All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers and animal vendors out of the temple.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the event in the last days of Jesus’ life, presenting it as something of a culminating conflict with the religious establishment. In each of these tellings, Jesus quotes the prophet Jeremiah and accuses those involved in the business of sacrifice of making God’s house a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer. The problem is not commerce in general – as I’m sure the Fair Trade kiosque organizers are relieved to hear – but exploitation and, more particularly, exploitation in the name of God. The moneychangers and animal vendors had a monopoly – those coming to offer sacrifices had no choice but to go through them and, as such, they were vulnerable to being cheated.
This is not, however, quite the story we have before us today. In the gospel according to John, as is so often the case, things are a little different. John places the event at the beginning of the story, right after Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding in Cana. It is not a culminating conflict but rather a warning shot – a declaration of intent…and of identity.
In John’s telling, Jesus references not Jeremiah but Zechariah: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”. The critique seems more all-encompassing – it’s not simply about exploitative commerce but- and it’s still not about shopping – about the misuse of the temple more generally. It’s about turning worship into commerce – into a utilitarian system of exchanges rather than a genuine encounter with God. Worship is not an opportunity to bargain with God – much as we may try to make it into one. Jesus is asserting that commerce, even just commerce, is not an appropriate model for our relationship with God.
And finally, one last significant difference between John’s telling and that of the other writers: only in John does Jesus’ protest end in a conversation with “the Jews” in which Jesus asserts his authority by asserting his ability to raise the temple in three days, an assertion which is nonsensical until after the resurrection when his disciples understand that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
So – to recap: John tells this story at the start in order to make clear Jesus’ agenda – to restore the people to right relations with God – and his identity as the means through which those relationships will be restored.
It’s important to remember, in attempting to understand the significance of this story, that the Temple was more than simply a church, a place of worship – even a very special, very holy place of worship. The Temple was the dwelling place of God; God’s house in a rather literal manner. Which isn’t to say that the Temple was understood to contain God – perhaps more that it was understood to be the place where God made Godself particularly and predictably available. Churches – even our beloved Cathedral – make no such claims. They really are just buildings, made holy by virtue of being set apart for the holy activities of worship but, in the end, just buildings.
So there was a lot at stake in Jesus’ protest at the Temple, regardless of which account we are considering. To protest the way things worked at the Temple was to suggest that there was a problem deep in the heart of the faith – that the way in which people were encountering God was insufficient for meeting either God’s desire for relationship with God’s people or for meeting the people’s need for genuine, transformative encounter with their God. But, even if the style of the protest was unique to Jesus, the critique of the Temple system was not.
The debate over how best to relate to God is an ancient one – it can be overheard throughout the Old Testament in the accounts of the history of the people of Israel, in the wisdom teachings and in the prophets. And it continued after the destruction of the Temple, both within Judaism and within the early Christian communities.
And this is the context in which John’s Gospel is written – after the destruction of the Temple and in the midst of community conflict over how to be faithful to God. It is written as an argument for why following Jesus was an appropriate answer to the problem.
Jesus’ mission, especially as understood by John, was to reorganize people’s relationships with God. In fact, this was more than his mission. It is his very identity. In Jesus, our relationships with God are reorganized because, in Jesus, God has made Godself directly available. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the bread. Jesus is the lamb, the offering of God’s people. Jesus is the priest, the mediator of God’s people. Jesus is the temple; the place where God dwells amongst God’s people. Jesus is complete – nothing else is needed from us
Through Jesus, we receive the abundant love and mercy of God – not through exchange or commerce; not because of our impressive worthiness; not through anything we did or will do. Through Jesus, we are made members of God’s family and part of the body of Christ.
As followers of Jesus, we are the dwelling place of God – and I know that I’m getting close to some uncomfortable feeling claims to exceptionalism. The thing is, we are exceptional. Why else would we be here? We do have something that other people don’t have – faith in Christ and the experience of God – the eternal life – that comes from knowing Christ. What we don’t have is a monopoly on experiences of God – we are exceptional; just not in our exceptionalness.
We need to learn how to talk about who we are with neither other-diminishing pride nor self-diminishing humility. We are the body of Christ. As such, we are the dwelling place of God. When God is present in our church, it is because God is present in who we are – the body of Christ – and what we do here – celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist; not because God lives within these walls and not because we have special powers of God-persuasion.
In just a little while, we will remember Jesus’ great self-offering and accept the gifts of his very body and blood into our own, reconfirming ourselves as bearers of God to the world. This gift, this life, is freely given.
In just a couple of weeks, we will remember the cost of bearing God to the world. This gift, this death, is also freely given.
The great mystery of faith is that both gifts – life and death – produce life for all who believe, making it possible for us to live – even now in Lent – not simply as the body of Christ but as the risen body of Christ, set free from fear and worldly wisdom to be able to love ourselves, our neighbours, and our God fully and freely.
We are the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God amongst God’s people. Let us, with joy and pride and great humility, live like it.