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The Cleansing of the Temple

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Jesus’ outburst in anger has always tripped me up in this gospel story. Jesus is never angry in the rest of the gospels. He is celebrating, or troubled, or tied, or moved with pity. He weeps for people, he heals the people, he feeds people, and he is present to people.

Jesus calmly answers the Pharisees when he knows that they are trying to harass him. Even at the prospect of death, when he prays so fervently that he sweats blood, he is not described as being angry; in fact he begs forgiveness for those who hurt him.

This display of anger and frustration, even righteous anger, disrupt my image of Christ just as he literally disrupt the tables. Probably, that is exactly the point: I am not allowed to be complacent in my image of Christ, just as the people there that day were not allowed to be complacent in their understanding of the law.

As a young Catholic, I had lots of confrontations with Christians of other faiths in school who see the Catholic Church as an untrue representation of the Church of Christ. Reading through the episode of the cleansing of the temple always do remind me of one of such accusations I had to confront with.

Friend: Josh, you are a Catholic?

Me: Yes, any problem?

Friend: You do buy and sell in your church, Jesus forbids it.

Me: I don’t understand you

Friend: Haven’t you read it in the bible? My house shall be a house of prayer not a market place

Me: And so, what are you driving at?

Friend: Thus your thanksgiving and bazaar sales in church is absolutely wrong. You have turned the church to a market.

I really couldn’t find a defense then for this, guess I was complacent in the understanding of the program, or maybe we who celebrate it has lost the spirit of the program and has truly turned ii into another market.

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Let’s face the facts here and ask some salient questions. Were the merchants and money changers presence in the Temple court wrong? The sales of animals and birds were for temple sacrifices especially for those who came from far distance and could not possibly bring the animals along with them.

So should we fault this initiative? Think of the services rendered by these people. The stress they help to avoid, especially the provision of the right age, colour and blemish free animals for the required sacrifice. So, what did they really do wrong?

For years I really could not understand Jesus’ anger with them. So in harmony with the Jews I questioned Jesus, “What sign can you show us, which proves your right to do this?” Jesus, let us understand your reasons.

Jesus’ answer at face level wasn’t so satisfactory. The Jews expected more, me too. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Really Jesus! Is your answer a show of strength or power, or is there more to it?

Oh gracious me, surely there is, scripture says Jesus was referring to the temple of his body. This however does not address the question. So what is Jesus saying? How does this relate to his action?

Here lies the truth of his action. The truth that goes beyond the external, not visible to the eyes, but perceive by those who truly desire the truth.

The temple in Jerusalem was once destroyed by the Babylonians and the Israelites were taken captives. In captivity they could not truly practice their religion because Judaism was centred on the temple; the same was applied to those who remain in the land.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept…O let me tongue cleave to my mouth if I remember you not, if I prize not Jerusalem above all my joys”. Jerusalem represents the temple and all it stood for in the lives of the Israelites.

“For we O lord, have become fewer than any nation …and at this time there is no prince, or prophet or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before you or to find mercy”. This underscores the essence of the temple.

The temple during the time of Jesus took forty-six years to build. Such a long time to be estranged from mercy and God’s favour. Yet in three days, what seemed lost could be restored back wholly in Jesus. Yes for a while we lost it…God’s face, His promised salvation, our inheritance in Christ, the hope of heaven…we lost God’s son in death on Good Friday. In three days, we were restored…yes, in just a short while our miseries were reversed and Easter brought us the fullness of Joy.

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The temple of Jerusalem- the temple of Christ’s body. The living spirit is the defining factor. The spirit of life that brought Jesus back from death to life. So why did Jesus drive away the traders and money changers despite their relevance? All they did was based on the physical, the spirit was missing. Just as he always charged the Pharisees to embrace not just the letters of the law but the spirit of the law too.

Jesus thus was filled with zeal and reacted accordingly. This is a proof that Jesus was really human, because he was angry. Does that makes anger the chief aspect of what is human. No! Jesus was respectful and reverent for the sacred and that is what it is to be human! He tipped over the tables of efficiency and productivity in the very place where faith and hope in promises are remembered and celebrated

The Divine Economy was replaced by human commerce and the ritual was becoming adulterated by the monetary exchanges. Jesus is seen, not so much as angry, as consumed with the holiness of God in this holy temple.

Jesus came into the temple not so much in anger but with zeal saying, “the game is over.” No more scripty behavior, that is, no more performing just for the sake of doing something. Let’s end the shallowness and reach deep into the core.

Ritual is part of religion. Family gatherings, community gatherings, even meetings between two persons can celebrate ritually, but not relationally. God invites us to a relationship of intimacy, but because we are not so sure how to receive that relationship, we can default to heart-absent execution. Rituals are important for relationships, but the relationship has to be central. The relationship can express itself through rituals, but the God-initiated relationship is the why and the rituals can be the how.

The cleansing of the temple is what these weeks of lent can be. We are God’s holy temple and because we are so human and so surrounded and penetrated by the things of this world, we become distracted by, and attracted to the inappropriate.

We can pray these days for the zeal for the holy within and around us. We can pray with the appropriate relationships, involvements, attractions which lead from and back to God.

We can pray with the invitations to holiness contained in the Ten Commandments as well as the instructions to be holy we receive from our church leaders

We can pray with the gentle grace of Jesus which frees our souls from the greed of needing more and more.

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