Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's Going on in the Temple?

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

We encounter a very different Jesus in today’s gospel. We would often like to think of him as calm and collected, wise, gentle and loving. But in today’s gospel, Jesus unleashes his anger on the moneylenders and animal vendors in the Temple. His anger is not just confined to verbal altercation but is expressed in a physical and even violent manner, as he overturns the tables, vandalises the tools of trade and collections of these businessmen, and even physically whips them with a makeshift flogger. To describe this behaviour as disturbing is an understatement. Many people, including many of us, would have deemed this petulant and childish and outright scandalous. What do we make of this?

But before we look into the text and try to discern the purpose of Jesus’ actions, we need to address an issue that may also distracts enquiring minds. The gospel of John presents this episode of the cleansing of the temple at the beginning whereas the same story is found at the end of the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We must remember that the gospels were not mere biographies of Jesus written in a chronological manner. Each of the gospels is a theological document utilising stories from the life of Jesus. The Synoptic gospel writers place the story near the end because it fits their purpose of explaining why Jesus was tried and arrested. On the other hand, the Gospel of John places the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning, because it also fits into the thematic schema of the first few chapters (e.g. Wedding of Cana) that Jesus has come to make all things new. Here lies the clue to unraveling the mystery of Jesus’ actions.

We now come back to the issue of interpreting the action and more specifically the anger of Jesus. Were the presence of the moneylenders and animal vendors justified? Here, it must be noted that their presence in the Temple grounds were neither a desecration nor were they deemed a distraction. Their business was in fact essential to Temple worship. Profane currency, which usually carried the image of the Roman emperor, was prohibited as payment of Temple taxes, because it violated the first and second commandment, which we heard in the first reading. The animal vendors sold animals used for sacrifice by the pilgrims. Their trade, with licenses issued by the Temple authority, guaranteed quality as pilgrims were prohibited to offer an animal victim that was blemished in any way. Therefore, both the moneylenders and the animal vendors served as intermediaries and their presence marked that invisible boundary between the sacred world of those who were worthy and the rest of the world that was considered impure.

In introducing the theme of ‘newness,’ Jesus’ anger can be understood at two levels.

At the first level, Jesus was targeting the culture of transforming religion into a marketable commodity. The point that is being made here is not just the commercialisation of the Temple building. Jesus was not targeting the traders in the Temple compound because he felt that these sacred grounds should not be desecrated by their wheeling and dealing. All those who sell religious articles within the Church premises or who attempt to raise funds can rest assured that they do not risk the wrath of a Jesus going amok once again. What was commercialised was religion itself. Although the money lenders and animal vendors provided access to Temple worship, it came with a price. Their presence and activities fostered the erroneous belief that faith and grace could be sold and bought.

The second level which Jesus attacked was the false dichotomy that stood between the outside world and the interior of the Temple. This dualism was reinforced by the presence of these tradesmen who acted as intermediaries between these two realms, thus fulfilling somewhat the function of the priestly caste. In fact, Jesus’ attack against them was in a way a more subtle attack on the leadership of the priesthood. The function of a priest was to mediate the relationship between the people and God. But, Jesus’ indictment against them was that they had not only failed to act as representatives of God and of men in facilitating this communion but indeed had become obstacles. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus stressed that the Temple was to be a place of worship ‘for all nations.’ But the priestly caste, including their business collaborators had made it an exclusive enterprise, a limited commodity that could only be dispense if one paid the right price.

But both these points are merely secondary to what Jesus had intended to teach through his actions. The temple for the Jews was where God was found on earth. God lived in heaven, but his presence could be found in Jerusalem. Because God’s presence was there, this is where the Jews found forgiveness and cleansing for their sins. Over the centuries, the temple changed. It had been sacked and looted and rebuilt only for it to happen again. The half breed Jewish King Herod built the temple Jesus walked into, but Herod because of his ancestry and his being Caesar’s puppet made this temple suspect, to say the least. In the past, the Temple was holy because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s indwelling among his people. But now its holiest sanctuaries stood empty. The Ark of the Covenant was long lost. The Temple had become an empty husk bereft of meaning. Different groups of Jews were waiting for the messiah to come and restore the temple into the splendour it had when Solomon built it. They longed for this time when true worship could take place there, without any taint of impurity.

The most important point, therefore, expressed by the words and actions of Jesus was that he was supplanting the physical Temple building with the Temple of his Body. From now on, religion could no longer be paid for a price by money either minted with the face of Caesar or with the menorah, the seven branch candlestand that was imprinted on the Temple coins. The faith that was introduced by Christ would be paid with a far greater price, the price of His own life on the Cross. Likewise, there was no need for any animal sacrifices. The most perfect sacrifice has been offered by Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In this new economy of salvation, in order for worshippers to worship God in Spirit and Truth, there was no need for the mediation of moneylenders and animal vendors. Christ Himself would be the Sole and Perfect Mediator.

Therefore, the themes contained in today’s gospel reading present us with several thought provoking and soul searching questions: Should we really get angry whenever we do not get our way or should our anger (a righteous kind of anger) be directed at sin or whatever keeps God from his rightful place of authority in our lives? Should we get annoyed when our space appears invaded or should we turn our anger to the many obstacles and walls which often creates false disparity between the rich and the poor, and insurmountable barriers between peoples of different cultures? Should we just be looking at the sacrosanct inviolability of our church buildings or should we be focusing on the new Temple, the resurrected Christ who is present in his Body, the Church, where there is no division between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor? As we continue our Lenten preparations to celebrate the newness of our lives through baptism which we will all commemorate and renew at Easter, let us cast aside all the impediments and obstacles that continue to separate us from the Love of God, the Love made flesh in his Son, Jesus Christ who has come to make all things new!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.