The Third Sunday in Lent

John 2:13-22

When I was growing up, I had a children’s bible that paired passages with some really beautiful artistic depictions of the stories’ events and characters.  One image that I remember very clearly is the picture of the Temple incident that we hear about it John’s gospel today.  The painting was crowded with livestock and birds running every which way, people ducking for cover behind overturned tables, and Jesus at the center, swinging a cat-o-nine-tails and looking very grumpy indeed.  In some ways, this story is very familiar: I think that most people who have heard the story of Jesus are aware that he “cleansed” the Temple.  In other ways, this story is very perplexing to modern readers, even though it appears in all four gospel accounts.  Why did Jesus, who was usually peace-loving and far less demonstrative in his teaching, feel the need to make such a dramatic scene in the Temple precincts?

Here’s something that’s even more perplexing to us: if we were reading the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, or Luke (also known as the “synoptic gospels,” because they can be “seen together”), the answer to our question would be different than it is today.  For the synoptic evangelists, Jesus’ Temple tantrum was a necessary part of the way he would fulfill his mission.  As we heard in our gospel reading from last week, Jesus knew that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  In order for this to come to pass, Jesus had to make the religious authorities angry enough that they would hand him over to death.  For the synoptic gospels, in other words, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were the incidents that precipitated his death.  In some ways, the reasons behind Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple were less important than the consequences of Jesus’ actions: in the synoptic gospels, the Temple incident caused the religious authorities to hand Jesus over to death, so that he could fulfill his mission.

The location of Jesus’ Temple tantrum in John’s gospel, however, indicates that the incident had a very different meaning for John.  Rather than inaugurating the Passion narrative, as it does in the synoptic gospels, John places the Temple incident at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  At the beginning of chapter 2, Jesus famously acts as the sommelier for a wedding at Cana in Galilee.  Immediately afterward, he causes this ruckus in the Temple.  While the Temple incident is essentially the capstone of Jesus’ public ministry in the synoptic gospels, it functions as Jesus’ debut in John’s gospel.  Jesus makes a big splash when he arrives on the scene, and invites those who witnessed his debut to ask who he is and what he has come to do.  The reaction of the crowd is telling.  After watching him make an enormous mess, the onlookers do not respond as we might expect.  Unlike the painting that adorned my children’s bible, the crowd did not cower in fear, nor did they angrily chase after Jesus.  Instead, they asked rather calmly, “what sign can you show us for doing this?”  It is a surprising reaction, but tells us that the crowd was ready to believe that Jesus’ actions were justified if he were able to show some sign of his prophetic authority.  Jesus’ response, however, disappoints the crowd.  He proclaims, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  In a classically Johannine example of Jesus and his audience talking at cross-purposes, the crowd thinks that he is talking about the Temple in which they were standing, but, as the evangelist points out, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”  After this moment of confusion, the scene ends.  The crowd does not seek retribution; the authorities do not demand that Jesus clean up the mess he made.  Everyone wanders away, bewildered and wondering who this person could possibly be.

On the one hand, the Temple incident is at its most dramatic and violent in John’s gospel (John is the only evangelist who mentions a whip of cords).  On the other hand, the ending of the story is somewhat anticlimactic.  The chief priests do not use this as an opportunity to plot against Jesus; the crowd doesn’t even seem particularly perturbed about the mess that Jesus made.  Instead of the image from my children’s bible, I like to imagine Jesus standing in the Temple precincts, holding his whip limply against his side, staring as everyone walks cautiously away from him.  This story is less about what Jesus did in the Temple and more about the fact that the crowd could not understand who he was.  They had been given an chance to encounter the reality of the Resurrection, to understand that they had come face to face with the Word made flesh, and they had squandered the opportunity.

It’s easy to sympathize with the crowd that was gathered in the Temple on the day of Jesus’ debut.  Resurrection is not an easy concept to comprehend.  When we look around us, at a world that so often seems wasted by pain and grief, it is easy to despair that there is any kind of hope for the world we live in.  It is easy to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that hope for a better world is just a pipe dream.  We are called, however, to use this season of Lent as a time of preparation, as an opportunity to do the hard work of understanding that Resurrection has been promised to this world through our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are called to imagine a world that has been redeemed and is being renewed through our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are called to come face to face with the Word made flesh, and not to squander the opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.