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John 2: clearing the temple

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

As we continue our reading of the fourth gospel, we now find ourselves in chapter two. As I explained last week, we won't be covering every verse, but I do want to give a sense of the whole gospel, so while we will be concentrating on the second half of this chapter, I do want to say a brief word about the first half.

This tells the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. I love that his first display of power and glory is rescuing a failing party, as for me this scene has the same mix of the wonderful and the mundane as the afternoon those first disciples spent with Jesus, when they came back declaring him the Messiah. His presence at the feast says that he is engaged in our reality, he shows up for the things we show up for. And the abundance and quality of the wine say he wants to enrich our reality, he makes things more than they are. There is an added layer of symbolism too, as the water jars that he is brought were those used for purification rites, so in place of a system of constant justification, we see that Jesus offers generosity and joy. It's a beautiful and bountiful start to his ministry.

We will focus though on the clearing of the temple. Here it is important to start with a bit of background that explains the presence of the traders and the money changers. The animals being sold in the temple were those used in ritual sacrifice, and coins had to be changed before animals could be bought or the temple tax could be paid, possibly as Roman coins bore an image of the pagan emperor and so were not considered appropriate currency within the temple. It seems then that Jesus was targeting the administrative system that held up the sacrificial system, or at least abuse of that system by individuals within it. For all that later Christian understanding has come to reject animal sacrifice as unnecessary in the light of Christ’s sacrifice, he says nothing about the practice of sacrifice itself, but rather his concern is that the house of his Father has been turned into a house of the market.

If animals were to be sacrificed then they needed to be bought and sold, and I can only imagine the chaos if everyone had to lead oxen or carry doves through the city, so what was Jesus' problem with them being sold in the temple? In the synoptic accounts of this story (which appear rather later in the narrative) Jesus says the money changers and the traders have turned the temple into a den of robbers, so perhaps there was dishonest practice going on, with people charging too much for animals or setting unreasonable exchange rates. It is interesting to note here that the Mishnah, a third century collection of rabbinic traditions, records a first century rabbi's campaign against extortionate prices for doves. There is also a suggestion that the animals had moved into the temple because the Sanhedrin (the assembly of elders which acted as the religious court) had moved out to the marketplace, so perhaps there was a degree of frustration at the internal religious politics that had caused the situation. Or perhaps it was a matter of motive, with the money changers and the traders coming to see themselves primarily as business people and becoming more concerned with making money than facilitating worship.

Whatever got Jesus so riled up, this was a startling act of enacted prophecy or social protest which struck at the heart of the religious practice of the day. The reference to the whip of cords is particularly striking, given the restraint and pacifism Jesus displays elsewhere - it is later in this same gospel that Jesus chastises Peter for cutting off the ear of one of the men with the group that comes to arrest him. The text seems to suggest that the whip was used to drive the animals out, rather than being turned on any of the people present, so it may have been more about herding than hurting, and does not necessarily imply an act of extreme violence on Jesus' part.

A few months back, I made reference to the WWJD bracelets that were popular in my teenage years, the letters standing for 'What Would Jesus Do?' Well, there is a phrase that occasionally pops up online which says “Next time someone asks ‘What would Jesus do?’ remember that making a whip and turning over tables is an option”. It made me smirk the first time I saw it, but it has been used to excuse some pretty poor and unchristlike behaviour. As an article I read last week put it, people have used it as a way of saying “I don’t need to be nice because Jesus wasn’t nice when he cleared out the temple”. I think 'option' is the key word in that phrase, as this kind of behaviour was not common in Jesus’s ministry. There must have been plenty of other things that got him angry, but nowhere else did he react in such explosive or dramatic fashion. This passage is not a justification for us to lose our temper at everything we disagree with, and while there is certainly a place for righteous anger, it needs to be reserved and controlled and used appropriately. As the article I quoted earlier put it, “anger is the exception because peace is the standard”.

So it is with great caution that I ask what tables we might need to overturn. It is easy to read this passage very literally and see this as a ban on financial exchanges in religious buildings, but I think we need to read with the spirit not the letter. If motives were the issue, then it is entirely possible to conduct trade well or reject it badly. I think our Fairtrade sales are an example of the former, supporting an important cause and worthy businesses, and keeping the issue of trade justice at forefront of our minds. It is also easy to do as I’ve already cautioned against and use the passage as excuse to overturn every aspect of worship that we don’t like, but Jesus grew up in a religious tradition that made space for difference and disagreement. I think we need to maintain that willingness and ability to accept and even embrace differences in understanding and practice, in as far as they do not distort the central message of the gospel.

I believe that at least some of the tables we need to turn are those that corrupt or exclude or disadvantage. The money changers and the traders effectively acted as gatekeepers to worship and therefore to society, given that being ritually pure was vital to being accepted within that society. If they were doing their job badly, they risked keeping people out of the temple, and in the understanding of that culture, away from God and apart from others. I wonder if perhaps it was this gatekeeping that really angered Jesus. By turning the house of God into a house of commerce, the money changers and the traders were not just corrupting themselves but potentially excluding and disadvantaging others.

(To prove my point from last week about old texts bearing new lessons, a member of the congregation told me afterwards that one thing he has heard about this story is that the traders and the money changers had set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, thus potentially keeping non-Jews out of the temple as there was less room for them. This would seem to support the idea that there was a problem with gatekeeping and exclusion. Further developing this point, Matthew's account of the clearing of the temple has Jesus say “It is written, 'My house shall be called the house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of thieves” - here is quoting Isaiah 56:7, which speaks of a 'house of prayer for all nations', suggesting a concern that the temple should remain open to all.)

Jesus continually and consistently pulled down or vaulted over the barriers that religion and society put up. He ate with tax collectors and touched lepers and taught women. As we will hear later in the gospel, he is the gate, and so it is not for us to declare some in and others out. We therefore need to challenge those religious and social practices that corrupt by excluding or disadvantaging. That is what we are doing in our desire to be a place of welcome and in our conversations about inclusion, which we shall be returning to in a couple of weeks, and also what we do in our social justice work.

The clearing of the temple is dramatic and disruptive. I described it earlier as enacted prophecy and social protest, and if Jesus had done it last week, I imagine it would have got much the same reaction as when the Extinction Rebellion protestors glued themselves to the DLR. It would have been all over social media in half an hour, with a thousand tweets and half a dozen comment pieces praising or condemning him. Perhaps we might be called to turn over tables in similar fashion - a Methodist colleague in Leeds got himself arrested a couple of years ago when he broke into an army base with the intent of destroying the war planes we were selling to Saudi Arabia - but I think more often we are called to do it in gentler ways. Simply commiting to live out the kingdom values of compassion and justice can be revolutionary enough.

I find it interesting that those present do not question Jesus’ actions but his authority. Perhaps they have an instinct that he is right, or perhaps this should be seen in the context of a broader theme of authority which runs throughout gospel - in multiple passages, Jesus' authority is questioned or asserted, and it seems important for the gospel writer to affirm that Jesus' authority comes from God, that he is not a madman or a rogue. I watched a documentary about the cult leader Jim Jones the other day, and it was striking how his methods were the polar opposite of those used by Jesus. Where Jones centred himself, Jesus always pointed to the Father; where Jones sought to prevent followers from leaving, Jesus never forced anyone to stay; and where Jones told people exactly what to believe, Jesus asked questions and encouraged his hearers to figure things out. These differences seem to come down to a question of authority - Jim Jones constantly needed to reassert his claims to authority because he had none, whereas Jesus did not need to prove himself because he was secure in knowing that his authority came from God.

Jesus responds to the questioning of his authority by challenging his opponents to “destroy this temple” saying he will “raise it again in three days”. His hearers understand him very literally, questioning how he could possibly raise the temple in three days when it took forty six years to build it, but the gospel writer takes a more metaphorical approach, seeing the temple as Jesus’ body and his words as a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection. The reference to the disciples remembering Jesus' words after death suggests that it was only then that they understood - they were as ignorant as Jesus’ critics to begin with. I think it;s reassuring to know that it’s okay if it takes time a little bit of time for us to understand.

This overlaying of or playing with meanings - temple and body - is interesting. The temple was the centre of worship, and if we are to understand Jesus' words as meaning that he has in some way replaced the temple, then we must surely understand that he has now become the centre of worship. I think it is important that we understand this correctly however (and that is not to say that I do, only that I'm trying to) because the temple was not the object of worship but the site of worship. Jesus and the temple are clearly not same in every respect, and the nature of their role as the centre of worship is necessarily different, but I think something of the distinction still applies. Jesus never called his followers to worship him, but was always directing their attention to the Father, and so it seems to me that we are not invited to worship the incarnate Christ alone, but to allow the incarnate Christ to reveal the fullness of the God we worship.

The closing verses of chapter are somewhat puzzling, as the writer says that "many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people". The words translated as 'believed' and 'entrust' come from the same verb in the original Greek, so there is a sense of imbalance in the relationship between Jesus and people. This can seem disappointing - incarnation seems to suggest precisely that God is entrusting himself to us, but now it seems he is holding something back. And yet at same time, of course there has to be imbalance - God knows us fully while we understand God only in part. I don't think we need to be troubled by that, but rather marvel that God did not let such imbalance prevent them from reaching us.

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