Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
CHRISTIANS are made uncomfortable by Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple. Although it is one of the best-known Bible stories, it is rarely depicted on the stained glass in our churches and cathedrals. Even the lectionary keeps it out of sight in the central liturgies of the Christian year. While the story is pivotal in the Passion narrative of each Synoptic Gospel, it will not be read at any eucharist in Holy Week.
The Fourth Evangelist has the opposite reaction. In his narrative, the cleansing of the Temple comes at the very start of Jesus’s ministry. Moreover, he offers the most vivid account of this physical act of confrontation. This is the only Gospel in which Jesus makes a whip of cords — driving out the animals, traders, and money- changers, and pouring out their coins.
As Jean Vanier explains, Jesus was “enraged” because the traders were selling animals for sacrifice at an unjust price. Likewise, the money-changers were “taking a big commission, impoverishing those who were already quite poor because of the temple tax they had to pay with temple money, not Roman money” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).
The cleansing of the Temple is placed immediately after the wedding feast at Cana. Both are stories of transformation. At Cana, the water used for ritual purification is turned into wine. It becomes a symbol of the blood of Christ, poured out on the Cross and at every eucharist. Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple fulfils Malachi’s promise that God’s messenger will come to the Temple as a purifying and refining fire (Malachi 1.1-3).
In the Fourth Gospel, the cleansing of the Temple takes place at Passover. On its careful chronology, Jesus’s death occurs exactly two liturgical years later. Thus, it invites reflection on the extent of the transformation of Temple worship: Jesus’s act of cleansing prefigures the day when this edifice of stone will be torn down.
In the “temple of his body”, Jesus will offer the sacrifice of God himself. This sacrifice will usher in a new worship, in a temple not built by human hands. This is why the disciples fully understand Jesus’s words only “after he was raised from the dead”. In the words of Benedict XVI, “The Temple is his body, the Risen One, who gathers the people and unites them in the sacrament of his body and blood” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week from the entrance into Jerusalem to the resurrection).
As our epistle reminds us, the authentic proclamation of the gospel is disturbing to all who hear it. Its “foolishness” confounds the “wisdom of the wise” and the “discernment of the discerning” (1 Corinthians 1.18,19). In the words of Ken Leech, “Christ is a fool, a symbol of contradiction. . . Religion goes disastrously astray when it ceases to be a sign of contradiction and becomes a cement for social conformity” (We Preach Christ Crucified).
The discomfort which many Christians feel about the cleansing of the Temple is perhaps a sign of its wider theological challenge. The passage poses a question to each generation of believers: When are we in danger of allowing the gospel to be downgraded from a “sign of contradiction” into “a cement for social conformity”?
An adequate conception of Jesus’s ministry must reflect the moments of anger and confrontation as well as of reconciliation. Rather than allow the prevailing values of our society to constrict and sanitise our image of Jesus, Christians are called to allow the gospel’s narrative to challenge and reshape our moral world-view.
In the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus challenges both the social and the religious order of his day. He is condemning a system that exploits those who are poorest economically. In the very same act, he is making a bold and apparently blasphemous claim about his identity. (In Matthew and Mark, a distorted version of Jesus’s words appears in the mouths of the accusers at his trial.)
For different reasons, each of these claims may seem like “foolishness” to today’s prevailing culture. Jesus’s challenge to unjust and exploitative economic systems causes one kind of disturbance; proclaiming the uniqueness and divinity of Christ causes another kind of offence. At the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus is doing both these things in a single act. He summons his Church to do likewise.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.