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3rd Sunday of Lent

23 February 2024

3 March, Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19 (or 19.7-end); 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

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A FEW facts go a long way when reading the Bible. For this episode, it helps to know that the holy city is on a hill; thus, Bible characters always go “up” to Jerusalem. Knowing that Jewish people considered it unlawful to pay their temple tax in Roman coin explains why moneychangers were needed.

Knowing that animals were being sold reminds us that blood sacrifice was how people routinely sought access to God, and that the value of offerings might depend on an individual’s circumstances. When Mary and Joseph presented Christ in the temple, for example, they made a low-value offering (2.25). Sheep and oxen are for rich people to buy.

Throughout this passage, NRSV refers only to “the temple”. That obscures another fact. Jesus encounters the livestock dealers and moneychangers, not in the heart of the temple (naos in Greek, as in v. 20), but in the outer court (hieron, as in vv. 14-15), which was known as the Court of the Gentiles. When he speaks in parables of the temple that is his body, it is the word naos — not hieron — that John uses. Applying the same English word to both locations obscures this completely.

If NRSV had made clear the difference between these two areas, as NIV does (by translating hieron as “temple courts”), it would make part of the story easier to understand. Reading NIV, and knowing a little about the temple itself and the outer courts, I imagine something akin to a cathedral, with its outer close, then its inner complex of spaces — gift shop, refectory, lavatories — which are nowadays an indispensable part of any cathedral’s ministry to visitors.

To evaluate Jesus’s actions here as realistically as possible, we can imagine this modern equivalent. Picture the scene: after an hour or two looking round the building, you retire to a cathedral’s gift shop with its adjoining café to enjoy a well-earned cup of tea. Suddenly, a man rushes in brandishing a weapon and throws all the postcards, guide books, and religious knick-knacks to the floor.

If that happened to me, I would find it disturbing — frightening, even. Why was this man so angry, so violent? Such behaviour does not belong even in the periphery of the cathedral itself, never mind close to the inner space, where God is sought and found.

At least the man’s weapon is not life-threatening. No sticks or blades were permitted, even in the outer circuit of the temple grounds. This explains why he chose a whip, made of cords knotted together, maybe with knots at the end of each cord as well. Such an implement could certainly sting or hurt. But it would not wound by breaking the skin; nor would it inflict permanent damage. Just as well, for the passage is quite problematic enough already.

It is a fact that we do occasionally come across events in the Gospels which portray Jesus as being in a state of high emotion, including anger. We can struggle to evaluate them. Seeing Jesus impassioned and violent to the point of committing criminal damage, and even assault, is certainly disturbing.

There is always an easy answer to problems of this kind in scripture. “Well, it is Jesus,” we can say. Normal rules do not apply. If he is angry, those traders must have deserved it. This seems to me to be an unsatisfactory response to such visceral emotion. If Jesus came to raise fallen humanity, his stooping to this level of human passion makes no sense.

Even without bringing in the Synoptic accounts, we can see how Christians have been scouring scripture for ways to make sense of what Jesus says and does on this occasion. John records that his violent treatment of the traders called to remembrance a psalm verse (69.9); and this keeps the focus on the righteousness of Jesus’s anger.

But, if we go back a verse, we get a fuller picture. Just before this reading, John has mentioned that, when Jesus went up to Jerusalem, he left his brothers behind (2.12). Two verses are being evoked, not one: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children; for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.”

The way in which these words recall the isolation of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) explains why this episode gets a whole Sunday in Lent to itself.

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