by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove the money changers out of the temple area and spilled their coins and overturned their tables. “Take these out of here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” John 2: 13-25

Today’s three readings offer us all we need for living truly human lives full of meaning, purpose and integrity. From our earliest years, we learned to recite the Decalogue or Ten Commandments by heart. Moreover, those who taught us the catechism put the emphasis on the “shalts” and the “shalt nots”, leaving us less than comfortable. It may come as a surprise, then, that the introduction to today’s first reading that sets out the Ten Commandments is a self-revelation from God, who asserts: “I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Commandments that follow are clearly handed down in a context of freedom. They are offered as a set of guidelines for living lives of freedom. Instead of seeing them as restrictive, it is vital that we regard them as descriptions of how to go about protecting the freedom of the community made up of the people to whom God gave those very guidelines for living. They are instructions for protecting and nourishing their relationships with one another and with the God who had led them into freedom. They are meant to be equally nourishing and protective of us.

Turning now to today’s gospel-reading, we hear the first of three accounts in John of Jesus visiting Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festival. The second account occurs in John, chapter 6, close upon the miraculous feeding of a five thousand strong crowd, after which Jesus identified himself as “the bread of life” (John 6: 1-15. 25-40). The account of his third visit was at the time of Passover immediately before his betrayal and execution (John 11: 55 – 12: 19). John used the first of these three visits to describe the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. And what a dramatic launch it was! Jesus strode into the Temple precinct where the money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals were doing business, and angrily, even venomously, upturned their tables and scattered their coins as he accused them, and the Temple officials who condoned their activities, of turning his Father’s house into a market. What Jesus did and said on that occasion had enormous implications. First and foremost, his words and actions were a demonstration of his courage and integrity. By referring to the Temple as his “Father’s house”, he was identifying himself as the Son of God and declaring that the Temple was meant to be a place where worshippers could be at home in relating to God. Instead, it had been turned into a place of commercial enterprise where ordinary worshippers were being forced to pay extortionate fees for the privilege of exercising their religious practice. The service of money changers was needed because visiting pilgrims were expected to make donations towards the upkeep of the Temple. The Roman currency which was in everyday use was regarded as defiled and, hence, unsuitable as an offering. The money changers charged exorbitant rates to convert Pilgrims’ cash into Jewish currency. Animals brought by visitors for Temple sacrifice were invariably certified as “unclean” by official Temple inspectors, thereby forcing worshippers to pay through the nose for “clean” animals available for purchase inside the Temple precinct. That was the extortion that Jesus named and condemned through the audacious and risky action he took. Though he was still something of a nonentity, what he did that day would have been the talk of the town. While he probably felt a sense of satisfaction at what he had done, he certainly was not looking for notoriety.

It seems that John regarded the actions of Jesus that day as fulfilment of the words of Zechariah: “On the day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Day of the Lord, there will be no more traders in the Temple of God.” (Zechariah 14: 21). John recorded that Jesus’ action that day reminded his disciples of a verse in Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house devours me”. (Psalm 69: 8). In contrast, the Temple officials who were outraged by Jesus’ outburst demanded a sign from him to validate that he was acting on God’s authority.

That gave John the opportunity to continue his account of this event on two levels – one for his early Christian community whose members understood his use of temple as referring to his own body in which God truly dwelt, and the other in reference to the temple built of stone and mortar which had taken decades to construct. The authorities were baffled by Jesus’ play on words while John’s community enjoyed the way in which Jesus toyed with officials full of their own importance.

There is deep irony in the comment by Jesus’ disciples about their leader’s demonstration of zeal. Ultimately it was his zeal for the proper use of the Temple and for the justice, compassion and mercy of God which the temple symbolised that would lead to his being devoured by the powers of evil. The officials who wanted proof from Jesus that he was from God would never come to appreciate that God’s response to their having him crucified would be to raise him from the dead.

That gives us a neat transition to today’s second reading, in which Paul made reference to Jews who thought they had the all the answers to life’s challenges because they were convinced that they had a monopoly on God. They took it for granted that signs and miracles were proof that God was on their side. They viewed the world as made up of two categories of people – Jews (who had God on their side) and Greeks (who saw themselves as people of intellectual superiority, with all the answers. Peoples throughout history have fallen into the same error: Romans and also-rans, Christians and Muslims, Catholics and non-Catholics, we and they, us and them…Paul came to understand that the God he encountered in the person of Jesus does not deal in dichotomies or categories and does not subscribe to the use of coercion to bring anyone into belief. God will not be drawn into producing signs and wonders as proof of Divine existence or identity. Paul grew to appreciate and put faith in a God whose love was revealed in the life and self-giving of Jesus Christ. For Paul and for all who dare to heed him, wisdom and strength for life are to be found in the foolishness of Christ’s Cross. We sign ourselves with the Cross every day. Do we do so with meaning and intent or are we operating on automatic? And what of our own personal integrity? What kinds of demands are made of us and of our integrity as we try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in a world that is at best indifferent to him and at worst dismisses him as irrelevant?