Worship Together Online 7th March 2021
Cleansing the Temple
John 2. 13 - 22
In the early months of 2003 the Dean and Chapter of York Minster were agonising about whether to charge visitors to enter the building. We were looking a 20 million pound bill to restore the East End. We knew that benefactors would require us to maximise income as well as look for grants. We believed that visitors would understand that what they paid would benefit the building for generations, not line our pockets. But it was a place of worship and prayer, and you shouldn’t have to pay to come in, should you?
The narrative of Jesus cleansing the Temple is hard to avoid in our Sunday readings each year: it appears in all four Gospels. After the admission charge was introduced on August 2 2003 (the day after Yorkshire Day…) we would find ourselves reading and preaching about Jesus overturning tables with our own admission desks, card machines and cash registers in full view, not to mention the big sign encouraging people to “exit through the shop”. It did rather bring it home. Had we made this great cathedral “a market place” (John’s phrase – the Greek is “emporium”)? Or “a den of robbers” (in Matthew, Mark and Luke – quoting Jeremiah 7. 5)? We certainly had to think hard.
John brings Jesus to Jerusalem early in his Gospel. Matthew Mark and Luke wait until the last days of Jesus’s life, though Luke records the teenage Jesus being in “my Father’s house”, and faithful Jews would aim to be in Jerusalem every Passover. Jerusalem and its Temple occupies a central and defining role in the history of God’s people. Everything about it was a focus of the hopes and aspirations and religion and practice of Israel. One commentator says the Temple was like Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament combined.
It was not simply a place of worship: the way everything happened was shaped by and defined by worship and faithfulness to the commandments. So, what you brought into these holy precincts had to accord with every one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, encapsulated in the Decalogue we heard as our Old Testament reading. No room for graven images or idolatry. No images allowed of a claimant to divinity like Caesar. So it helped people’s faithfulness if their money could be cleansed, and Tyrian Shekels were given in exchange for Roman Denarii. It was also really complicated to bring your own animals for sacrifice if you were making quite a journey. Much more helpful to know that appropriate animals could be bought on site. All the externals were covered, and it accorded with the Law. So why does Jesus act so violently?
It may have been that people were profiteering. There were strict rules about money lent at interest, and not defrauding people, and it may have been that the exchange rate was shocking, or the animals substandard. Jeremiah’s quotation about being “a den of robbers” would apply then, but that’s not the point being made in John. Here, even if everything was being done faithfully and fairly the people’s worship was becoming a matter of trade and transaction, and John deliberately contrasts the “house of my Father” with a “house of trade”. The sacrificial offering of the whole of life by the people of God was being obscured by a process. It might be legal. But it was not worship. It might be just. But it was not righteous.
The Temple Jesus enters is the Second Temple. The first had been destroyed after the Jerusalem David had established, and the royal house God promised to bless, had proved to be unfaithful. It was in the seventy year Babylonian captivity that they learned to be God’s people once again. After the return from exile the Second Temple was completed. Three centuries later, after further attacks, worship in the temple was restored under Judas Maccabeus, and the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, with the seven branched candle stand, commemorated a new phase, with the enlarging of the temple under Herod the Great, who liked a good building.
The cycle of faithfulness, unfaithfulness and restoration keeps revealing the ways in which the people of God fall away from their side of the covenant, often without recognising that their patterns and practices, while outwardly “correct” are inwardly empty. Though they might sacrifice, though they might obey the demands of the law, it became clear that outward form and inward motivation had become disconnected. The actions of the Pharisees and the faithful might be very rigorous – no one could say it was not demanding – but the purpose had become unclear.
Religion had become something just to do, not something which spoke of a whole life devoted to God. The question asked of us, in a church which is itself an historic sign of God’s presence and challenge, is whether we practice religion one hour a week, or express our whole life commitment to God in the time where we gather together. This church, this Church of England, needs finance and processes which will enable it to be maintained and to flourish. Every church is a business, and such businesses need to examine every action, every transaction, to see if it reflects the Kingdom of God. York Minster did have to show that it was doing all it could to maximise income as well as finding benefactors, and so it happened, with the project completed and more on the go.
But, aware that we were not an emporium, we had to ensure that all we did, and all the money made and raised, was to point to the glory and challenge of God. We made it free for people come to worship, and to pray at any time. Our staff were brilliant at letting worshippers in at no charge, and visitors were brilliant at recognising their admission as a gift for the greater mission of the church. Jesus was drawing prophetic attention to the obscuring of the love and command and judgement and mercy of God by the very processes meant to enact it. Reading this in Lent and preparing to recollect the passion and death of the Christ, we see that it is Jesus who opens the way to God, who cleanses with his sacrifice, who tears open the curtain to the Holy of Holies, who disables the processes and opens the way, who welcomes us in.
It is this Jesus to whom we should draw close. It is our faithful following which we should build – and then our church buildings, systems and processes will buzz with life. What we build and do, outwardly, should be the expression of all that we are as faithful disciples, not religious theatre we enjoy every now and again. And we long for the day when all is wrapped up in praise, and in the new Jerusalem all is one in God.Print This Page