February 18, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The Temple cleansing

See John 2:13-22, Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48

According to John’s Gospel, after the wedding feast at Cana Jesus went back to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. This is the first of three Passovers that John mentions, which would indicate a ministry of at least two years. The other Gospels indicate a shorter ministry and one primarily in Galilee.

While in Jerusalem, Jesus announced to the Jewish world in dramatic form that someone unique was in their presence. He did it by flying into a rage, making a whip out of cords and using it to drive the money-changers and those who sold animals out of the Temple area. It must have been quite a sight, this man with his eyes blazing, overturning tables and whipping sheep and oxen to get them out.

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he exclaimed to those selling doves, who quickly picked up their caged birds and took off like the rest. It must have been a case of pure pandemonium with men and animals scurrying everywhere.

Why didn’t the sellers quickly overwhelm this crazed man? After all, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They were an integral part of Jewish worship, selling the animals that the Jews sacrificed to God in the Temple. The money-changers were making change for the male Jews over 19 years of age who had to pay the Temple tax of a half-shekel as prescribed in the Book of Exodus (Ex 30:11-16). Why didn’t the Sadducees, who ruled the Temple, send police to arrest Jesus?

We can only imagine that there was something in Jesus’ demeanor that prevented any action being taken against him. He apparently exuded a powerful authority. He did, after all, refer to “my Father’s house.” So, after things quieted down a bit, they simply asked for a sign that Jesus was permitted to do what he did.

The “sign” Jesus gave could only confuse them more: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Now they had to believe that they were dealing with a madman, since the Temple had been under construction for 46 years and still wasn’t complete. John tells us that Jesus was referring to “the temple of his body,” which sounds OK for us because we have been taught that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. But the people Jesus was talking to must have gone away muttering to themselves about this lunatic. His disciples, though, remembered this episode after Jesus rose from the dead.

The three synoptic Gospels place this incident during the last days of Jesus’ life, probably because they didn’t report on his earlier trip to Jerusalem and because it was too important to ignore. Chronological order didn’t matter much to the Gospel writers. It seems probable, though, that it happened when John says it did because during the last week of Jesus’ life the authorities were looking for some excuse to arrest him, and they didn’t when the episode was over. †


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