Today, Jesus drives out vendors and moneychangers from the Temple. What prompted this rare flash of aggression?
Gospel (Read Jn 2:13-25)
St. John describes a visit Jesus made to the Jerusalem Temple near Passover. To best understand this episode, we need to know something about the physical arrangement of the Temple at this time, as well as some of the customs and business conducted there. The “temple area” refers to the Court of the Gentiles, a space outside the holy inner chambers that was offered to God-fearing Gentiles who, although not converts to Judaism, wished to pray to the God of the Jews. When Solomon built the first Temple, this space was added to the Tabernacle design used in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It acknowledged their vocation to be a “kingdom of priests” (see Ex 19:6), inviting the whole world into God’s blessing. This was, after all, part of God’s original promise to Abraham: “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gn 12:3). The Babylonians demolished Solomon’s Temple, with all its great beauty that was so evocative of the Garden of Eden, in 586 B.C. The Temple in Jesus’ day did not have the grandeur of the first one, but it did include the Court of the Gentiles, retaining Israel’s mission to the world.
Over time, the Court of the Gentiles became the place where vendors would sell animals to those coming to offer sacrifices at the Temple. All Jewish males living outside Jerusalem were required by the Law of Moses to make three annual pilgrimages to the Temple to celebrate liturgical festivals. For them, being able to purchase animals there was a convenience; they did not need to bring animals with them on what could be a long trip. Likewise, moneychangers were set up in this area to exchange foreign currency for the appropriate coins needed to pay the annual Temple tax. These services were licensed by those in charge of the Temple. As we know, when services are licensed and taxes are collected, there are always opportunities for corruption and extortion. Such was the case in Jesus’ day.
However, Jesus’ action in the Court of the Gentiles was more than simply an angry outburst against corruption. How do we know that? As He cleanses the area, Jesus quotes a phrase from the prophet, Jeremiah: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incenses to Baal, and…then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My Name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house… become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer 7:9-11) Here, the judgment against God’s people is not simply doing business where they shouldn’t have; rather, it was their great hypocrisy and presumption in believing that simply by keeping Temple rituals, God would deliver them from the threat of their enemies, even though they lived in great covenant infidelity. In Jeremiah’s day, as in Jesus’ day, God’s charge against His people was their empty religion—maintaining their liturgies with hearts far from Him. The fact that the Court of the Gentiles, which was supposed to be a place of prayer and evangelization, had become a “marketplace” was emblematic of Israel’s terrible spiritual desolation.
In His cleansing of the Temple, Jesus prophetically demonstrates that the Temple was no longer a place of true encounter with God, for Jews or Gentiles. It was destined to be eclipsed and replaced. That is why, when the Jews questioned Jesus’ authority for His action, He enigmatically predicts a destruction—but not of the Temple building. No, He referred to His own Body as “this Temple.” He spoke of His death and resurrection as the “sign” of His authority to bring an end to animal sacrifice (foreshadowed when He drove out the animals) and to open encounter with God to all the nations (restoring the true meaning of the Court of the Gentiles). Unlike a “zealot,” who unleashes violence on others, Jesus’ “zeal” for His Father’s house would consume Him, leading to His own death on the Cross.
Eventually, of course, the physical Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., never to be rebuilt. It didn’t need to be rebuilt; Jesus was the fulfillment of everything to which the Temple pointed. It was never meant to be permanent. There was nothing wrong with the Temple or the Law of Moses—the problem was in human nature, as St. John indicates: “Jesus would not trust Himself to [the many who believed in Him], because He knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He Himself understood it well.” Human nature, not the Temple, needed cleansing. That is precisely what Jesus came to do for us. He is now the true place of encounter between man and God.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, You are the remedy for my human nature. You now trust Yourself to me. Thank You!