The cleansing and clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem that we read about in our Gospel for Sunday (John 2:13-25) is one of my favorite Gospel readings. In the synoptic Gospels it takes place just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate as Palm Sunday, the start of the last week of Jesus’ life. In this account from John it may take place earlier in Jesus’ preaching career although Passover in Jerusalem is still the context. All four Gospels record an account of this event in the Temple that shows Jesus’ passion and courage, and righteous anger as he speaks truth to power with his words and strong actions. But, what is the truth that he is speaking here?
“There he found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out of the Temple…Then he faced the pigeon-sellers: ‘Take all of this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market! “
The account in Matthew (21:13) adds “My house shall be called a house of prayer (for all people/nations) and not a den of thieves”. Matthew describes Jesus as overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves (21:12). In commenting on the den of thieves, Jesus echoes Jeremiah 7:11 which is in the context of the entire seventh chapter of Jeremiah where the prophet describes the myriad ways the people cling to the Temple but do not follow God’s laws. The prophet tells them to “Reform your ways and your actions….if you (do this) and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place….you will live….Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury….and then come and stand before me in this house that bears my name ….Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers?….”(Jer 7; 1-11). These offenses include many of the ways the religious leaders and people reject God’s law while saying they “love” God’s house. The Law is a relational guideline for our relationship with God and with one another. At its heart is justice, especially for those who are on the margins, like aliens and widows and orphans who are impoverished. According to the prophets, and to Jesus we cannot love God’s house if we do not love and KEEP God’s law. That is the point of including the Ten Commandments in Exodus20:1-17 in our readings for this Sunday. It is a review of what those who love God’s house/temple ought to be doing-living in truly just relationships with one another and loving God above all.
Most interpretation of Jesus’ actions in the Temple settle primarily upon the words “moneychangers” and “market place” and miss the full meaning of what Jesus is doing here. This is the last week of Jesus’ life. He knows his fate. In Luke’s account (Luke 19:45-48) before his actions in the Temple he weeps over Jerusalem because they did not recognize “the time of God’s coming to them” (Luke 19: 41-44). He is defining his mission one last time and with greater passion and energy than ever before. Like the prophets before him, Jesus is saying that the Temple has come to represent religion gone wrong-caught up with animal sacrifices and all of the economic business around it instead of living the Law with all of its compassion and justice for the neediest and most outcast among us. In Matthew 9: 13 when Jesus is speaking to the Pharasaic critics after choosing Matthew the tax collector as a disciple, Jesus tells them to “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”. Here he is quoting Hosea 6:6 where the prophet Hosea clarifies what God wants from a people who have broken the covenant- not followed the laws of love, inclusion and justice: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings”.
In the context of Matthew 21 the “multitude” shouts Hosanna! meaning Save! As Jesus enters Jerusalem. He then acts to save God’s house and God’s people from a false understanding of what God is all about. As he said earlier in Matthew 9, God does not want animal sacrifice or burnt offerings, but mercy and compassion and justice. Jesus is freeing the animals that were awaiting their sacrificial deaths, the cattle and sheep and the little doves, pigeons, the poor person’s sacrifice. He is decrying the sacrificial cult perversion of the religion of the times as well as the money making that relies on cultic sacrifice. The priests stand to lose the most if the people follow Jesus and no longer adhere to live animal sacrifices-they lose money, status, and food. The core of their job centered on animal sacrifice. It was the chief priests and the elders of the Temple that challenged Jesus to say who gave him such authority? (Matt 21: 23). Jesus was clearly taking on the Temple leadership. And he also alienated the occupying Roman government as he put love of God as central to the Jews in a time when Julius Caesar claimed to be both God and the Son of God and “gospel’, good news, meant any news about Caesar. Clearly Jesus changed what the Good News was. For the people, he heals, includes, loves, feeds and teaches and calls for new hearts-he is the fulfillment of the prophecies and preaches adherence to the spirit and not the letter of the Law. His strong actions in the Temple and their meaning to the religious leaders are probably a major reason for his crucifixion. He throws out those who profit from animal sacrifice and sets the sacrifices free even while decrying those who make money off the poor instead of caring for them in the ways the Law prescribes. This is Jesus the Liberator of the poor and of all “innocents” including the animals. This is the Savior of God’s message to us and God’s actions in history. This is the Savior of all who break God’s Law and repent, of those seek to serve and love God and the least among us. As 1 Corinthians 1:22-25,our epistle for the day says; Christ is the power and the wisdom of God! Wow! Or as it says in the Psalms “Selah”-pause and think that over.
What do we do to preach the good news to the people and to the powers that be? How do we take on the Government or even the Church to enact compassion and justice? I am humbled to be a Roman Catholic woman priest. I think of over two hundred of us who in simple faith and commitment to justice within and outside of the church for women who are courageous enough to sacrifice our good standing in the church to answer God’s call and risk ordination with “automatic excommunication” and the kind of criticism from church leaders that Jesus also endured. I think this takes the strength of Jesus in the Temple. I think of Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Viola Liuso, Andrew Goodman,James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner, Episcopal Seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels and all of those people of faith who challenged segregation and the laws of the land that kept black people, and eventually all poor people, down without equal rights and equal pay. I think of Harvey Milk and the gay activists who gave their lives for the life of the LGBT community. I think of the Plowshare Nein peace activists including our co-pastor Judy Beaumont and presently Sister Megan Rice who chose prison rather than silence or inaction in the face of nuclear proliferation and drone warfare. I think of Greenpeace and animal activists who fight for the least of these. I think of all the parents of poor and minority students who go up to the Principals and Boards of schools to safeguard the learning experience of their students. I reflect on our own neighborhood Good Shepherd community riddled with gang violence and drive by shootings. I think of those brave souls who tell the truth about what is happening and make the sacrifices needed to identify and stand against the evil. I pray for the majority who just accept things as they are and thereby cooperate with the horror of violence and the threat of death that plagues the neighborhood. I pray for wisdom and guidance in proclaiming the Good News in this context as it must include naming the evil of drug, gun and gang violence no matter who likes it or not. I have had to say, even as Jesus and the prophets did, “don’t come and sit and smile in this church and go out to break God’s precious law with guns and violence.”
May we look to Jesus, Jesus cleansing the Temple, Jesus the Christ ,the author and finisher of our faith as we seek to cleanse the wrongs that plague our church, our world and our families and communities. Amen!
Rev. Dr. Judith Lee, RCWP
Co-Pastor Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community,