There’s a painting of the Virgin Mary smacking the baby Jesus’s bottom – and it is of course heretical. The Virgin Mary never lost her temper or punished without a reason – and of course she couldn’t ever have had a reason because Jesus was never a naughty boy.
And the cleansing of the temple is a bit like that too. Jesus can’t just have lost his temper – he might have been angry, but he couldn’t actually lose his rag. Anything he did must have been calculated, intended and appropriate. So when Jesus went into the temple and saw the money changers – the people who changed the Roman denarii coins for the Jewish shekel, and when he saw the animal sellers selling animals for sacrifice, what he decided to do – turning some tables upside down and driving some of them out, was not a temper tantrum, but a calculated act. Our job is to work out what on earth he was thinking.
The old Sunday school answer was that Jesus didn’t like people selling things inside the temple grounds and so he was clearing them out in order to create a holy space.
My house shall be a called a house of prayer.
Others say that buying and selling things was OK – in fact it had to be done if people were going to pay their temple taxes and be able to offer the right animals for sacrifice, but that the money changers and the animal sellers were all cheats and frauds, taking a huge mark-up and cheating the common folk out of their hard earned cash and making money out of religion. My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.
And then there are others say that Jesus was making a point about all the rules and regulations that keep people out.. My house shall be called a house of prayer … for all nations ….. Jesus said, quoting Isaiah – ….. and so – Jesus says – in future the Roman soldiers and the other gentiles would be allowed to come and they could use their gentile money and all the old barriers – the walls separating the courtyard of the gentiles from the courtyard of the women, from the courtyeard of the men, from the courtyard of the priests, from the holy of holies for just the high priest – were all to be knocked down and there would be one temple for all people.
Others say that Jesus has decided that his time has come and he needed to do something dramatic to provoke the temple guards into arresting him. – And the chief priests and the scribes heard of it, and they sought how they might destroy him
Others say that Jesus is telling us that sacrifice worship is over and done with. People don’t have to sacrifice doves and sheep and other animals in order to be forgiven – the new religion – Jesus says – will make sacrifices extinct. …. So he turns the tables over to show that the animal sellers are no longer needed.
whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
In other words, just do it – don’t bother killing a poor sheep to make the point.
And then there is St John. You see the thing about St John is that he never lets anything happen without giving it a deeper secret meaning.
The Jews asked him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus spoke of was his body.
So for St John, then, his new Christians don’t have to do all the things that were necessary for the Jews to do in the Jewish faith .. they don’t need to obey the law, they don’t need to keep the feasts, they don’t need to offer sacrifices in the Temple, – they just need to see Jesus, to understand and to believe.
After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
And then there’s you and me …. what is Jesus saying to you and me when he cleanses the temple?
Well – I think it’s all of the above and a bit more.
First we all need to be reminded that being a Christian is not just being about the business of making the church work, but is first and foremost about saying our prayers… If we don’t pray, then we’re just a nice community centre.
Secondly we need to remember that being a Christian is about justice and fairness in our dealings with other people – if we’re not just and fair and honest, then we’re a den of thieves.
Thirdly the church has to be for all people – a house of prayer for all nations and all sorts. If we’re building walls and inner courtyards then we have to knock them down.
Fourthly – the time has come… the time has always come. Time to act, to do, to build the kingdom of God here and now.
Fifthly – though – it’s not about how well we do it, how big our sacrifices or our efforts are. God loves us first and it’s all grace.
Finally though – we have to see the signs and believe – and that’s a particularly hard one today.
This past year we have been surrounded by the fear of Coronavirus. The government has restricted our movements, prevented us from going far from home, and day by day the daily toll of deaths have been put on our screen – a sign of failure, a sign of defeat, as Dolly Parton put it ’cause once you dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
But let me finish with another icon with a slightly different message: Yesterday an 84 year old man, not wearing a mask, visited a major war zone where bomb attacks are a part of everyday life.
The man is the pope and the country is Iraq – and of course it’s dangerous.
and I think he would say ‘ what’s the worst thing that can happen to me? And he would answer his own question with – well the worst thing that could happen to me is that I could die – but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to me is it’
I think we can say that the pope – remembered what Jesus had said; believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Everything else can just get thrown up in the air and turned upside down.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington