FOR THE Third Sunday of Lent we read a lesson from the Gospel According to Saint John. Within this text for the day, during his earthly ministry we find that Jesus confronted high financial powers of this world that distorted human faith expression. These changed right worship of God into religions of worldly profit.
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.
And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”
The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”
But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
Paying High Maintenance?
Written from the cusp of time gathered around the end of the first century, we read this text of John. The setting he writes about concerned the distortion of Israel’s sacrificial theology. The blessed writer told of Jesus assisting at the wedding at Cana, and then related that hour Lord went to Jerusalem temple for the annual observance of the Passover. Upon Jesus’ arrival there, as told by this disciple, he assailed the moneychangers that were doing daily business within the “Court of the Gentiles”.
Discussion has since occurred between biblical authorities over the timing of this particular Passover visit. Some say that Jesus went to observe this holy observance several times at the temple. You see, the event is recorded here as happening very early in the young rabbi’s ministry. However, a similar event is witnessed as occurring just before the crucifixion… as recorded in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke (see Mark 11:15-19, Matthew 21:12-17, and Luke 19:45-48). Thus having a differing time sequence, some scholars contend what we reading represents two separate observances that Jesus attended. Conversely, others say that the event is the same, singular confrontation simply placed in a differing sequential order by a creative writer. As a pastor studying the Johannine literary styling noted as rich in dramatic tension and full of double meanings, I humbly contend a bit for a latter thought. In the latter part of the first century, challenged by Pharisees, the Christian community emphasized Jesus Hebraic fidelity, portraying him as following a habit of annual attendance to the Passover observances.
Notwithstanding this dilemma, the emphasis I highlight here rests in the second paragraph in the writer’s relating of the contentious scene. John revealed the words of our Lord as boldly chastising, “…you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
By doing so, the author of John highlights that Jesus quickly fired the cauldron of economic combat. This according to John’s gospel, claiming God as "my Father", Jesus garnered the tensions between himself and the temple powers.
Chastisement was proper for the temple powers in that for a hefty price, those hucksters working the temple courtyard tables could change Roman money for acceptable Israelite coinage. Using the latter, a contributor would support the temple upkeep. Also, a sinful petitioner could buy a “sacrificially-approved” grain, bird or animal offering depending on the severity of the sin confessed.
In any case, the coinage trade and offering purchase was likely tilted heavily toward the trader’s purse, and thus did not favor the dusty foreign traveler. Hence it was an unholy practice. We find in John and the other gospels that our Lord Jesus was thus described as quickly whipping a gauntlet slap to the face of the moneyed class. This had been foretold by the writings of the prophets…
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Jesus challenged the temple authorities by berating their economic practices. They had turned a proper religious sacrificial act into exploitation. Upon being questioned concerning his authority to do the courtyard cleansing, Jesus said that if they destroyed the temple he would raise it up in three days. By saying this, he spawned much conversation… but received little understanding. As revealed by the writer of this gospel, we read that even the disciples did not comprehend that Jesus meant. Our Lord was talking about the temple of his body. The author related at the end of our reading that they did not understand until after the Resurrection had already occurred.
In answer to Jesus’ challenge to authorities about established practice, we find historically that the moneychangers soon set their tables back up. Yes, they left the courtyard temporarily. But, after the dust settled they continued the practice. As counterpoint to my position that this is the same incident as found in the synoptic gospel tellings, historicity lays ground for the argument that the lashing of the moneylenders may have occurred more than once. In either case, it was soon business as usual for many years after Jesus drove them out. The crucifixion, you see, was thought as sufficient cure for the troublemaker. However, what become clearly decisive for the Christian community of John is that the death and Resurrection of Jesus erased the necessity for animal sacrifice. The practice was negated completely by Jesus, He did this by offering himself as the eternal Lamb of God sacrificed once and for all for our salvation. For the Israelites who did not believe in him, however, the sacrificial system continued until the destruction of the temple by the Roman army some thirty years later. Then because of the destruction and desecration of the altar the practice finally ended there.
What Right Sacrifice?
What does the narrative of this story teach Christians living today? Moved forward to the time of biblical telling by John at the end of the first century, I query whether the gospel could have been a warning quickly held high. Was this a warning for the early church concerning the adoption of certain sacrificial practices? Did the distorted, demonic spirits of the dispossessed temple cult emerge in the infant Christian church… and plant such travesty practices as indulgences? I contend that John indeed warned the one apostolic catholic church of the late-first century. Within the first two chapters of the gospel, he warned all concerning the dangers present in the rising heresy. Here we must note that early Orthodox and Roman churches were fast modeled governmentally after the hierarchical structures of such as the Roman Empire and the temple political structures. Thus the church became target for dangerous sacrificial economic patterns. All this occurred though the psalmist had clearly pointed out…
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
In conclusion, we of the church today must also be keenly aware of the dangers in governance patterns which distort the message of faith. These dangers may tempt and improperly profit the powerful at the heights of the hierarchy. As we travel across the historic empires, we see great cathedrals that rivaled the structural greatness of the Jerusalem temple. We need thus ask, “By what sense of sacrifice do they stand? Do they willingly witness to God’s greatness, or do they reflect man’s perversion of the faithful heart? Often, distortion of faith expression too easily occurs as a Christian denomination works to proclaim God’s gracious gifts. Each structure must therefore be tested continually by the power of the Holy Spirit. We need work toward end times testing these using the Word in both Law and Gospel… in order that we keep first things first.
You see, because we are sinful before our Creator, and thus tend to corrupt all things… we must hold tightly to truth. We are indeed saved only by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. This faith knowledge was freely given to the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this respect then, since our debts were paid once and for all by Jesus Christ crucified, and the knowledge of the Resurrection was given freely for all by the power of the Spirit, we find it no longer necessary to pay financial penance. We need build no pyramids, no tower of Babel, nor erect huge temples with great priesthoods clothed in sacrificial attendance. These structures and social ministries do not allow us to climb our way to heaven. If we choose to do these wonderful things, let us be called to do so not out of glorifying self, but only out of thanksgiving to God.
In ministry, knowing that God demands no complex towers or priestly hierarchy but calls us to come forward with contrite hearts, we are called thus to let incense rise from the yearnings deep within sorrowful hearts. We must be ready to urge one another to cut the bull and burnt offerings… and give to the poor and needful while not letting our one grabby hand know what the other is doing. Therefore, we are properly admonished by the sound of that cracking lash of the Lord’s whip. Let us pray that the modern church respond to our Lord’s sharp command freely, and leave behind ornate temples of selfish imaginations.