John 2: 13-22
This week is the middle of three gospel readings which each confront us with unsettling sayings of Jesus. Last week Michael explored for us the episode in Mark’s gospel where Jesus explains openly to his disciples that his journey leads to the crucifixion and invites them to, “take up your cross and follow me.” This week Jesus forcibly disrupts those about their business in the Temple, and then talks cryptically of its destruction and how he will rebuild it in three days.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all tell the story of Jesus driving the traders and money-changers out of the Temple court. All place the incident during the Passover, when the Temple would be at its busiest. Only John places it near the start of Jesus’ public ministry. The others place it in the final week of his life, suggesting it may have contributed to his arrest. For John then, the effect is to establish his conflict with the Jewish authorities at the outset. There is also a forward-looking quality to his version: Jesus’s zeal for his father’s house will consume him: the confrontation will eventually lead to his execution.
So what was going on in the Temple courts? We are talking about a large open courtyard which formed the outer area of the Temple, from which Jews might then enter into the inner court. Pilgrims came there from all over Judea and the Roman world. They came to make those animal sacrifices required by Jewish Law – for example as Joseph and Mary did after Jesus’ birth – and which could made nowhere else. Most would not bring their own animals but buy them from sellers in the outer court.
They also came to pay the Temple Tax. This originates as Atonement Money, set out in Exodus 30, literally a ransom for each person’s life, paid at the time a census is taken. By the time of Jesus there were Jews living in many distant countries who still paid the Temple Tax. The historian Josephus records a convoy heading out from Babylon containing the annual Temple Tax of the Jewish community there, noting that it was accompanied for its journey by a particularly large force of security guards.
Before the tax was accepted into the Temple coffers, it had to be converted from whatever local or Roman currency used by the giver into Tyrian Money, coined in the city of Tyre – which was the currency mandated by the Temple authorities.
In Matthew 24 Peter is asked if Jesus and his disciples pay the Temple Tax and he answers that they do. Jesus does perhaps cheat a little – he instructs Peter to pull a fish out of the lake and there in its mouth is a Tyrian 4-drachma coin to pay his and Peter’s tax.
This is why there are money-changers in the outer court – just as you or I might find in an airport if we ever manage to go abroad on holiday again. And of course the money-changers charged a fee, or a spread as it’s known in the trade. Perhaps not the 26% that Travelex charges in airports where they have a local monopoly – there is no suggestion the Temple money-changers were charging excessive rates.
So what is Jesus objecting to?
There is at its simplest a moral objection. Jesus consistently challenged the religious institutions of his day for oppressing the poor and those on the margins - notably in the way they excluded those who did not, often could not, meet the purity laws. And here what he finds offensive is the bleeding of the poor economically, the meting out of supposed divine favour in return for observances which brought cash into the temple coffers. This is not about individual venality: Each pigeon seller or money changer may have been charging a fair price. The evil is in the system.
His outrage should make us ponder in the church today. Charging money for supposed divine favour is now illegal. But wherever there is power, we also find the instinct to use it to coerce, and here the church is not immune. We see it in the hurdles that are put in front of those who come asking for a wedding, a baptism, or a letter. And also in the biases that colour the church’s practice in recruiting and appointments.
But John has more than ethics in mind. So few of the stories in the other gospels make it into John that we should be alert as to why they are chosen – more often than not it is because the story has a symbolic, spiritual significance beyond its ethical message.
This brings us to the connection between the Temple and Christ’s body: a great building, a defining symbol of power and permanence, is to be replaced by a vulnerable, single human body, killed and then miraculously brought to life after death. John places these two images side by side. At first the suggestion that one could replace the other seems absurd. But as we ponder this strange notion, a deeper wisdom is revealed, a connection between these symbols, rich in mystery.
Here we see the relevance of our reading from 1 Corinthians and God’s foolishness, wiser than human wisdom.
For Jesus looks foolish. The disciples who witness his wild behaviour recollect Psalm 69, “zeal for your house consumes me.” John’s readers would have known how the psalm continues:
… people make sport of me.
Those who sit at the gate mock me,
and I am the song of the drunkards.
What, I wonder, might the traders and money-changers have said to each other, as they herded their animals back into the Temple court, righted their tables, put their coins back into neat piles, about the madman from Galilee?
And here it is good that we are reminded of the central paradox at the heart of the church. For the church is built on an absurdity, a foundation so vulnerable, so weak and foolish in the eyes of the powerful in this world as to be a laughing-stock. When judged by and alongside man-made institutions, the church has no underlying legitimacy. All the fine buildings, pompous titles and robes, the establishment privileges, cannot hide it.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
A power shown through Christ’s giving of himself utterly, in compassion, forgiveness and love. And through the cross we are set free.
Richard Young (Rector)