Lent 3 – March 4, 2018

The story of Jesus purging the temple in Jerusalem of the moneychangers and animal sellers can be a disturbing one to hear. It has a violent, angry element that we don’t usually see in Jesus. And that in itself should give us pause for thought. Why was he so angry?

The temple was the place where people came to offer the sacrifices set out in the law of Moses. Mary and Joseph themselves had come to it when Jesus was a young baby, and offered two doves as a thank offering for the birth of their son.

But the reality was that the temple and the sacrifices offered there had become a corrupt system of exploitation and profiteering. The people had to use a special temple currency to buy the sacrificial animals, and they were being fleeced by the moneychangers. The animals were costly, too. The heart of sacrifice (gratitude to God, expressed through self-giving and care for the poor) had been lost, and replaced by a commercial, profit-based system.

As Jesus says, “You’ve made my Father’s house a market-place.” (In the version in the other gospels his language is even stronger: “You’ve made what should be a house of prayer into a den of thieves.”)

So he turns over the moneychangers’ tables, and drives the animals out and sets them free.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, during the civil war in the 1970s and 80s. He goes to a church to celebrate mass with the people, but it’s been taken over by the military and turned into a barracks. When the Archbishop goes in and says he wants to retrieve the reserved sacrament, the commanding officer turns and shoots up the altar and aumbry, shattering a crucifix and making the sacrament fall onto the floor. Romero retreats in fear for his life, but outside, about to be driven away to safety, he pauses, then turns back and walks resolutely into the church.

He walks past the soldiers in the pews and the officer with the gun trained on him, and he goes up behind the altar and starts picking up the communion breads from the floor. The officer lets off a volley of shots over his head, but Romero continues. Then he walks out of the church and puts on his vestments. The townspeople assume he’s going to say mass outside. But no, Romero heads back into the church with the people slowly following, and facing down the soldiers Romero says he is reclaiming the church to support the poor and oppressed who are suffering so much. And that Jesus is with them.

The temple in Jerusalem had become corrupt and oppressive, and Jesus raged against that. The churches in El Salvador had been ravaged by the oppression of the rich and the military crackdown, and Romero acted against that. Both Jesus and Romero were ultimately killed for their opposition to the powers in authority.

What does this have to do with us, here, today? We’re not under persecution. There aren’t any corrupt moneymakers in the cathedral who have to be driven out. But there’s another level to this gospel story. It’s about what the house of God truly is.

First, it affirms that Jesus is the new dwelling place of God:

  • Apart from opposing the corruption of the temple sacrificial system, Jesus’ action is also showing that sacrifice is redundant. It’s not what God requires. God wants mercy and justice, not sacrifice.
  • And we don’t need to try to please or appease a distant God with our offerings, because in Jesus God is present with us. He in fact is the dwelling place of God, not a building of stone.
  • Jean Vanier writes: Now Jesus’ body, his very being, is the new Temple, the place of holiness where God dwells. Jesus is indicating that life and love and healing and forgiveness will flow from him, through his body, his broken and risen body… God is no longer far off in the heavens, symbolized by the great beauty and majesty of the Temple of Jerusalem. God has pitched his tent among us…. This new sanctuary is made of flesh and blood.

Second, it leads us to an understanding that each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit:

–     Jesus said that he and the Father dwell within those who keep his word [John   14:23]

  • St Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” [1 Cor.6:19]
  • We too need to be purged of the things that have got in the way of that holiness, especially the noise and frantic pace and grasping after material things.
  • Vanier writes: The place of inner peace [is] where God dwells and where we receive the light of life and the murmurings of the Spirit of God…. [But] this silent, sacred space within us… can be desecrated. It becomes like a marketplace, a shopping centre, invaded by superficial needs and all kinds of trivialities.

The house and dwelling place of God is not a building, it’s Jesus and it’s you and me.

  • Vanier again: Church is the place where, in the midst of the demands of our daily lives, we can come together with others… to a place of silence, our inner sanctuary, to listen to the word of God, to hear the murmurings of the Spirit and to welcome into our being the presence of the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. As we welcome Jesus … we seek to welcome others, revealing to them the compassion and forgiveness of God.

As Jesus purged the temple of all that had got in the way and obscured it from being a true house of prayer and mercy and justice, so may we be purged. May our inner sanctuary be swept clean again – here, now, today. Amen.

Quotes are from Jean Vanier: Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John.