3rd Sunday of Lent
All four gospels report this key incident in the temple of Jerusalem when Jesus drives out those who buy and sell things there. Keep in mind how important the temple was to the Jews and their spirituality at that time.
It was the center of Judaism. You can see how important the temple was by reading psalms like Psalm 27, one of many psalms that spoke of it:
There is one thing I ask of the Lord,
This I seek:
To dwell in the house of the Lord
all my days.
To gaze on the loveliness of the Lord,
to inquire in his temple.”
The loveliness of God was in the temple; God was present there. You inquired about God in the temple precincts where the learned Jewish teachers taught.
John’s gospel, our reading today, says that Jesus went into the temple and drove out those who were buying and selling there, and unlike the other gospels that say it happened just before Jesus was arrested and tried and crucified, John’s gospel places it early on in Jesus’ ministry, some years before his passion and death.
John’s gospel may be more historically correct and it certainly explains an opposition to Jesus at the highest levels that began early in his ministry. If he came into the temple, the center of Jewish worship, and overturned the tables of those buying and selling in the Court of the Gentiles, what would he do next? As he became more popular, could he destroy this great building? The alarms went off; Jerusalem’s leaders were going to keep an eye on this troublemaker from Galilee.
When Jesus was finally put on trial, remember, one of the key charges against him was he said he was going to destroy the temple.
The question comes up: why did Jesus overturn the tables of the money changers and drive out those selling sheep and doves and oxen? Was it because there was a lot of corruption there. Someone was stealing the bingo money. But that reason doesn’t seem adequate. The temple was a place of sacrifice, you needed sheep and doves and to exchange money, especially tainted Roman money.
A few scholars say that Jesus secretly belonged to the Zealot party. The Zealots wanted to overthrow the existing order by violence. In other words, Jesus was a terrorist. But that picture doesn’t match the picture the gospels give. On Palm Sunday he enters Jerusalem, not as an armed warrior in a chariot, but riding in a humble donkey, unarmed, unprotected.
The most likely reason behind this incident is a symbolic reason. As so many of the prophets did before him, Jesus used prophetic gestures in his ministry. Here in the temple he turned over the tables to say “there’s a change coming! A radical change!”He turned the tables over in the Court of the Gentiles, that large expanse in the Jewish temple where gentiles, outsiders, non-Jews were permitted to come, to say “the gentiles are coming.”
The prophet Isaiah and other prophets before him had said, “all the nations shall come to this holy mountain. God wants all his people together, to know him and to live in peace. Jesus says “This is the time. All the nations are coming. Get ready for this great change. I am the new temple of God.”
In his recent book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict chooses this explanation for Jesus cleansing of the temple. A wonderful book on Jesus, by the way.
Drawing on that explanation, the pope urged recently that all of our churches have a Court of the Gentiles, where we welcome others, outsiders, to our church. We need that openness to others that Jesus had when he said “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.”
So if we are looking for a practical lesson from this gospel today, how about this:: Is the church we belong to open to everyone? Are strangers welcomed here? People who are different than we are, of a different race, a different culture, a different economic background?
The scriptures are challenging, aren’t they? Following Jesus Christ through Lent means being challenged by him again.
This week we’re beginning a Passionist Mission at St. Thomas More Parish, Sarasota, Florida.