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Readings: Third Sunday of Lent

27 February 2015

THE J PAUL GETTY MUSEUM

Christ Cleansing the Temple, by Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575)

Christ Cleansing the Temple, by Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575)

Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE cleansing of the Temple is unusual in that it is recorded in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it within the last week of Jesus's life, as he enters Jerusalem to die (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48). John's Gospel takes a different approach. Here, it is set at the very beginning of Jesus's public ministry, immediately after the first miraculous sign of his identity as Son of God at the marriage at Cana (John 2.1-12), which is explicitly located close to the feast of Passover (John 2.13).

There will be two more Passovers in John's chronology: the first, soon after Jesus feeds a great crowd who have gathered to hear him teach (John 6.1-14); the second as he comes to the end of his ministry. This description is protracted, and moves from a meal in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus six days before the festival (John 12.1-2), to the crucifixion on the day of preparation for Passover (John 19.31). The New Testament scholar William Barclay points out that this provides a frame of about two years from Jesus's baptism to his death.*

John's architecture seems to encompass the meaning of everything that Jesus will do, from the overturning of the tables until the moment he announces from the cross "It is finished" (John 19.30).  What it describes is the enormous endeavour of setting right the human relationship with God. Jesus was not objecting to the customary practices of money-changing, and selling sacrificial animals. Nor was he proposing any challenge to the Mosaic law that first established a covenant relationship between God and God's people (Exodus 20.1-17). His anger was aroused by the corrupt way in which the money-changers charged excessive commission for converting into Temple money the coinage brought by faithful Jews, who were making perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime Passover visit to Jerusalem.

Equally, he took exception to the inflated prices charged for animals and birds within the Temple precincts, and the inspectors' regular rejection of creatures purchased outside in order to ensure their own revenue stream. And then, as Barclay notes, there was the noise as all this commerce was carried out in the Court of the Gentiles. The reference to Zechariah's vision of a Jerusalem in which the Lord's house would no longer be a marketplace is apt on two levels (Zechariah 14.2; John 2.16). It speaks to the immediate present, and it indicates a new order, still to be realised, in which the worship of God will indeed be "in spirit and in truth" (John 4.23).

The Gospel-writer makes no attempt to persuade us that this was fully understood at the time. In fact, the account makes conscious use of the devices of memory. The disciples remembered, possibly years later, a verse from the psalms, "Zeal for your house will consume me" (Psalm 69.9), adding to the episode a note of righteous anger. Interpreters of this verse suggest that the psalmist may have been committed to the rebuilding of the Temple (sixth century BCE); and its recollection here makes an elegant transition from Jesus's actions to the Temple itself. As a sign of authority for what he has done, Jesus promises to rebuild the Temple in three days, if the Jews should demolish it (John 2.19). After the resurrection, the disciples "remembered that he had said this", and understood that "he was speaking of the temple of his body" (John 2.21-22).

All this literary patterning and quotation puts shape and sense on events too enormous and imponderable to confront in any other way. Paul, however, takes the opposite strategy in preaching the gospel, writing to the Corinthians that Christ did not commission him to employ "eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might be emptied of its power" (1 Corinthians 1.17). It is too late to please those who have already failed to "know God through wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1.21). Instead, he proposes something manifestly foolish: the story of God crucified (1 Corinthians 1.23).

That is the challenge of the collect of the day, composed originally by the scholarly American priest, William Reed Huntington (c.1882). If we can persevere with the paradox and risk of the cross, we will find ourselves on "the way of life and peace".

*The Daily Study Bible (Revised Edition): The Gospel of John, Volume 1 (St Andrew Press, 1975)

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