The incident that is popularly referred to as “The Cleansing of the Temple” is one of the few incidents in the life of Jesus that is found in all four Gospels. However, there are significant differences in the manner in which John narrates it.
The incident is narrated by John at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. The incident can be divided into two parts. The first part concerns Jesus’ actions in the Temple. The second part contains Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple and its rebuilding in three days.
The Cleansing of the Temple takes place during the feast of Passover, a time when large crowds would gather in Jerusalem. A large number of animals would be required for sacrifice as burnt offerings. These facts make the action of Jesus much more radical that in the synoptic Gospels. The people who came for the festival would have come from far distances and would have to buy animals in the precincts of the Temple. And, since Roman coins were not acceptable as offerings in the Temple, money changers were needed to change Roman coins to Tyrian coins, that these could be offered. This means that, by his actions, Jesus challenges the very institution of worship and its meaning.
The focus of the challenge is not so much on the dishonesty of those who sold animals, or on the thievery of the money changers, but on the fact that the house of God had been turned into a marketplace. Jesus challenges the system, the very institution itself. He challenges the authority of the Temple and its worship. That this is the case is clear in the words that Jesus speaks as he performs his action. Jesus does not protest, like he does in the synoptic Gospels, that the house of God has become a den of robbers. In John’s gospel, Jesus protests that the house of God has become a house of trade, a marketplace. The additional comment in John, which is based on Ps 69-9, serves to strengthen this view: zeal for the things of God and God’s house will consume Jesus. His zeal will lead to his crucifixion. The story in John focuses more on Jesus than it does on the Temple.
To the Jewish authorities who demand for a sign authorizing his action, Jesus speaks about the destruction and the raising up of the Temple. The Jewish authorities misunderstand his words. Jesus is referring to the Temple that is his body. “Raise up” refers to the resurrection. This means, therefore, that Jesus’ body replaces the Temple as the new place where God is revealed.
It is with this background in mind that the first reading of today should be read. Jesus has shaken the very foundations of what the Jews considered the base of their authority. He has acted in a manner that prevented them from offering sacrifice and money offerings on one of the most significant feasts of the year, Passover. The challenge is to a system of worship so embedded in its own rules and regulations that it was no longer open to a fresh revelation from God. This is what happened to the Ten Commandments give by God through Moses. They became ends in themselves. They were multiplied, divided, added to, and subtracted from, until the original meanings and reasons were lost and everything else, but God, took centre stage. The Commandments were given to Israel after God had redeemed his people, through the Exodus. It shows that God now claims the full attention and the complete devotion from Israel. The focus of the commandments is thus, not on the law by itself, but on living a life in which God remains at the centre. The commandments are not a set of rules to be followed to the letter, but a programme for life which, if followed, can result in recognizing God in all things and recognizing all things in God.
Paul realized this, as is evident in the second reading of today. He tells the Corinthians that, if they want to know the meaning of salvation, they must not, like the Jews, look at a set of rules and regulations or, like the Gentiles, go after false gods and idols. Paul tells the Corinthians to continue to keep their gaze on the crucified Christ. Doing so will enable them to see the true meaning of life and will result in every law, every rules, and every regulation, being transformed into love.
Thus, the readings of today challenge us, as Christians, to ask ourselves whether we are closed to fresh revelations from God, as the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time were. They challenge us to ask ourselves if we have made rules, laws, and regulations, ends in themselves. They challenge us to ask ourselves whether our worship, religious practices, and liturgical celebrations have resulted in taking us away from God rather than bringing us closer to him.