For the Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem was the central image of their worship of God. It was where God dwelt among them. It was the House of God. Every Jew longed to go up to Jerusalem for the Great Feasts and to offer sacrifice to God through their priests.
In Jesus’ time the Temple had not long been rebuilt. It was a magnificent building shining with white marble and gold adornments. Its innermost room at the centre of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God. It was kept in complete darkness cf.
1 Kings: 8:12: Outside it was the Altar of Sacrifice and outside that again was the place of Public Prayer. Jesus had taught and read from the scrolls on the Sabbath in this magnificent place.
However in the incident of the Cleansing of the Temple in today’s gospel, we find Jesus far from the centre of the Temple. In fact it describes him entering the gates into the outer courtyard where the animals for sacrifice could be bought. Because Passover was approaching, demand would have been high. The historian Josephus gives us some idea of the numbers involved. He recorded in 70 A.D. that a quarter of a million lambs were offered on the Temple Altar at the time of the feast.
We can imagine, then, the scene that greeted Jesus on his arrival: the money-changers at their counters and throngs of people buying and selling cattle , sheep, lambs and pigeons. Jesus knew that many were motivated by greed rather than service to God and to God’s people. Being truly human, with emotions similar to our own, he was really angry and chose to express it. We read that he made a whip out of some cord and drove the men and animals out of the Temple precints. He scattered all the coins of the money-changers, knocked their tables over and told them to stop turning his Father’s house into a market. Jesus remembered the words of Scripture: “No more traders in the Temple of God” (Zech.14:21), and Ps.69:9: “I am eaten up with zeal for your house”.
Jesus’ behaviour antagonised the Jews. They wanted to kill him because his message was too threatening to those who held power. To trap him they asked him for a sign to justify what he had done. In John’s gospel, signs point to a deeper reality. John directs our attention from the Old Temple to the New Temple. The Risen Jesus is the “place” of a new worship, and through faith in him, which is the interior work of the Spirit, we enter into a new relationship with God our heavenly Father. The Incarnate Jesus who clears out the temple, is a sign of a new Temple, which is the glorified Jesus. Jesus is both the sign and what is signified. When Jesus gives them his reply, the Jews remind him that it had taken forty-six years to build the Temple. Was Jesus going to rebuild it in three days? No. Jesus was referring to his body i.e. his glorified body, the body of the Risen and glorified Jesus.
The disciples remembered this much later and they came to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words in the light of his death and Resurrection.
Here are some questions to reflect on during Lent.
1. I can learn new insights about myself when I enter into dialogue between the written word and my experience.
2. How do I face the challenge of conflict?
3. The Jews lost their magnificent Temple in 70 A.D. but learnt to find God’s Presence everywhere. Where do you find God’s Presence in your life today?
Sr. Dympna Travers OP