Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 21, 2018
In the past few weeks, we have said again and again that there are events that take place only in John and not in the Synoptic Gospels. For example, last week’s lesson- the wedding at Cana- is only found in John.
But the Cleansing of the Temple is an event that takes place in all four Gospels. Why? It had to be viewed as important that it is found in every Gospel.
What made it important to the early church? What does it mean now? Does it have something to say about modern business? Does it have something to say about the modern church and what we do inside the walls?
Let’s look at Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple.
Engaging the Text
(Jesus)He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency.
While this story is found in all four gospels, it is placed differently in John than it is in the other three books. The Synoptics place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, when he arrives in Jerusalem. In fact, it is the precipritating act that starts things in motion that leads to Jesus’ death.
In John, the cleansing of the temple takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This isn’t the act that gets him killed, that would come later in John (the event that would start that process in John is the raising of Lazarus from the dead).
But there is something else going on here. While the each gospel tells the same stories, the Synoptics and John tell different stories. Theologian Karoline Lewis notes that while in the Synoptics, Jesus was angry that the temple had become a “den of robbers,” Jesus had a different purpose in mind in John. Lewis explains the difference:
The levels of meaning of the temple incident in John are also found in the details in how the incident is told. Jesus enters the temple and finds what one would expect during a pilgrimage festival. The vital trades are in place for the necessary exchange of monies, animals, and grains for the required sacrifices. Nothing is out of order at this point. The narration happens in real time, as if the reader can see everything that Jesus sees. Yet, Jesus’ command to the dove sellers differs strikingly from the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). Instead of a concern for temple malpractices (“den of robbers”), Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. For the temple system to survive, however, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. The temple had to function as a place of exchange for maintaining and supporting the sacrificial structures. Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system. Underneath this critique lies also the intimation that the temple itself is not necessary.
In the Synoptics, it seems like there is some abuse taking place. Sellers in the temple are ripping off the poor in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as Lewis notes, what is happening in the Temple is normal, everyday commerce. People who came from far away bought animals to offer sacrifice at the temple. Buying the animals was a way for the temple to pay for itself.
The moneychangers in the other gospels are seen as crooks. But here in John, the moneychangers are seen in a different light. They made it easier for people to offer sacrifices to atone for sin. They were a vital link in helping the people keep faithful to God instead of people trying to make a quick buck.
But Jesus still overturns their tables. Why?
The reason that the people came to the temple was to offer sacrifice- animal sacrifice. But Jesus was coming to be the sacrifice for people. What he was doing was showing folks that the temple system was no longer needed.
In the tech world, a disruptor is something that upends an established order. So, for example the rideshare company Uber is said to disrupt the traditional taxi. Disruption is about throwing the existing order into disarray.
The temple had been long seen as the place where God’s presence was said to dwell. But Jesus was the Word-became-flesh. John 1:14 says that God pitched God’s tent among the people. If Jesus was the new “temple” there was no need for buying and selling sacrifices. Jesus was enough.
Jesus’ actions caused the religious leaders to question his actions. ““By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?” they say. Jesus answers enigmatically: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The leaders were shocked. It took 46 years to build build this temple, so it seemed rather foolish to say that Jesus could do that. The religious leaders couldn’t know that Jesus was not talking about the temple in front of them, but the new temple: himself. He was referring to his coming death and ressurrection.
A short note about verse 17. In that verse, it says the disciple remembered a passage from scripture:“Zeal for your house consumes me.”
This passage is found in Psalm 69:9. The writer of this Psalm is being made fun of because of their faith. Preacher Scott Hoezee notes that this is about someone that was zealous about God’s house, but was made fun of because said devotion. Hoezee says:
Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It’s about how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense. It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any president, king, or prime minister. The writer of Psalm 69 believed that the ancient temple of Israel was the center of the universe, the house of God, the dwelling place of the cosmic Creator. And his neighbors saw this zeal for God’s house and they laughed out loud. How could he believe such an outlandish, silly thing?
In the wider world, there can be a viewpoint that things like worship or prayer don’t mean much in a world of Presidents and Prime Ministers. But the writer of Psalm 69 and Jesus are saying that our faith is not just an everyday thing, but something that can change the world, something that is disruptive.
When I was young, people around me interpreted the Cleansing of the Temple as a prohibition of selling things in church. In John, Jesus comes to disrupt the way of doing things. God has a new way of how people can worship, but to do that they need to have their applecarts upturned. Jesus ministry is about showing a new way to worship God.
The cleansing of the temple is viewed at times as challenging the powers such as Rome or the commerce of then and today. But John shows us it is also about challenging a faith that might have grown comfortable or not open to seeing things in another way.
Would Jesus upturn the tables in your congregation? Why?
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.