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.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Jesus the Jew goes to Jerusalem for a major religious festival. If you read the gospels regularly you will know that the editor of John’s gospel has put this report in a different place from the three synoptics which have it in the final fateful week of Jesus’ life.
It is an editors privilege to do so. As a newspaper columnist I know that editors place columns in strategic places for effect. If current editorial principles applied to the compilation of John’s gospel, it suggests that moving the story of the cleaning of the temple from a finale story to a initial story in the Jesus record gives it more importance. It is as if the editor is saying , “If you want to understand the story of Jesus you have to see him in the context of this temple confrontation” .
In a recently published book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, inter-faith author Reza Aslan suggests that the Jesus of history was first and foremost a Jew, speaking to Jews, and attempting to reform and revolutionize oppressed Jewish political and religious reality in first century Palestine. Alsan argues that although we know precious little about Jesus, the fact that we do know that he was crucified tells us that he was executed for crimes against the Roman Empire. The Romans who learnt crucifixion from the Greeks who learnt it, via Alexander the Great, from the Persians; reserved it solely for punishing political enemies.
It is this Jesus, one messiah amongst many contemporary claimants at the time, who Aslan succeeds in re-introducing to his readers. A zealot whose zeal for the temple consumed him.
It is with this as background that I read the gospel narrative for this Sunday (in the Lutheran Narrative Lectionary)
Through this lens there are three aspects I would like to comment on as I bolded them in the text above:
- “The Passover of the Jews was near…he found people selling…” Right there we have the confrontation of Jesus the devout Jew with the populist religion that his dear faith had become. It was then and still is now, prohibited for Orthodox Jews to trade during the Passover. The feast has as its deepest intention a memorial to the emancipation of Hapiru (slaves) from the tyranny of superpower Egypt. Yet here they were, centuries later, enslaved once more to superpower Rome, who used the temple rituals as part of their occupation strategy.
- “Making a whip (phragellion) of cords, … He also poured out (ekcheo) the coins” Jesus the scourger with a whip, ends his life in the very temple he comes to cleanse and then in Pilate’s precinct, he is the one who is scourged. The action with the coins is even more interesting to me. The word ekcheo is used most in the New Testament in the book of Revelation where seven of the nine instances refer to the pouring out of the vials of judgement and wrath in the angels’ hands. Other usages in the New Testament refer to the spilling of blood or most graphically in Acts 1:18 to the gushing out of the ruptured bowels of Judas. There is something visceral here in the passion of Jesus for cleansing the temple. Again as with the flagellation, how ironic is it that his is the blood that is spilt? Blood money and sweating blood for money are the strange alchemical mixtures that curse our age and every age before us.
- “But he was speaking of the temple of his body”… It was Richard Rohr, who made me aware that a core contribution of Jesus’ teaching to the religious understanding of the planet is that Jesus taught that the sanctuary for divine/human encounter lies, not in external structures, sacrifices or symbolic acts, but rather Jesus understood and taught that the temple was an inner space. The kicker being that if the temple is within, then says Rohr, the only sacrifice that remains is my false self to the True Self. Jesus models this truth in his own life and body temple.
How may we continue to pour ourselves out zealously from the inner sanctuaries of our hearts to those who suffer in the structures of systemic oppression?