Third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018
Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
We often point to the Gospel episode of the cleansing of the Temple and say, “Even Jesus got angry” or “even Jesus lost his temper” and look at it as an example of “righteous anger” to justify the times when we’ve been outraged, made a scene, or displayed a show of force in the face of injustice. But a close look at the scriptural accounts of the cleansing of the temple by Jesus – an event recounted in some form in all four gospels – reveals no mention of “anger” or the emotional state of Jesus. The only description that we have of the disposition of Jesus at this event is what we hear in today’s Gospel from John, a quote from Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me”, that was brought to the mind of the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ action. When Jesus, with a hand-made whip, drove out the money changers with the sheep and oxen and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, it is interesting to note that he wasn’t arrested. The temple guards are not called in. Jesus is not treated like a terrorist or someone who came to attack the temple. This is not the act of an anarchist or anti-establishment rebel. The Jewish leaders instead say, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They recognize that Jesus is acting with authority, and they want to know who he is that he can do this. One of the expectations of the Messiah would be that he would cleanse and purify the temple. The Messiah would come to reestablish the identity of Israel as a people of right praise – to cast out all forms of false worship. The cleansing of the Temple is a symbolic act in which Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, and the definitive sign of his identity will be the resurrection of his body on the third day.
It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong or evil with those who sold the oxen, sheep, doves, and other animals necessary for the sacrifice. The same can be said for the moneychangers. All these were necessary to fulfill the obligations of worship. Pilgrims would come from far and wide – from foreign countries – and needed to exchange money into the local currency in order to buy the animals for sacrifice. Since it wasn’t convenient to travel with the animals, it made sense to buy them when they arrived in Jerusalem. All these things made it easier for people to worship, but over time the money changers and vendors went from being outside the temple area to having a place within the temple area proper. The temple authorities could more easily control and regulate what came into the temple, but with this control and regulation, came the possibility of corruption. What would it cost to become “the official sheep vendor” or “exclusive oxen dealer” of the Jerusalem Temple? In the name of convenience, “quality control,” and standardization, the Temple had become more of a marketplace than a house of prayer. Starting with good intentions, the temple officials let good things creep into the temple and over time the purpose of the temple became obscured and corrupted. What happened in the temple became more about those in charge – those managing the operation – than about the worship of God.
In this season of Lent, and especially this Sunday, it is worth asking the question, “What good things have I let creep into the Father’s house?” “What good things, for the sake of convenience or efficiency, have I let take over the Sabbath?” Has Sunday for me become a day to catch up on work – work at home and even work-related work, or is Sunday a day of rest? A day to rest in the Lord and experience the freedom that comes from giving the Lord space to work in my life? We may not be bowing down before idols carved from stone, but anytime something takes precedence over the worship of God, anytime even something good takes priority over time for God, we’ve made for ourselves a false god. Another way to look at that question of false worship is to ask yourself, “What is it that I have zeal for?” or “What is it that consumes my life?” “What is it that gets me out of bed in the morning?” If it is duty or obligation, then my relationship with God has become a marketplace – a place of exchange or bargaining – about my work, instead of an encounter with the God who dwells among us.
Our bodies are, through the gift of our baptism, temples of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus has the authority to cleanse us. Do we recognize that authority? Jesus understands our human nature well because he has assumed it and redeemed it. Let’s not be afraid to let Jesus into our temple so that we may be purified of any false gods and return to giving right praise to God our Father.