged when He saw the Sacred being traded like a commodity.  I think we underestimate the Gospel if we see this as a historical criticism of “the Jews” back then.

Our churches still seek to collaborate with political power.  We still fall under the thrall of a purity system that separates the righteous from the sinners, the holy from the impure and the whole from those who are broken.  We might well examine the ways in which we still place obstacles in the paths of those who come looking for God.  We might wonder whether our churches, like the Temple in Jesus’ time, have become comfortable monuments to the status quo.  We might ask whether our houses of worship have become mutual admiration societies rather than instruments of change.  Perhaps we should share the Savior’s sense of outrage when we encounter it.

The Judean authorities asked Jesus to provide them with a sign (seimeion), in other words, to show them the authority by which Jesus issues this prophetic condemnation.  Asked for an explanation, Jesus replies with an enigma.  Jesus responds that upon the destruction of “this temple”, he will raise it up in three days.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, Jesus is misunderstood.  (We find the classic example of this in Jesus’ trial as Pilate questions Him.  John 18, 19.)  Jesus speaks of the sanctuary of His body; the Judeans think He’s talking about the architecture.

Ultimately, Jesus will displace the Temple as the intersection of heaven and earth.  As He told the Samaritan woman only two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  John 4:21. Further, Jesus’ death would signal the final sacrifice, rendering the Temple culture obsolete. Jesus thus appropriates the functions of the Temple for Himself.  The life of Christ would come to operate as the new meeting place for those seeking El Shaddai (God Almighty).

Like the Temple culture of Jesus’ time, many of us would still prefer a God we could do business with (see here).  Jesus offers us something radically different:  He offers Himself.  He becomes the locus point (the alpha and the omega) where human history intersects with the Father. He has been raised as the new edifice where we can encounter the holy.

As we come to this new Temple, Jesus doesn’t expect us to bring a dove or to engage in some special ritual.  He asks us to take the whip into our own hands, and chase away everything that separates us from God. He asks us to come and offer ourselves, our whole lives, without reservation. He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

14 responses to “Cleaning (God’s) House

  1. not sure its a whip and not sure we are to chase it away – might be an invitation to the Holy Spirit to come in without a search warrant and then when He searches and finds, when He brings light to our hidden things – the gentleman Holy Spirit expects only one thing – repentance because of our desire to be holy as God is holy.

    • Evan,

      I like the notion of God coming in without a search warrant. Thanks so much for your thoughts.


      Br. James

  2. From my perspective, you raised two critical, related issues for North American Christians: first, our inclination to do churchy things that are comfortable, even cozy, even though they have little to do with building up the Body of Christ or taking the Presence of Christ into the world, and secondly, our stubborn reluctance to consider ourselves as potential instruments of change in the life of the world. If only we had the will to resist the first and the faith to believe the latter!

    With appreciation for your thoughts and friendship, (Amma) Lera

    • Amma,

      I think these are two terribly important issues. I will pray for that will and that faith.

      In hope,

      Br. James

  3. apocalypseicons

    Sometimes, as Jesus shows us so clearly, we have to confront. Something Christians are loathe to do but then I guess we have to evaluate the situation to the deepest level. Perhaps we have lost the ability to see the root principles and this is why we are not confident to act and speak as we should.

    • My dearest Constantina,

      I think you’re precisely correct. We should be naturally reluctant to confront, but not shy away from it when our core values are challenged. Knowing when it’s called for: that’s the trick.

      Pax, my friend,

      Br. James

  4. Christ became so frustrated at times with our ignorance. I saw a lady selling stuff inside a church one day, and the pastor asked her not to do it within the House of God. I was impressed, since so many places think nothing of it today, as though Christ has changed His mind or something. Capitalism and Christianity do not mix, but in America many leaders are trying to promote themselves and make a profit.

    • Olive,

      I think the notion of turning God’s house into a marketplace offended Jesus so deeply because it constituted a very deep denial of the possibility of the Sacred. If our churches look just like the world (the “marketplace”) we’ve cut off the possibility for people to come to recognize that they are places where something different really does happen.

      As always, thanks for your thoughts.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

      • Brother James,

        This is a hot potato topic, as I’ve learned the hard way. The churches are coining all of this business rhetoric now such as the “marketplace” to send subliminal messages to people that the sacred things can be purchased with money. I heard a lady the other day saying that her church was trying to draw more “customers.” I almost went through the roof!

        What have we done to the Gospel of Christ? I am so pleased that you are addressing this subject!

      • Brother James

        Me too, Olive. And thanks so much for your regular support and encouragement.

        Grace and peace,

        Br. James

  5. Noel Williams (prhayz)

    This is a thought provoking post Br. James. Jesus criticized the people who were enforcing the law because He knew the enforcers themselves could keep the law in its entirety. “”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

    Thanks for sharing. God bless you.

    • Noel,

      I’m glad you found the piece challenging. Yes, Jesus’ warning about whitewashed tombs worries me often, when I think about our churches, and when I think about the state of my own soul.

      God bless you too, my friend,

      Br. James

  6. I am reminded of a C. S .Lewis quote I read just this morning: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
    Marjorie George

    • Margorie,

      That Clive Staples was a pretty smart guy. I have taught several classes on Lewis and the Inklings, and always walk away richer for the experience.

      Pax et bonum,

      Br. James

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