Lectionary Reflections on John 2:13-22
The Cleansing of the Temple
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Lent is the great spring-cleaning of the Christian life. It is the traditional season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the great "Feast of Feasts," Easter. The word Lent is derived from a Saxon word meaning "spring." In the early church, Lent was viewed as a spiritual spring, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul's life. It represented a return to a life in which God was once more center and source... (Thompson, 73).
Speaking of cleaning, I am not at all pleased with the performance of the woman whose job it is to clean my house. She doesn't show up every day, and when she does, often she has an excuse—"I'm too tired. I'll do it tomorrow. I'll do it this weekend." Sometimes she neglects to sweep the kitchen floor before she mops it. I caught her smearing coffee grounds around the tile with a mop the other day. I caught her spraying lemon pledge in the air like air freshener to give the impression that she had just dusted. I discovered her sweeping the carpeted stairs with a broom to make lines that looked like she'd vacuumed them. I don't know quite how to handle this personnel problem.
How can I let her go when she is me?
Every week or so, a large postcard comes in the mail. It's purple, or yellow, or green, and it's from a charitable organization that proclaims, "We need your discards. We accept clothes, shoes, books, CDs, DVDs, and small appliances." There are instructions to either call a number or put bags of items on the front step on a certain date. In fact, I do have some discards. The pair of black slacks that just never fit right. The computer monitor and printer in the guestroom closet. The peach-colored prom dress from our daughter's high school days. The extensive collection of mismatched coffee mugs that are overflowing the kitchen cabinet. The floor lamp that doesn't work because someone ripped the cord off it while moving it to clean the carpets. And on and on...
Lent is a season that creates a yearning in us to clean our house and to clean our souls.
The common assumption about this Sunday's passage in John 2:13-22 is that Jesus was cleansing the temple of commercial abuse. But the animals and the money changers had a right to be there. The animals were there because of the Torah's requirement of sacrifice. The moneychangers were there to change pilgrims' money into the coinage the Temple could receive to purchase sacrifices and also for the payment of the half-shekel tax levied on all Jews. In John's gospel, Jesus is not cleansing the Temple from commercial abuse by the money changers. He is making a statement that their efforts are no longer necessary. Jesus' "disruption of one of the most significant feasts of the year is a symbolic action that temporarily bring to a halt the sacrificial system understood to be ordained by God in the law" (Lincoln, 137).
There are several differences between John's account of the cleansing of the Temple and the account in Matthew (21:12-13), Mark (11:15-17) and Luke (19:45-46):
- In John, this event happens close to the beginning of Jesus' ministry, where it serves as a catalyst that jump-starts the opposition to him. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it happens just after Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is the last straw. From then on, his opponents have one goal in mind: his annihilation (Mt 21:15; Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).
- Another difference between John and the synoptic is that John specifies that Jesus' actions take place against the backdrop of Passover. Throughout John's gospel, he places Jesus' symbolic actions against the backdrop of various Jewish festivals. (See 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; and 11:55.) His implied message in this placement is that Jesus' words and deeds are the fulfillment of the significance of the tradition attached to the particular festival in question.
- The words Jesus uses to accompany his actions in the synoptics are a combination of Isaiah 56:7b—"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples"—and Jeremiah 7:11—"Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?" But in John, the words Jesus uses imply that the moneychangers' activities are no longer necessary.
It's not that what the moneychangers were doing was wrong, but what they were doing would no longer be necessary in the new order Jesus had come to bring. This passage, says John scholar Andrew Lincoln, "looks forward to the Day of the Lord and to God's presence in a renewed Jerusalem. At that time all nations will keep the Feast of Tabernacles and there will be no need for traders in the house of the Lord. The trading associated with the sacrificial system will not be necessary, because in the end-time worship of Yahweh as king all aspects of life will have become sacred" (Lincoln, 138).