by Br Julian McDonald cfc
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, many began to believe in him, as they saw the miracles he performed. But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew them all. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them, because he himself knew what was in their hearts. John 2, 13-25
Do you ever read the billboards posted outside of some churches? A couple that stay in my mind are: “IMPERFECT PEOPLE WELCOME HERE. YOU’LL BE IN GOOD COMPANY” and “THE EXTRA MILE IS NEVER CROWDED”. However, I saw one a couple of years ago that is very relevant to today’s gospel reading: “IT’S TIME TO TURN THE TEMPLE OF YOUR LIFE INTO ‘MY FATHER’S HOUSE’”.
Today’s gospel presents us with a Jesus whose anger is white hot over the fact that pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem were being fleeced by the money- changers. A tax was levied on all visitors for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Moreover any pilgrim wanting to purchase a bird or animal for sacrifice on the Temple altar was forced to pay inflated prices to ensure that whatever they purchased was certified as “clean”. But before they could make their purchases or pay the tax, they first had to go to the money-changers to get “clean” Temple currency. In ordinary domestic life, people had to pay for travel, food and lodging in Roman currency. But the currency used in the Temple had to be free of human images. The image of a Roman Emperor was especially taboo because the Romans saw their Emperors as gods. To bring an image of a pagan god stamped on a coin into the Temple was tantamount to sacrilege. All this explains the presence of money-changers and offering-sellers in the Temple precinct. Jesus could not tolerate their extortionate rates, extracted from pilgrims in the name of God, and expressed his anger by overturning the tables of everyone doing business there.
In John’s Gospel, this story serves as a metaphor for cleaning up corruption. It therefore confronted the early Christian community with the challenge to look at their lives and decide what was in need of being cleaned up. It likewise challenges us to rid our lives of whatever clutter is preventing us from living with integrity.
This episode also confronts us with the question of the place of anger in our own lives. There are some people who would tell us that anger is unhealthy or even bad. Anger is a feeling. Like all feelings it is neutral. There is nothing wrong with any feeling we have felt. But we all choose how we are going to express those feelings. Sometimes we express them in healthy ways, while, at other times, we express them unhealthily, and in morally wrong ways.
Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus angrily confronting hypocrisy and extortion. His action invites us to reflect on the injustices in our world that make us angry. Isn’t it true that we can sometimes allow injustice to go on without daring to name it and without doing anything to counter it? Today’s gospel reading invites me to ask myself when was the last time I was prepared to raise my voice in protest at the way in which elected governments treat refugees and asylum-seekers, or engage in arms trade with other governments involved in ethnic cleansing, or are unwilling to curtail the sale of guns. I am confronted to ask myself what has fallen off my moral radar screen. We can let our anger control us or we can allow it to bring out the best in us. Jerusalem is a city whose economy has been built on religion. Pilgrims have flocked there for thousands of years, before and after the time of Jesus. Places of pilgrimage have always attracted charlatans and profiteers, because they see devout pilgrims as sources of easy money. Jesus’ anger pushed him to take action against those who exploited vulnerable pilgrims. His other purpose was to restore the Temple to what it was meant to be: a place where everyone could pray in peace. Today’s gospel prompts us to reflect on what makes us angry enough to want to take action on whatever infringes against the rights and dignity of other people, and to stand up against those who insist on exploiting the weak and vulnerable.
There are other challenging and puzzling aspects to today’s gospel reading from John. Jesus cryptically refers to himself as “a temple” that will be raised up after three days. And we have the Temple built of stone that took decades to build. It could hardly be restored within three days. Having written his Gospel well after the death of Jesus and having reflected on Jesus’ ministry, John can credibly attribute to Jesus the words: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2, 20). This, of course, is metaphorical language referring to the temple that is his body – the dwelling place of God. Made in God’s image, we, like Jesus, are also the dwelling place of God. Likewise, every human person reflects, in some way, the presence of God. Jesus, born into the world as one of us, is the incarnation of God. We, too, reflect the presence of God. It follows then that to adequately honour and respect God, we must reverence every person we encounter. That must be the foundation of all true religion.
This gospel reading merits one last comment. We have to ask ourselves what we make of Jesus’ observation of the crowds that were following him. John states: “But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew them all. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them, because he himself knew what was in their hearts” (John 2, 24-25). There’s a fine line between realism and cynicism. I find myself thinking that Jesus would not approve if that was my attitude towards everyone with whom I have dealings. I would not be able to trust anyone. I could have confidence in nobody. All this leads me to ask if there is an objective base line against which to measure realism. And, of course, we know that what is realistic for me might not be your view of what’s realistic. Could I suggest that Jesus’ measure of what is realistic has grown out of his deep relationship with God? He had made a personal space for God in his own life. That’s why he can say: “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” I propose that all those who make their relationship with God the central focus of their lives would fit Jesus’ understanding of what it is to be a realist. So, “knowing what was in their hearts” might better be seen as an expression of sympathy on the part of Jesus for all those who had yet to find an enduring place for God in their lives. True, God does dwell with us, but we have to develop a relationship with that God. Surely, too, God is much better company than a lot of people we meet.