Gospel: John 2:13-25

The Cleansing of the Temple

Is faith in God reasonable? What reasons do people have for faith? How do acts of scandal detract from faith?

Each time and each culture has its reasons to believe. In the past, philosophers asserted God's existence and reasonable nature of faith. Today, psychologists propose faith as a means to mental health and personal fulfillment. We Christians want faith to fit into life, answers our questions, and give us comfort, assurance, strength . . .

But what happens when faith causes scandal? How do people react when people of faith commit unreasonable acts? On a typical day during business hours, Jesus overturned a marketplace in a very unreasonable manner. And through his rage, he revealed himself as the Messiah.

Popular Translation

13 As the Passover festival approached, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the Temple courtyard at Jerusalem, he found merchants selling farm animals and doves the Jews used to offer God in worship. He also found people who would exchange foreign coins for coins used in the Temple. 15 After he made a whip out of small cords, he threw the animals out of the Temple courtyard, turned the tables of the money changers over, and spilled their coins everywhere. 16 "Take these doves out of here!" Jesus yelled at the merchants. "Do not turn my Father's house into place for you to make money!" 17 Jesus' followers remembered what was written in the Bible: "Love for your house burns inside me."

18 "What sign from God will you show us that gives you the right to do this?" the Jewish leaders demanded.

19 "Destroy this temple," Jesus answered, "and in three days I will raise it again."

20 "Workers took forty six years to rebuild the Temple!" the leaders shot back. "It will take you only three days to raise it up?"

21 But Jesus was talking about his body, God's true Temple. 22 When he was raised from the dead, his followers remembered he always said this. They believed in the scripture verse and in the words Jesus spoke.

23 When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many people believed in his name because they saw the things he did. 24 But Jesus did not believe in them because he knew what everyone was like. 25 Jesus did not need anyone to tell him what people were like, for he knew what was in their hearts.

This Sunday we turn an incident in John's gospel that revealed Jesus as the Messiah: the cleansing of the Temple. This violent act led to a prediction of his Passion and Resurrection. And a statement that Jesus did not trust his contemporaries.

Literal Translation

13 The Passover of Jews was near and JESUS went up into Jerusalem. 14 HE found in the Temple (courtyard) those selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and money changers sitting (at their tables). 15 Having made a whip of small cords, HE expelled both the oxen and sheep out of the Temple (courtyard). HE scattered the money of changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those selling the doves, HE said, "Take these (animals) from here! "Do not make the house of MY Father a house of business!" 17 HIS disciples remembered what was written (in Scripture): "Zeal for your house will destroy me."

2:14 "HE found in the Temple (courtyard) . . . " Within the Temple compound, but not in the Temple proper, lie the so-called "Court of the Gentiles." Since non-Jews could not enter the Temple under pain of death, they worshiped in the courtyard outside the Temple building. The Temple authorities franchised merchants to sell animals for Temple worship and moneychangers in the courtyard. The money changers would exchange Roman coins (with the images of the emperor) with Jewish coins (without an image), so worshipers could remain ritually clean.

2:16 "Do not make the house of MY Father a house of business!" Jesus used a wordplay to make his point. Here, the word "house" referred to the extended family ("the house of my Father") and to a building ("house of commerce"). Jesus objected to reducing the relationship people had with God (symbolized by worship) to making money. By setting up the businesses in the courtyard, the Temple authorities denied the place of the non-Jew in the family of God.

2:17 This passage was a reference to Psalm 69:9: "For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me." (RSV) This was a psalm of sorrow placed on the lips of a pious but persecuted follower. In the context of John, however, the reference became a prophecy. Jesus' zeal would lead to his destruction.

In this one act, Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah. With centuries of infighting, corruption, and palace intrigue, the Temple priests lost the respect of average believers. (In fact, many Jewish groups boycotted Temple worship.) The person in the street awaited the coming of the Messiah who would sweep these men from power and restore a worship that pleased God.

Why, then, did Jesus object to commerce in the Temple courtyard? This courtyard, the Court of the Gentiles, represented the universal message God revealed through the Jews. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of all people. By providing non-Jews a place of worship on the Temple grounds, Judaism asserted it was a religion for everyone.

But the Temple leadership gave merchants an area for trade that should have been off-limits. While Jesus drove out animals and overturned tables, his real message was to the leadership. Give all nations a place in the Kingdom. More important, he revealed to his followers what kind of Messiah they followed. He was not a Messiah for Jews alone. He was a Messiah that would lead everyone to God!

18 Then the Jews answered, and said to HIM, "What sign do you show us that you can do these (things)?" 19 JESUS answered and said to them, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." 20 Then the Jews said, "This Temple was built (in a span of) forty six years! And you in three days will raise it?" 21 But THAT ONE was speaking about the temple of HIS body. 22 When HE was raised from the dead, HIS disciples remembered HE was saying this, and they believed (both) the scripture (verse) and the word which JESUS spoke.

2:18 " . . . that you can do these (things)?" The verb in this clause, "to do" does not refer to ability, but to authority. In other words, the Temple authorities wanted to see a sign that Jesus truly was the Messiah and, so, could act in this way.

2:20 ""This Temple was built (in a span of) forty six years." Temple renovations began in 20 B.C. and were completed in 62 A.D., shortly before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Technically, the Jewish leaders made this statement during the renovation; they would not know how long the construction would take. But this did not matter to John's audience in 110 A.D., for whom the completed Temple and its destruction were historical facts. They were only interested in the faith message.

As mentioned above, the term house had two meanings: extended family (primary) and building (secondary). The term Temple also has multiple meanings: building (primary) and a group (secondary). (Paul referred to Christian community as the Temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Notice John began with the term "Temple" (2:14), changed to the term "house" (2:16-17), and returned to "Temple" in the latest passages (2:18-20) with a reference to "body." If we include Paul's notion of the "Body of Christ" (see 1 Corinthians 12) we'll see the term "body" had two meanings: a physical body and a body of people.

"Temple" to "the house of my Father" to "body." These were all titles for the dwelling place of God on earth. These were titles for Christ's body. These were all titles for the Christian community. The common thread throughout this changing set of terms was the Christian community in relation to its Master. Through the Risen Christ, God dwelt in the community.

John used the cleansing at the Temple to introduce a universal Messiah. The sign Jesus would give the Jewish leadership revealed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the world: Isaiah's Suffering Servant.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (49:1)

I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (53:12) (Both from RSV)

The Messiah would bring justice to the nations through his death and his vindication (i.e., his resurrection).

23 As HE was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in HIS name, watching the signs which HE was doing. 24 But JESUS did not entrust HIMSELF to them, since HE knew all (men), 25 and because HE had no need that someone might testify concerning man himself, for HE knew what was in man.

2:22 " . . . his disciples remembered he was saying this." The force of the verb "to say" in this clause seemed to indicated Jesus continually predicted his resurrection.

John ended this passage with a comment on the strength of faith. Indeed Jesus gathered many followers based upon what they saw. But faith runs deeper. After all, the ultimate tenet of faith was a sign no one saw happen: the Resurrection. Christians could only witness to the reality of Christ after the fact. If a Christian based his faith simply upon what he saw or heard or felt, he would miss the greater point, for faith extended beyond the senses.

As someone once said: "Faith is not a convenience. It is a commitment." If Jesus did not entrust himself to people, he hesitated based upon the fickle nature of their hearts. Signs support faith, but cannot ground faith. A faith based upon visible signs looks for the next convenient sign. But faith based upon something greater will find it and more.

Catechism Theme: Jesus and the Temple (CCC 583-586)

Jesus had the deepest respect for the Temple and its traditions. According to John, Jesus went to the Temple to celebrate various holy day festivals (John 2:13-14; 5:1, 14; 7:1, 10, 14; 10:22-23). He even cleansed the Temple courtyard out of respect for what the Temple meant: God's dwelling place on earth.

However, Jesus saw beyond the Temple and the nation it represented. The parochial interests of the Jewish leadership would soon lead to the destruction of the Jerusalem and its Temple. But, the message of Judaism was too important to keep to the nation itself. The God of Israel was truly the God of all.

There was, however, another reason to predict the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:1-2). The destruction of the Temple was another sign for the coming of the end time, which began with the death of Christ on the cross. His Risen Body replaced Temple and became a home for all believers, a safe haven for all who awaited the Day of Yahweh.

What reasons do you have for being a Christian? How do your reasons compare to others? When do you run out of reasons?

God gives us signs as anchors of faith. But, at some point, we must trust the Lord enough to cut ourselves from our anchors and allow him to guide us through rough currents. Like a deep and abiding love, this is trust that simply runs out of reasons.

Faith will always cause scandal. Do we waver in the face of scandal? Or, do we redouble our efforts in faith? In the end, a faith that survives scandal is the toughest faith of all.

Pray for those who are scandalized by the cross. Treat them with respect and love. And trust God for their welfare. He will not disappoint.