The Cleansing Of The Temple

The Cleansing Of The Temple August 5, 2019

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov: Cleansing of the Temple / Wikimedia Commons

When Jesus cleared the Temple (cf. Matt. 21: 12-17; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19: 45-48; Jn. 2:13-23), he not only cleared it from the defilements of the moneylenders and priests who made a profit on the sacrifices, but he also freed the animals which were within so that they would not be used as sacrifices. We often contemplate the effects of Jesus’ actions on the people involved, and that is indeed, an important part of the event. However, we must not forget what he did changed the lives and destinies of the animals themselves. The destiny of humanity is intertwined with the destiny of the animal world around them. We often lose sight of our connection with the rest of the world, though we should not, because when we do, we find that the harm done to one part of creation ends up harming the other, while when one is benefited and aided, the other is as well. This is exactly the lesson we should learn from Jesus at the Temple.

Holy things should be for the holy. They should not be treated as something that can be bought and sold. They should be shared out of love. Those who have been given some sort of holy charism for authority should be using that authority for the benefit of others, not for themselves. They should be sharing the grace which they have been given to benefit all. Sadly, for many, this is not the case. They take their authority as theirs by right (instead of understanding it as a gift with obligations attached to it), and use it to manipulate and harm others. Thus, the problem at the Temple was found in the way the Temple priests used and abused their authority; as St. Hilary of Poitiers explained, they took what was given freely and used it not for the sake of sacred purposes but for personal gain:

He entered the Temple; that is, he entered the assembly where his preaching as presented. This is where he first expelled all the abuses of the priestly office by the right of his authority, since he handed over those things which were graciously offered by all the people. The freedom of giving should not entail a corrupt priest in the buying or selling of anything.[1]

St. Jerome, likewise, saw that the Temple priests took advantage of those who were needy, the poor, those who had come from long distances, selling what was already theirs only to have it returned back to them:

The poor offered the chicks of doves and turtle-doves, lest they should be without a sacrifice. Very often it came to pass that those who had come from afar did not have victims to sacrifice. Therefore, the priests thought out how they could plunder the people. They sold all kinds of sacrificial animals to anyone who needed them, that these people in turn could sell to those who did not have any. Thus they would receive back again what had been bought. The frequent lack of resources of those who came caused this contrivance of theirs to spread widely. For the people lacked money for their expenses. Not only did they not have sacrifices, but they lacked to buy even birds and common small gifts. Consequently [the priests] stationed money-changers who exchanged the money at a high rate. Nor it had been commanded in the Law that no one should take interest. Yet there was no advantage in loaning money that brought no profit, since sometimes it lost its capital. So they thought out another technique to make bankers (collybistas) out of the money-changers.[2]

In other words, the sacrificial system ended up being exploitive of the people. They wanted to honor God, but to do so, they had to rely upon the good will of the Temple priests, a good will which had long been extinguished. They poor felt obligated to buy sacrifices, even if it cost them dearly to do so. The poor and needy were extraordinary vulnerable, because they had no bargaining power; likewise, those who came from afar, with money that needed to be exchanged, so that they could pay for a sacrifice found their holy desire to be the means by which they could be and were manipulated by dishonest priests.

We must not read these events to give us any excuse to think ill of the Jews; those who were being abused were the Jews, and those who Jesus and promoted were the Jews. Rather, we must learn the lesson which Jesus gave us through his actions. Jesus was showing his reaction to all those who have clerical rank and use it to hurt and abuse the vulnerable among us. Even if they are not buying and selling animals for sacrifices, those clergy who manipulate others through the sacraments, are equally condemned by Jesus. Making unjust demands upon people for them to have access to the sacraments is another example of buying and selling what is holy at the Temple and is to be rejected.[3] Jerome, therefore pointed this out:

The foregoing has been said as pertaining to the historical narrative. But according to the mystical understanding, Jesus daily enters the Temple of the Father and expels from his own Church all such bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as laymen and the whole crowd. He holds them all guilty of a single crime, namely, of selling and buying. [4]

St. Augustine agreed, though he went further, and suggested how we all could represent the unfaithful priests:

However, to seek the mystery of the deed in the figure, who are they that sell oxen? Who are they that sell sheep and doves? They are they who seek their own in the Church, not the things which are Christ’s. They account all a matter of sale, while they will not be redeemed: they have no wish to be bought, and yet they wish to sell. Yes; good indeed is it for them that they may be redeemed by the blood of Christ, that they may come to the peace of Christ. Now, what does it profit to acquire in this world any temporal and transitory thing whatsoever, be it money, or pleasure of the palate, or honor that consists in the praise of men? Are they not all wind and smoke? Do they not all pass by and flee away? Are they not all as a river rushing headlong into the sea? And woe to him who shall fall into it, for he shall be swept into the sea. Therefore ought we to curb all our affections from such desires.[5]

Exploiting the hurt and wounded, such as victims of sexual abuse, sacrificing them and their needs for the sake of clerical power and authority represents the same kind of abuse which Jesus contended with when he cleared out the Temple. The same can be said with priests, bishops, and religious who turn their eyes away from the needy for the sake of some ideology, such as those who ignore the plight of migrants while promoting the authorities who make policies against them. Those hold their hands out to rich donors and preach against the social doctrines of the church likewise have turned the Temple into a den of thieves: what will they do when Jesus confronts them and asks what they have done for those in need?

It must also be seen that Jesus not only helped the poor and needy, he helped the animals themselves, freeing them from being sacrificed. Animal sacrifices was never God’s desire: “Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire; but thou hast given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required” (Ps. 40:6 RSV). “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats” (Isa.1:11 RSV). “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22 RSV). The sacrificial system was not God’s intention, but because he was slowly working with the people of Israel, guiding them according to their limited understanding with ongoing revelation, he took them where they were at with the expectations and understandings they had and slowly directed them away from such practices, which is why the prophets moved further way from the sacrificial system, and Jesus himself can be said to show its ending as he cleared away the Temple. That is, as St. Peter of Damaskos explained, the system itself was initially accepted by God as a concession to their expectations at the time, because if their expectation was not met, they would have looked elsewhere for it and turned towards those forms of idolatry which represented that expectation.[6]

That Jesus freed the animals in the Temple courts should not be seen distinct from his criticism of priestly abuses. They went together. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, Jesus freed all the vulnerable from ill treatment, human and animal alike. Those who abuse animals rarely keep their abuse to animals, but often abuse their fellow humanity, so those who use and exploit animals will have little to no qualms in exploiting their neighbors. The Temple system, which at one time, did help guide and direct the people of Israel away from a greater, worse system (found in the nations around them, such as Egypt and the Canaanites), helped institute the beginnings of a humanistic reformation in the land of Israel, but its ability to do so was limited, and once that limit had been reached, it was time for the system itself to be transformed and changed, to recognize the intent behind it instead of the letter of the law. This was, in part, the spiritual genius of the prophets of Israel (and why they were often persecuted by those with priestly authority): they pointed the way beyond the Temple, beyond the sacrificial system, preparing the way for Jesus who would come and overturn the system as a whole (while affirming the spirit of the law itself). The exploitation of animals, the sacrifice of the animals, was never the point; they were meant to represent the heavenly rites which were fulfilled by Christ:

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment,  so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Heb.9:23-27 RSV).

While we focus on Jesus’ care for us, for humanity, we must not forget the story includes animals and demonstrates his care and concern for them. Jesus consistently pointed out God cared for both. While recognizing the way Jesus condemned the way the priests exploited the system, and therefore, condemns all religious authorities who exploit the vulnerable for their own advantage, we must also see that included animals, who truly were among the most vulnerable.  This has implications for us. Humanity, by being made stewards of the earth, have been given priestly responsibilities over the earth; we will be judged in part based upon whether or not we use our power and authority to oppress animals, of if we help them. The earth itself is a Temple. It is holy. Will Jesus condemn us because we have once again turned his sanctuary, the earth itself, into a den of thieves, or will he say, well done good servant, because we have used the talent he has given us and spread it around, elevating the world and its inhabitants through it?

[1] St. Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. D.H. Williams (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2012), 221.

[2] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2008),235-6.

[3] An example of this problem is the way many engaged couples are expected to go through extensive, and expensive, classes before a priest is willing to marry them in their churches. Though such classes could be offered, there should be other ways in which the priest ascertain if the couple is truly prepared for marriage; that this is not understood is one reason among many why many forgo church weddings.

[4] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 236-7.

[5] St. Augustine, “Homilies on the Gospel of John” in NPNF1(7):71.

[6] See St. Peter of Damaskos, “Thoughts on Provocations,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 209.


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