The storyline is unmistakably familiar. Jesus went up the temple, found the sellers, got angry and began driving them away. Questions expectedly emerged from the account. Did he whip the people? Was he angry beyond words? Is it possible for someone so unfathomably compassionate to be deliriously infuriated? Understandably, various explanations are put forward to make sense of what has happened. Yet, simply put, it was a case of disappointment more than anger - of finding something that did not genuinely jibe with the original scheme of things. Something was amiss and out of order.
John 2:13-22 introduces the scene by describing the moment as highly liturgical. It was nearing the Jewish Passover. This pretty much guides the readers to remember the occasion as a "great day" (Hebrew: hag hagadol). Together with the feasts of the Pentecost and the Tabernacles, this originally is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar. Specifically, the Passover celebrates freedom from slavery and memorializes that great rescue God accomplished in the history of the Israel. As such, it underlines the nation's singular link to Yahweh, among other emphases. There may be variegated opinions as regards the details of this festival. Yet, one thing remains indubitable: it is definitely an intense moment. As it were, the feast commemorates Israel’s transformation from being a non-people to God’s people. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me” (Ex. 20:2). It is a solemn observance of faithful relationship as the preamble of the Ten Commandments highlights. Hence, the ensuing “laws” are meant to make concrete this fundamental bond between Israel and the Lord. The laws are not to be narrowly understood as God’s whims to be followed. They are consequences of this new affiliation. Simply put, the Hebrew text in force should read: “If the Lord is your God, having other gods is not your life; stealing is not your life; adultery is not your life, etc.” Thus in all, it is all about man’s life transformed as a result of this profound attachment to God.
When the evangelist narrates that Jesus went up to Jerusalem, this relationship with God is effectively assumed here. In other words, one goes up the temple to “behold the face of God”. The word “ascended” (Greek: anabainō) is religiously loaded. It contains a nuance characteristically that of a prayer going up to heaven, or the smoke of sacrifice ascending to the godly realm. The movement here is one that illustrates a desire to enter into the divine territory, to commune with God. If the story found in John 2:13-22 is essentially read in this manner, it does not only portray Jesus’ devotion. It effectively teaches the readers what it means to worship during Passover – to renew one’s relationship with the God who rescues. This in a nutshell is what the temple in Jerusalem stands for: the people belong to God and the people do not have any other god!
One can only imagine the depth of Jesus’ frustration upon reaching the threshold of the temple. Not that they were selling inside the temple or at the Holy of Holies. Prima facie, this would not have been allowed. The Lord’s disillusionment lies not so much on where vendors sold but on why they were at the temple. In effect, they were not there to renew their vital connectedness to God. They were at the temple not to find God but perhaps to worship another god, money! “He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money- changers seated there” (Jn. 2:14). More than anger, it was a sudden rush of dutiful zeal: His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn. 2:17). It was the right thing to do – to drive away from the temple people, things and occasions that do not lead back to God. It was the needed action to render to God what fittingly belongs to Him. “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money- changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Jn. 2:16). Jesus whipped them so to speak, in order to bring things back to order. It would be accurate to say that there was only one thing in Jesus’ mind at that moment: to put order and meaning into the Passover celebration. One could not but think of how a proper and good shepherd acts: he needs to strike in order to keep the flock within the path leading to the pasture.
Furthermore, Jesus offers a deepening of this relationship with God. He now becomes the new temple through which God may be encountered. “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:21). The temple is sacred for it symbolizes Jesus the God-made-man. As it is, the lack of respect toward the symbol is expressive of the lack of reverence toward what is symbolized. Jesus knew that this wanton neglect of devotion to the temple is symptomatic of the people’s non-acceptance of Him who is the Word “who pitched His tent among us”. His act of cleansing the temple was none other than putting the right perspective into worship. Jesus reminds people that there is no worship where there is no acceptance of the God’s word. For Christians, this too is a summons to remember who they are. As St. Paul insists, the people who heard the Word and lived by it are the body of Christ. Thus, this renders them a people offering God their acceptable spiritual worship.
For more reflections:
1st Century Jerusalem Temple: Reconstruction