On Cleansing the Temple
[Ex.20:1-17; 1Cor.1:22-25; Jn.2:13-25]
Early in John’s Gospel, after his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.
This Temple is a sacred place. According to the Hebrew Bible, it’s the place where God lives. It’s where sacrifices are made for the forgiveness of sins, and it’s where huge numbers of pilgrims gather to worship God, especially at Passover time.
But when Jesus gets there, he’s horrified.
The Temple has become a noisy bazaar, focussed more on money than on God. The moneychangers, the animal traders and the high priests are all making great profits out of the people.
Jesus is furious. He cracks a whip and tells them all to get out. ‘Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!’ he says. The tables are turned, the animals panic, and coins and pigeons fly everywhere.
The first of the Ten Commandments, which we heard in our first reading today, says, ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no gods except me’. But here in the Temple, they are doing just the opposite. Instead of worshipping God the Father, they’re worshipping the false god of money.
Jesus says this must stop. The Ten Commandments aren’t suggestions, they’re commandments, and his mission is to put everyone back on track.
The Jews ask Jesus to justify what he’s done, but they don’t understand his answer. In essence, what Jesus says is that the Temple’s days are numbered.
For hundreds of years, the Temple had been the place where people came to meet and worship God. But God had long promised that he would come one day to live among his people (Ez.43:7; Zech.2:10). He fulfilled that promise by sending us his son, and after his resurrection, Jesus became the new Temple (Jn.2:21; Mk.14:58).
So, Jesus is now the sacred point of contact between heaven and earth. We no longer need to go to the Temple for worship; we simply go to Jesus, for he is the new sanctuary. The Body of Christ, the Church, is now where God lives, and when we are spiritually united to his body, God lives in us, too (Jn.14:23).
St Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘Don’t you know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy and you are that temple’ (1Cor.3:16-17).
What all this means is that Jesus is actually speaking to us in today’s Gospel.
He’s telling us that we are now his temples, and just like the original Temple, we should be serving God through worship, prayer and sacrifice.
So, here’s the question: do our temples need a good clean out, too?
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that there’s a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and we’re always looking for something to fill it.
This explains why so many people today seem to worship things like money, pleasure and sport. But doing these things is like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Ultimately, nothing will satisfy us except God himself. [i]
That’s why St Augustine wrote, ‘you made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. [ii]
We are now in Lent, and Lent is the perfect time for us to clear out our false gods. It’s the perfect time for us to focus instead on loving God and our neighbour, just as Jesus commands us to (Lk.10:25-28).
But temples are also about prayer, and prayer had become impossible in the noisy Jerusalem Temple. That upset Jesus. Has prayer become impossible in us, too? As Psalm 46 says, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps.46:11). We must find some quiet space each day for prayer.
And finally, temples are about sacrifice. When Jesus clears the Temple, he effectively declares that the days of animal sacrifice are over, and that a new kind of sacrifice is coming: personal sacrifice. As Jesus said, ‘If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me’ (Mt.16:24).
If we truly love God and each other, then our first priority cannot be ourselves. This means sacrificing our selfishness, laziness and greed. It means living our lives for others, just as Jesus did.
So, why did Jesus get so angry? It’s because he’d had enough. God loves each of us totally, but unconditional love isn’t the same as unconditional approval.
We are all temples of God. A temple is a very special place, filled with love, prayer and genuine sacrifice.
Does your temple need a good clean out?
[i] Blaise Pascal. Pensees VII #425. Penguin Books, New York. 1966:75.
[ii] St Augustine. Confessions. Image Books, New York. 1960:43.