I’d like to undertake a little exercise in imagination with you this morning. I’d like you to imagine that you were present in the Temple in Jerusalem on the day that Jesus came in and drove out those selling animals and overturned the money changers’ tables.
What were you doing in the Temple that day? Suppose that you lived in one of the towns in Judah. As the reading began: “The Passover of the Jews was near,” and so, as you did every Passover, you made your way to Jerusalem to celebrate the great festival.
And you made your way to the Temple that day so that you could have sacrifices offered for your sins in preparation for the Passover. That was what the activity of the Temple was about. Like most Jews of your day, you believed that the Temple was the place for such sin offerings because the Temple was the dwelling place of the Most High God on earth. Heaven and earth met in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. You along with the vast majority of Jews of your day believed that.
And what did you make of the mayhem being caused by this individual with a group of peasant followers? After the ruckus, people tell you that his name was Jesus and that he was a teacher and healer from Galilee. Because you come from Judah, you have never heard of him.
You think though that the Galilee connection explains things a little. Galilee you knew was given to the outbreak of rebel bands determined to garner support to overthrow the Roman occupiers. But because you lived in Judah, in proximity of Jerusalem, you knew how strong the garrison of Roman soldiers there was and you knew that only fools could possibly think that they could defeat them. You were waiting for the Messiah to arrive, someone who would come out of heaven, riding on the clouds, as described in Daniel chapter 7. Only such a supernatural and powerful figure sent by God could get rid of the Romans.
What puzzled you anyway was why this rebel leader caused all this trouble in the Temple. Why did he not attack the Roman soldiers? How could he expect to gain support from faithful Jews when he disrupted their activities in the Temple at this special time of the year?
The following week, as you and your fellow pilgrims from your town were returning home, the conversation turned to the amazing event that some of your group had experienced in the Temple the previous week. Wasn’t it a blasphemous thing to do? How could he expect to get away with it?
As it happened, one of your group had heard that he did not get away with it. Apparently, he was crucified by the Romans a few days afterwards. He got what he deserved you all agree. But why did he attack the Temple if he was a Jewish agitator? It did not make sense. God spare us from rebels who don’t even know who the enemy is.
This would be a perfectly legitimate reconstruction of the thinking of most of the Jews present in the Temple that day who had never heard of or seen Jesus before. Even the false messiahs who arose from time to time concentrated their attack on the Romans. Why did Jesus direct his challenge on the Temple itself?
This event in Jesus’ life is often referred to as the cleansing of the Temple. The only person who could cleanse or rebuild the Temple was the king. It was kings, real or aspiring, who had authority over the Temple. Consider the Temple’s history. David planned it, Solomon built the first temple, Hezekiah, Josiah, Judah – kings of Judah, cleansed it, Zerubbabel and Herod the Great rebuilt it. To make a claim to have the authority to cleanse the Temple, to drive out the animal traders and the money changers was implicitly a claim to kingly authority. It was a messianic claim.
The cleansing of the Temple was an emphatically royal action, a claim to be Israel’s true king. Furthermore, Bishop Tom Wright suggests that “Jesus’s dramatic action was a way of declaring that the Temple was under God’s judgement and would, before too long, be destroyed forever.” Jesus even goes on to declare that the Temple should be destroyed and in three days he will raise it up again. And we are told that they misunderstand him because they didn’t realise that he was speaking of the temple of his body.
Let’s just reflect on this for a moment. Jesus mounts an attack on the Temple, the place where the Most High God is present on earth. And he says that his body will be the new Temple.
Through this powerful prophetic action, Jesus is making the claim to replace the Temple with himself. It is completely in keeping with his preaching and miracles in ministry. Once again, Bishop Wright expresses it well: “And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up – but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on,….where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s- God was living” (Simply Jesus p 133).
I have read commentators who argue that this cleansing of the Temple was the immediate precursor for Jesus’ execution. They suggest that he may well have been able to get away with his healing and teaching, but it was his assault on the Temple and all that it stood for in the minds of the Jewish leaders that made his death necessary. And when we look at it in this way, the implicit claim that Jesus was making for himself as the new Temple of God was blasphemy in the extreme to those who opposed him.
To us who believe in him it is salvation and truth.
And what became of our Jewish friend who witnessed the drama in the Temple? As the word spread around Jerusalem, Judah, Samaria and to the ends of the earth following Jesus’ resurrection as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles , did he or she find Jesus’ cross a stumbling block as Paul suggests today or the tree of life?
That we don’t know of course. You can use your imagination to bring about the outcome you would like. What we do know is that a decision would have had to be made one day. The good news of Jesus was spread through all of the known world like a wildfire and the choice would have to be made one day.
Hopefully, we have all made our choice and we gather as brothers and sisters convinced of the abiding presence of God in Jesus our Lord, attentive to his ongoing presence with us in our gathering in his name, in the Word proclaimed and in the Sacrament shared.
Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge
St Matt’s Anglican, Holland Park