There’s plenty of differences between the four gospels. But today’s story of the ‘cleansing of the temple’ is one that all four gospels see as being closely related to Jesus’s death. This is not simply because Jesus was just making himself a nuisance and causing a fuss, but because by his actions Jesus was seen to be making a claim about himself, one that was absolutely unacceptable to the religious authorities of Jerusalem.
This is clear in the account that we read today. ‘What sign have you to show us for doing this?’, he is asked. In other words, ‘Who do you think you are? and why should we believe you?’ Jesus gives an answer, but it’s a cryptic one, which is naturally enough misunderstood, at least until the resurrection, when the sign is fulfilled. But in fact what he has done, in cleansing the temple, is itself the sign that justifies his action.
Reasonably we take this to mean that Jesus is against selling things and changing money in the temple. We may ask ourselves whether he would express equal displeasure at the fact that all the temples are closed now, whilst the shopping centres are open. But this would be quite to miss the point. Without the sellers of animals for sacrifice, animals that were guaranteed to be acceptable according to the Law of Moses, there could be no sacrifices. Without the money changers, taking the unacceptable Roman coins and turning them into shekels, no-one could offer money to the treasury or pay the temple tax that every Jew took pride in paying. In other words, Jesus is not just trying to get rid of a few corrupt practices that have crept in to mar something he basically approves of; no, he is trying to put a stop to the whole thing.
And this is because Jesus brings, in his own person, the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah, in fact the very last verse of his prophesying, which says that ‘there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord on that day’. On what day? On the day of the Lord, when the Lord shows himself to be King over all the earth, when all the nations of the earth will be gathered into one, and when ‘living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem’. On the day of the Lord, the temple is no longer needed, because the whole world is sanctified by the presence of the Lord.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman: ‘The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.’
Jesus claims to be the one who brings in this day of the Lord. Indeed, when he is nailed to the cross, Pilate will truly proclaim that here is the Lord enthroned as King. From that Crucified King living waters will indeed flow out from Jerusalem to bring life to the whole world, on the day when zeal for God’s house really does consume him. The temple was a great institution, it was the place where God had chosen to make his dwelling among humanity and it was where he invited his chosen people to celebrate his mercy by participating in the sacrifices established by Moses. Even all of that, important though it was, was but a sign pointing towards its fulfilment, the astonishing fulfilment that came in the person of Christ. The reading from the first letter to the Corinithians contrasts the Jews seeking miracles that is to say demonstrations of power and the Greeks who want wisdom which is access to the mysteries by rationality. And these routes to meaning are as strong in our own culture as they were in Jesus time. Jesus offers a different route which is in the flesh of his person. This stumbling block and this madness have become no more acceptable in our day than they were in his. Jesus himself is the power and wisdom of God. This too human mystery that is before our very eyes in our humanity is what will reveal the power and the wisom of God. Just as God reveals himself in himan flesh it is only in our own flesh that we can meet him. It is in this body, this time and not in another, not in some special moment or some special moment yet to be revealed in some obsure fashion. We can ignore it all we want, but the call is now, this is our time. And we are the people we’ve been waiting for.
The ‘zeal for your house’ that consumed Jesus is also Christ’s love for God’s true house, which is the world, and which is every human heart that welcomes his Spirit of truth and love. On the Cross Jesus died for love of us, as zeal for our hearts consumed him. Today, we again have the chance to accept that life-giving love. Pope Francis went to Iraq to meet Sheik Ayatollah Ali Sistani among others for this reason. There was no big statement, they met, they spoke, and they encountered the other. Francis went to say yesterday at Ur. “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful & that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers & sisters.” In our shared humanity we can meet each other as brothers in faith, in fraternity if we choose.
Fr William Fennelly OSB