Today’s reading is John 2:13-22.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The site of the temple was very historic. It was built on Mount Moriah where Abraham very nearly sacrificed Isaac. This is the same place where Solomon built his temple. The temple in the reading was one of Herod the Great’s major building projects. Construction started around 20 BC and, as John tells us, it took 46 years to build, although we know that it was not fully completed until 63 AD. The temple was comprised of the sanctuary, which housed the main part of the temple and the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Within the precinct, the open-air Court of the Gentiles surrounded the sanctuary. It was here that Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, had allowed traders to set up their stalls to help with the running of the temple.
During Passover, 300-400 thousand pilgrims came to the temple to exchange their Roman Denarii or Greek drachma into coins acceptable to pay the Temple Tax of half a shekel. Roman coins featured the image of the emperor, thus proclaiming his divinity. Therefore, these coins were blasphemous and not allowed in the temple. Traders of livestock or doves were needed to sell the appropriate sacrifices. Make no mistake, the traders were doing what Jewish law demanded. Yet, the temple itself was meant to be a place of prayer.
Zechariah, writing to the Jews returning from exile, portrayed a vision that, "Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty." (Zechariah 14:21) Similarly, Isaiah 56:7, written around 681 BC, reminds us, “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And, Jeremiah 7:11, who wrote to the people of Judah during his ministry between 627-586 BC, protests and asks, “Has this house which bears my name become a den of robbers to you?”
Caiaphas deliberately allowed the traders into the temple precincts, whereas they usually traded outside the temple in the Kidron Vallery. Jesus, in John’s account, at the beginning of his ministry, goes to the temple and is incensed, not with the actual trading, but the fact it was happening inside the temple. So, he drove them out with a self-made whip.
It is interesting to compare the report of John with the Synoptic Gospels. All three of the Synoptics record this episode at the beginning of Holy Week, i.e. the end of Jesus’ ministry. All three suggest this was the tipping point, the reason Jesus had to die. He had control of the crowd, and he was starting to meddle in the temple economy. It seems a logical place to write this story, but John has it right at the beginning, straight after the first miracle of turning water into wine. In John’s Gospel, there are three Passovers annotated. The period of John’s Gospel is at least two years, whereas the Synoptics have one year.
This story presents Jesus as a radical person. Jesus is angry and showing his humanity. John reminds us that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine. We also recall that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, again showing his humanity and compassion.
The question I ask, therefore, is when is it right to be angry? The history of this passage has influenced different responses. Origen, in the second century AD, said that the account was not historical but metaphysical. The temple is the soul of a person freed from earthly things to serve God. On the other hand, John Chrysostom, in AD 391, defended the historical account. People have used it to justify the use of violence by Christians, for example, Augustin of Hippo. In 1075, Gregory VII used it to justify his actions against the Simonic clergy. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived 1090-1153, used it to defend the Second Crusade; and John Calvin used it to support his action against the polymath Michael Servetus when he was burnt at the stake for the heresy of rejecting the concept of the Trinity.
So, where do we stand on our thinking of righteous violence? It seems to me that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) show a great deal about God as well as God’s people. The Israelites had just escaped from slavery in Egypt, where it was common to worship many gods. On Mount Sinai, God offers to Moses the Ten Commandments by which his people must live, the first being the very radical and scary commandment of having no other god but God. In Jesus’ time, the Romans and Greeks worshipped loads of gods, e.g. the twelve Olympians, so to demand they only worship one rather than have the protection of several was a scary, totally revolutionary concept.
God revealed that the creation of the world happened in seven days: six to create and the seventh to rest. This idea of working for six days and resting for one was for our good. God cares about God's people. In a world dominated by violence, when human life went unvalued, God gave the commandments of not killing, stealing or committing adultery. God was a God of community.
So, would a God who has laid these groundworks be happy with righteous anger? I think yes, but it cannot go beyond the confines of killing or being violent toward one another. There are Bible passages to help us when we feel or witness anger.
Proverbs 12:16 tells us that a prudent man overlooks an insult
Romans 12:17-21 says " Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Psalm 4:4: In your anger do not sin… trust in the Lord.
James 1:19: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
God wants us to love God and to love our neighbour. In doing so, we have to ensure that we do not uphold the status quo if people are being oppressed. Jesus cleared the temple, so we have to clear and declutter all the things that stop us from having a relationship with God. We have to cleanse ourselves and declutter ourselves from all the habits that lead us to do things that are wrong and lead us away from God’s presence. The temple was an awe-inspiring building. It spoke of the glory of God, but it is just a building. After its completion in AD 63, it was demolished in AD 70 when the Romans, after a 4-year siege, destroyed Jerusalem.
Our lives have to be built upon the foundation of a righteous God who loves justice and mercy. So, as well as decluttering ourselves to remove the obstacles preventing us from coming to God, perhaps we should look at the various laws we follow. There are many poor people in the world, but what are the systems that keep them poor, and how can we challenge those systems so that the kind of world that God wants for God's people can be fully realised? That is our challenge for Lent, that we not only look at ourselves, but we also look at society and think how it could be improved so that God's love, mercy and justice can be offered to all.
This sermon was first preached on 7th March 2021 at Western Road URC via Zoom
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon