Jesus cleanses the temple
Dedication Sunday, 3 August, 2014
Melissa Clark, Theological Student
When I went travelling I my late 20's I was intrigued, even amused by the souvenirs that I spotted (and yes I may have even bought some of them), in some of the major cities in Europe.
I bought a Prince Charles postcard in London, a beret in Paris and, hideously and tackiest of all, I bought a "Pope in a snowglobe" from a stall holder right next to the piazza of St Peter's basilica. It had a plastic John Paul 2nd standing behind a plastic St Peter's Basilica and, when shaken snow would fall on both pope and church. It was seriously so tacky that I laughed as I handed over the Euros to the stallholder and laughed even harder as I gave it to the friend that I had bought it for when I got home.
This experience came to mind as I was reflecting on this week's gospel reading. Jesus not only drove out the people who were selling goods but those who were buying goods in the temple. It had never occurred to me that I may have been complicit in a similar scenario through the purchase of this seemingly harmless snowglobe!
It is clear from this reading that Jesus really didn't want the temple used for material purposes. It is particularly important to note that the seats of those who sold doves were overturned — doves were the cheapest sacrificial option and therefore preferred by the poorest members of the temple.
There is however a much deeper level to this than just getting rid of the stall holders and there are many different ways that we can approach this. Was it a political statement? Was it just about the correct use of the temple space? Was it a tool to bring on the events of the Cross?
The verses just before this one describe the events of Palm Sunday. It is often titled 'the triumphant entry into Jerusalem' but in reality Jesus rode in on a humble little domestic donkey. Not as the captain ready for war leading a regiment of well armed soldiers — no. He comes in simply...in fact not saying anything at all. It is the crowd who makes all of the noise and indeed the very verse before the cleansing of the temple story says that the city was in turmoil. But not Jesus — He just quietly rode his way through the city straight to the temple.
When he arrives at the temple though, he seems pretty annoyed. He doesn't make a whip of cords and clear them out in Mathew like he does in this story in John but he gets them out in any case. When you think about the size of the temple that is no small feat.
Archaeologists put the Herodian temple area at about 450 metres long and about 300 metres wide (so that's about 3 MCGs) and we could imagine that it would have been filled with money changers and sellers and animals of lots of kinds...perhaps more like a market place than a place of prayer as we know it. His presence and power is such that he is able to get all of these folks out to make room for the blind and lame.
There is a definite political message in that — even a modern day political message in it. Jesus clearly tells us to be focused less on issues of economics and more on issues of those in need. If we had a modern secular experience to relate this to we could look at the global financial crisis of a few years back. It woke many people to the fact that economies and material wealth are things that are uncertain and temporary. I'm not sure that we've learned too many long standing lessons from that but there are many still feeling the ongoing effects of what happened when the world's economy stumbled.
You would think that driving out the people who stimulated the economy of the temple would be what really annoyed the chief priests but, if we have a close look at this, Matthew doesn't tell us that these people are angry until after Jesus starts curing the needy who come to him and hearing the children singing praises to him — and by children we can't necessarily assume we mean people of a certain age, I think it more likely that we think of the children here as the children of God; you and me.
It is really extraordinary what makes the chief priests most angry here. They realise the power and influence that he is gaining and it scares them. Of course he doesn't ease up on them as he goes on in the next few verses to tell the parable of the wicked tenants. He also refuses to answer questions about his authority.
Now if we delve a little deeper into what the meaning of this text could be it is important to examine the word 'cleanse'. If we were to tip over the pews and throw out the lillies and hyacinths from the vases in the sanctuary we would probably say that we were 'clearing' the area not cleansing. To cleanse is something very different. To cleanse is to scrub clean, to get rid of dust and dirt, to purify. At the time the animals used for sacrifice were to cleanse the people of their sins. But Jesus has just thrown them all out! This is a clue to what Jesus is about to do for us — a clue about the sacrificial nature of his ministry and death. It doesn't matter that we no longer have dove sellers in the temple because we no longer need them. He is showing the people that he is the one to cleanse them and he is absolutely enough.
To take that thought a step further we can ask where is our temple? Is it this place? This place that has been a house of prayer for nearly 170 years? Is it a place that we visit on Sundays for an hour or so — and if so does that mean that we only have the ability to worship and pray whilst we're here? I think most of us would say no - and indeed, if we look at our second reading today Peter writes to the exiles and tells them to be living stones, to allow themselves to be built into spiritual places by God and to offer up their own spiritual sacrifices.
So how do we take this instruction on — to be living temple stones, in the context of a temple cleansing? Well the best way that I know how to do this is to read and study and learn and do this all in prayer. It is through my formal studies at Theological College that I have come to understand the value in asking the Holy Spirit to help cleanse my thoughts and turn over the tables in my own mind so that I can begin the journey to become the living stone that Peter encourages us all to be.
Without wanting to sound like an advertisement for Trinity College I would encourage all of us to look at a continued form of study to further enhance our relationship with God and with ourselves as living stones, or as tools of God. So that our thoughts can be shaken up and turned over and examined in a way that strengthens the stones within us.
So going back to my snowglobe.... I'm going to think less about the plastic pope and basilica and meditate more on the snow that falls when it is given a good shake up.
When we are shaken and turned upside down, we have the cleansing love of Jesus that falls quietly on us and rests within us. This life of faith that we live is not meant to be a smooth ride; we are meant to be challenged, we are meant to question and we are meant to learn.
But at the end of this life of faith, the snow falls and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Peace be with you.