The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Jesus enters the temple and engages in a highly political act as he drives out those selling the animals for sacrifice and the money-changers. It is not so much an attack on the sacrificial system but an attack upon the temple economy that was taking advantage of the poor. Doves would be the animal sacrifice of choice for the poor, others may well sacrifice more expensive animals, the temple held the monopoly and it’s traders could keep the prices high. Before people could pay their so-called temple tax their money had to be changed to coins from Tyre which did not have the Emperor’s head upon them. In attacking the temple in this way Jesus was attacking the priestly aristocracy who were making money out of this temple trade. It was not surprising that in the accounts in Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel the religious leaders begin to plot against Jesus, looking for ways to kill him.
In the synoptic Gospels this story of the “temple cleansing” comes towards the end, here in John’s Gospel it is towards the beginning probably because it brings out the conflict between Jesus and “the Jews” that is found in this Gospel. Jesus’ opponents want to know Jesus’ credentials for doing this thing, they want a sign. Jesus refuses to provide a sign but he tells them that if the Temple is destroyed he will raise it up in three days. It brings to mind words in the Synoptic Gospels used by accusers at his trial and then repeated to Jesus upon the cross that he would destroy the temple and raise it up in three days. For the followers of Jesus if the edifice of the temple is destroyed the new temple will be his body.
I have called Jesus’ action political it has also been described as a prophetic action, the message, akin to that of the Old Testament prophets before him who criticised exaggerated religious demands at the expense of God’s justice.
I wonder how many of you watched the television drama “Broken” written by Jimmy McGovern. The central character in the series is Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest played by Sean Bean. One of the other characters, Roz Demichelis, was addicted to gambling machines and steals money from her workplace to continue gambling. She is ashamed and commits suicide. In the final episode Roz’s daughter, Chloe, takes a sledge-hammer to the machines by way of revenge. Father Michael preaches a sermon based on the cleansing of the temple and he, and members of the parish, go and smash the machines too.
God, you are a God of justice, Jesus shows us that at the heart of true worship is concern for those in need, those who live at the fringe of society, those who are the victims of destructive forces. Forgive us when we have been more concerned about the structures, words and music of worship than with truth and righteousness that lie at its heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr David Whiting is the Minister of the Sunderland and Boldon Partnership.