A Many-Leveled Sign

A Many-Leveled Sign

Third Sunday of Lent. Fr Peter Harries preaches on the cleansing of the temple.

Today’s Gospel records an act of violence. Jesus goes into the temple and upsets the money-changers’ tables. He drives the cattle and sheep out with a whip, along with the people who sold them. Away with the caged pigeons. This is the only violent act of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. With our modern sensibilities it seems shocking that the Prince of Peace is violent, even if only once.

This was a prophetic act. The authorities knew this instinctively. They did not get Jesus arrested, or arrange for Jesus to get beaten up by the security. The authorities asked ‘What sign can you show us?’

The cleansing of the temple, as we call this episode of the driving out of the pigeon-sellers and money-changers, is the sign. Like many signs it works on several levels. There were three parts to the temple, the innermost courtyard for Jewish men, then the courtyard for women, and outermost, the courtyard of the Gentiles, the non-Jews. This merchandising occupied at least part of the courtyard of the Gentiles. By throwing the merchants out, Jesus was restoring this courtyard for the use of the Gentiles.

The authorities who permitted the merchandising in the temple would have justified it as helping people worship properly in the temple. The money-changers changed money out of coins with the images of pagan gods into religiously neutral coinage. The cattle and sheep would have been unblemished, acceptable for sacrifice. The pigeon-sellers would have allowed poorer visitors an opportunity of participating in the sacrificial round of worship.

This is all very well but why in the temple itself? Why not outside? Here I am going to be tendentious. It has been suggested that merchandising in the temple was a very recent innovation, operated by friends of the high priest to their (and probably his) financial advantage. The corruption of Caiaphas, the High Priest, was notorious. The merchants who had previously operated outside the temple in the city market-place were therefore marginalised. We don’t know the local politics behind it all, but the High Priest and his friends were almost certainly better off. This may help to explain the ‘softly softly’ approach of the authorities to Jesus’s dramatic prophetic cleansing of the temple.

So Jesus may have been symbolically clearing up what was widely perceived as a corrupt business practice and restoring a more equitable business culture. As Christians we may well feel that the contemporary business and economic culture needs reform, so the poor and vulnerable are properly cared for, and that financial integrity is prized over gambling. The Church has constantly called for justice and solidarity in both national and international economic relations. This is trying to live out the ten commandments, our first reading this Sunday, which state ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox or his donkey or anything that is his’ (Update to ‘thou shalt not covet his/her car or house or anything that is his/hers?!)

However, the cleansing of the temple is much more than correcting corrupt business practices. It is about allowing non-Jews to worship along with Jews. The psalms in particular express the great hope that the temple would be for all the peoples. This was one of the great expectations of the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour of God’s people, so that all the peoples would worship the one true God. Symbolically Jesus cleanses the temple and allows Gentiles into their courtyard to worship. But at a deeper level it is Jesus who by his passion, death and resurrection allows Gentiles and Jews, men and women into the temple which is his own body so that all might be saved.

‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,’ Jesus says. The temple authorities think that he is talking of the physical building, and indeed for forty-six years the restoration work had been going on, started during the lifetime of King Herod. But Jesus is thinking of his own body, in which he rose from the dead on the third day.

The Jerusalem temple then ultimately is symbolic of the body of Christ himself. From the body of Jesus hanging on the cross came out blood and water, symbolising baptism through which we as individuals, men and women, become part of the body of Jesus. The blood and water also symbolise the Eucharist by which we are sustained in grace. The true temple of God is not any building, however beautiful, however ancient, however long and expensive it has been to build. No, the true temple of God is God’s holy people, baptised into his death, redeemed by his precious blood. You are God’s holy temple.

Readings:Exodus 20:1-17|1 Corinthians 1:22-25|John 2:13-25

fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.