Year B, Lent3
March 11th, 2012
Thomas L. and Laura C. Truby
John 2:13-22 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“The Temple Is Over and I Will Take Its Place!”
Everyone assumes that Jesus was angry when he chased the cattle out, released the doves, poured out the coins and turned over the tables in the temple and maybe he was. But when we focus on Jesus’ emotion we miss the powerful message Jesus was trying to communicate. Today I want to try to get at the deeper meaning to this event.
All four gospels present us with a version of Jesus causing a disturbance in the temple. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, place it after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and just before the end game leading up to the crucifixion. In the synoptics it is the event that gets the process of his crucifixion going. St. John’s gospel locates the disturbance in an entirely different place. John has it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. So here we are in John, chapter 2, when Jesus creates a scene in the temple and its right after Jesus changed water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, Jesus’ first miracle.
Now, you will notice that I did not refer to what Jesus did as a “cleansing of the temple”. We have tacked that label on to this story but I think that leads us astray. Jesus did not cleanse the temple; he announced its closure and presented himself as its replacement. Does that help you understand why the religious leaders were so upset? He was trying to close their church.
To understand why Jesus wanted to close their church perhaps it would be helpful to understand how the temple functioned. The Temple was a sacrificial shrine with blood sacrifice at its center. John says, “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” The Passover of the Jews was a major religious festival and pilgrims from all over would be in long lines waiting their turn to have the priest slaughter their animals on the altar. Some didn’t bring their own animals and so merchants sold sheep, cattle and doves to those who needed them. Because the Temple was sacred Jewish space; anything Roman and therefore non-Jewish and polluted and could not be allowed in. For this reason, Roman coins had to be exchanged for special temple currency. When the line began moving, the pace of the slaughter was rapid as hard working priests dispatched and bled the animals as quickly as they could. It wasn’t long before they stood knee deep in blood still finding its way through the elaborate Temple drainage system that emptied into a nearby valley.
Nobody thought anything of it except maybe the prophets who said God desired mercy not sacrifice. Most people considered the smell of blood in the air and the commotion of it all to be the price you pay to keep God happy and prevent bad things from happening to you and all Jewish people. And this form of sacrifice was certainly better than the alternative—human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was how people attempted to make God happy before they dared think that God would allow animals to be a substitute. When God gave Abraham a goat to sacrifice rather than his own son it was a huge advance in human culture.
The Temple was the absolute center of the Jewish world. Everything flowed up toward the temple. It both mirrored and shaped the contours of Jewish culture. Animal sacrifice was the way the culture managed its anxiety and tried to keep the peace, though not very successfully. Fearful that God was displeased with you; sacrifice an animal. Concerned about drought, bring a lamb. Tired of the brutality, high taxation and humiliation of the Roman occupation; insist that everyone do their duty and sacrifice regularly, whether they could afford it or not, so that God would reward the Jewish people by somehow getting rid of the Romans.
It was a kind of business deal only much, much more and they believed their very lives depended on it. We do these things for you God, and then you do some things for us; including keeps us alive. The God of Israel to whom they sacrificed the best of their livestock and crops was distant, jealous and inclined toward anger if you didn’t do things just right. When things went wrong this was evidence that you had failed in doing your part and were getting a payback.
The whole thing rested on the belief that God was angry and withholding and that blood appeased God’s anger and elicited God’s provision. This is still a very popular idea and expressed like this: “Jesus came into this world to redeem us by offering himself as the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.” So Jesus, knowing that the distant, angry God wants blood, offers his own blood so that God doesn’t demand ours. This idea is so common that many of the hymns we sing this time of year are saturated with it.
But what if God is absolutely tender and has revealed his powerful non-violence in Jesus, his Son. In conversation this week I was surprised to learn that a couple of my friends were uncomfortable with the term “God’s absolute tenderness”. Why not “God’s absolute compassion”, or “God’s absolute mercy” or “God’s absolute gentleness”, they asked? No matter which term we use, it presents quite a different feeling about God’s character than the blood thirsty God we have been describing.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to God as his Abba; his tender, intimate, loving daddy. Throughout all four Gospels Jesus tenderly heals people and they are often people others would exclude. He performs miracles and they are miracles that demonstrate an attitude utterly different from what people expect. He tells stories with hidden points and when puzzled people think through these stories they find themselves faced with a choice to think as they always have or make a profound transition in their thinking. Everywhere he goes he says things that turn the world upside down and those on top in the old world get edgy and suspicious. What if he is doing nothing less than make the true character of God visible? What if most of us have gotten it wrong all this time and God was more forgiving and gracious than we had ever dared believe and toward all people, even those we would have thrown out long ago? Would such a revelation be good news?
What if the disturbance in the Temple was Jesus announcing that the Temple, with all of its blood and sacrifices is finished, done for, over, and Jesus is going to take its place. This is why Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…he was speaking of the temple of his body.” We know that in just three weeks the temple that is Jesus’ body will be destroyed. And we know that on Easter morning it will be raised up three days later.
Jesus is saying the new temple is not a place. It is a person and that person is me. The new absolute center to all human culture is Jesus himself. He put an end to all fearful sacrificial schemes for manipulating God and instead revealed God’s absolute gentleness, compassion and mercy. You don’t have to be afraid or attempt to manipulate a God who loves you. Jesus’ revelation of a non-violent God subverts the scary world of all religions that attempt to appease and placate what they project as an angry, distant, capricious and violent God.
If Jesus is right, then God isn’t violent at all! We are the ones who are violent and we have demonstrated our violence quite convincingly on the cross and in countless other atrocities. This is the meaning of the disturbance in the temple. The temple wasn’t being cleansed, it was symbolically being replaced. It wasn’t necessary any more because Jesus is in the process of showing us God’s absolute gentleness and total non-violence. In fact, through Jesus, God shows us the depth of his non-violence. Even when we kill his son Jesus, still we are forgiven and there is no payback! Suddenly it becomes clear that we don’t need to sacrifice other people’s blood or the blood of animals to God; for in fact, God sacrifices his own blood to us and to our violence, rivalry, jealousy, envy and sin. Here again, Jesus turns our whole world on its head.
Now do you see how focusing on Jesus’ supposed anger is such a red herring? It misses 99.9% of the point. Instead of revealing our absolutely compassionate God who reveals himself non-violently in Jesus, this error in focus pushes us back toward an angry and distant God who demands blood. And this was the very thing Jesus was upsetting when he upset the tables of the money changers.
Jesus is the new temple, torn down and raised up, in three days. Now he is the center of our world, the one who orders our culture and provides a way of peace that does not require the shedding of blood; neither ours nor our enemies. This is the meaning of the disturbance in the temple. Jesus is saying temple is over and he is taking its place.
Jesus is our temple. As the writer of 1 Corinthians says, using Peterson’s paraphrase, “The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out.” Thanks be to God. Amen.