Today’s passage is a very familiar story . . . Jesus cleansing the temple.
It is probably a passage many of us know from childhood. Often found in a child’s book of bible stories accompanied by lurid illustrations depicting Jesus as a slightly wild character swinging a whip around his head while the animals run amok.
A version of this event is found in all four gospels. That gives us reason to believe it was considered important by the early church. So we have to ask the question, “Why”? Why is this story deemed essential enough for all four authors of the gospels to have included out of all the source material they must have had available. However, today I’ll just leave that question for you to ponder!
One of the issues I want to consider is the placing of this account. The author of John places this event right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It immediately follows Mary’s revelation to him that it is time for Jesus to show who he is. It is the first public thing Jesus did. Imagine the scenario, Jesus had been revealed to only the disciples and friends at a wedding, then suddenly he strolls into the temple and starts upturning tables and tipping the money out.
By contrast the synoptic gospels include this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, a precursor to the events which led up to the crucifixion. Jesus upset the hierarchy and they sought to kill him. For anyone concerned or intrigued by these apparent differences in the gospels a good starting point for study is James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.
As today’s passage is in John that is where I want to focus. I want to talk about why this passage was deemed significant to start the public ministry. However I don’t want to offer an interpretation but just offer some suggestions for pondering.
In a sense, I want to use this passage to illustrate the complexities of biblical studies. All of our understanding of biblical passages is interpretation. We read, we study, we ponder, we talk with others and we try to decide what we think is the best meaning for a passage. Others may come to a different conclusion. No interpretation is necessarily wrong. They are simply people’s best efforts to understand the significance of events which happened over two thousand years ago. In addition, we have to realize that those writing down the stories were also interpreting them based on their own experiences and understandings. The gospels weren’t diaries of the travels of Jesus, written down as things happen. They were stories collated over the years, some eye-witnessed accounts, some passed down by word of mouth and written to help the newly immerging church to understand their history. I have always been fascinated by the thought that the gospels were written to balance (or even correct) the doctrine circulating in the epistles.
So when one tries to reason with this passage we won’t have a definitive interpretation merely suggestions about the author of John’s reason for the early inclusion of this material.
Today I am going to offer three of several suggestions all of which are brief and would lend to much more in-depth study (indeed books have been written about them)
First I want to comment about the temple. The temple was one of the most important symbols in Jewish life. I have heard it said that the temple was the centre for national, cultural, social and religious life. Sacrifices were made on a daily basis. The animals, wine and flour were sold in the temple, one needed “temple money” to purchase them. Apparently the money-changers changed ordinary money into temple money often making huge profit for themselves. The priest allowed them to set up inside the temple for payment.
Possible interpretation 1
Jesus was appalled by the way the temple was being used. The poor, and even the not so poor, were being exploited. The priests were getting rich by the people’s desire (or even need) to worship. Jesus deplored what had been originally a place for humanity to meet God being used in such a way. Jesus' bias towards the poor and stranger can be seen. In this interpretation the author of John showed this bias to the poor and stranger right at the onset of Jesus’ ministry.
Possible interpretation 2
Jesus was self-revealing as the true Lamb of God. The scapegoat was no longer needed. Right at the beginning of the ministry Jesus had shown that he willing walked the path intended for him. He was overturning the old order. Rene Girard writes extensively about this. Girard says, “If the term sacrifice is used for the death of Jesus, it is in a sense absolutely contrary to the archaic sense. Jesus consents to die in order to reveal the lie of blood sacrifices and to render them henceforth impossible.”
Girard again, “When John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” or when Jesus refers to himself as “the stone rejected by the builders, who becomes the cornerstone,” the sacrificial process appears and loses its efficacy. The revelation and repudiation of sacrifice go hand in hand.” (Sacrifice, Rene Girard, xi)
Possible Interpretation 3
I stumbled on this one accidentally in the book, Conscious Eating by Gabriel Cousens. Jesus (and the Essenes) stood against animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was invented by humanity to justify eating animal flesh. The relevant part about the temple can be viewed at amazon or google. Find the book and look inside, it may even inspire you to buy it!
Of course, even within these three possible interpretations there are many nuances and different emphases. I realize how simplistic and superficial these thoughts are. My hope is I have given you some food for thought about biblical interpretation and this passage that, in turn, will cause some deeper pondering throughout the week.