Wherever you go in the Holy Land, you’re aware of the security situation. Roadblocks, checkpoints, settlements are everywhere. With so many armed guards around, the pilgrim feels safe, if a little uneasy, but there is one particular place where you have to be very careful
The Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish temple once stood, is now a mosque. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but the wisdom of doing so depends on the political atmosphere at the time. Recently the state of Israel installed scanners and cameras – but had to take them down following widespread riots.
Some Jewish people would like the temple area back – they are supported by some Christians who, wrongly I think, believe that Jesus will only return once the temple has been rebuilt. Other Jewish people would never walk on the Temple Mount – how, they say, could you be sure you weren’t walking on the site of the Holy of Holies? This sacred ground, significant for three religions, is one of the most contested places on earth
It has been so for centuries. Jesus must have been to the temple many times before, but in our reading something seems to snap. He sees the buying and selling, hears the shouts of the traders and the cries of the animals, feels the pushing and shoving, senses the greed. As verse 15 of Chapter 2 in John’s gospel says, He takes time to make a whip out of cords, and in a premeditated act of violence, drives the traders from the temple. Do we feel uncomfortable about that? Jesus said many pacifist things, he was never violent to protect himself, but he did act for others
‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’ My old college chapel had a wonderful early stained glass window at the entrance, showing a suitably dynamic Jesus casting out the traders. Bill Clinton was being shown round, and someone, I think it was Dennis Skinner, quipped: ‘You see, Mr President, Jesus was no fan of the capitalist system.’
But it’s not that Jesus disapproves of money. Or of buying and selling. After all, his parables recognise trade as a necessary part of the world we live in. Done well, commerce can enable human thriving. God can bless business as part of his general blessing on creation.
Part of the problem with the temple traders was the cheating and greed. You’ll know what it’s like going to a tourist site and being faced with a multitude of ways of having your wallet lightened. The piles of overpriced tat. My particular favourite was the world’s most expensive lettuce. To feed the giraffes you could pay a pound a leaf. I reckon the zoo was making 2000 per cent profit. Then there’re the fees for cameras, and special charges for essential items: the shoes you have to wear to stop your feet scratching the floor, or whatever.
The Temple authorities had hit on a couple of nifty wheezes. First, there was the so-called sanctuary shekel. Roman money wasn’t the same as the money that Moses or Solomon would have used. So the religious leaders decided the temple had to have its own currency. And if you have two currencies, you have to have money changers, and an opportunity to take a cut
And then if you want to offer a sacrifice? Well sir, the law says that God will only accept the best lamb or goat from your flock. It has to be without blemish. But to make it easy, the priests have pre-approved some lambs. And your luck’s in sir, I happen to have one here today. Only 50% premium over the Jerusalem market, sir. What’s that? You’d like to bring your own? Oh no sir, that would never do sir, the priests wouldn’t allow that. It has to be approved. Just hand over your sanctuary shekels
Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus saying ‘The Scriptures say my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ Jesus burns with righteous indignation, he longs for justice. It’s made worse because this market was probably in the Gentile area.
In other words, the outer part of the temple which was set aside for non-Jews to seek God had been taken over by traders. The mission of the temple, the chance for it to be a light to all nations, had been pushed out by profit. It was the vulnerable and the outsider who lost the most
Sadly, it is the same today. I renewed my road tax recently. Not everyone has £130 to hand to spend in one go, so there’s the option of paying by monthly direct debit. But it will cost you. Several pounds extra. In many ways, like prepayment energy meters, people are penalised just for being poor. In our business arrangements, we might well try to give people incentives to spend more, or to cover extra costs incurred through different payment methods – but we should ask, when does that stop being fair? Do we end up discriminating against those who have little? How can we ensure a level playing field
Just think how much trouble could have been avoided if there been the willingness to stick to the Ten Commandments. Funny to say that about a centre of religion, isn’t it? The letter of the law, do not covet, should have banned those cynical get rich quick schemes. The spirit of the law underlying do not steal, should have provided for compassion for the poor. And what of the command ‘You shall have no other God but me’. Did they not realise that in charging people for access to God, they revealed their true priorities, unveiling their idol to Mammon?
There’s a problem with cheating, and there’s also a problem with the location. This is God’s temple. The footstool of the almighty. The place where his Name dwells. The means of sacrifice which brings people close to God. The temple is special – in a way that we may struggle to understand. For while we see our church buildings as holy, we mean something very different. Church buildings are places in which we worship God, we may encounter his presence here, sense generations of prayer which have soaked into the walls. But if it came to it, we could worship God just as well in a hall. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and the early Methodists, often met under trees or by a prominent stone.
The temple was different. For the temple provided the way that people could come close to God. They didn’t imagine that God lived there – but it was certainly the special place where he was present like no other. So the temple was where sacrifice was offered – to give thanks, to pray for blessing, most of all to forgive sins. If you had done wrong, and you sought God’s forgiveness, you had to sacrifice at the temple
I get a bit annoyed when there are kiosks charging a fee to enter a cathedral but I know that I can go anywhere else if I really want to pray. The same choice was not open to the 1st Century Jew. That’s why Jesus got so angry: people were being charged for access to God. They were being swindled when they came for forgiveness. How can you set up barriers between people and God for profit
Access to God is free to everyone. Through Jesus, anyone can pray. Because of Jesus and what he did on the cross, anyone can ask for forgiveness, and it comes without price. Several places in this gospel reading point to Jesus’ unique role
Firstly, verse 17 is a quote from Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’. Perhaps John sees Jesus as the perfect man, the one in whom all human aspirations are most sincerely felt
He is also fully divine. The whole episode reminds us of the Old Testament book Malachi, Chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: ‘The Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple. But who may abide the day of his coming?’ The people had been saying ‘If only God would come. If only he would return to his temple.’ Yes, he will come, says Malachi. But be careful for what you wish. Judgement always begins with the house of God. His people must be purified first. When we long for God to act, when we pray for revival – and I hope that you do – we must also be ready for God to purify us. Greed, self-deception, injustice – it must all be cast out of our hearts. We must allow the Holy Spirit to purify his temple.
When we think of the body as a temple, we might well remember St Paul writing about how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter, Jesus means something slightly different.
The Jewish leaders ask him: ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ He replies in v 19: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ How can he do that when it took 46 years to build and still wasn’t finished? Well, says John, the temple of which he spoke was his body
Remember, the temple was about forgiveness. Sacrifice. It was there to being people close to God. Now in Jesus, the symbol has been replaced by reality. The Old Testament sign has been fulfilled. We no longer need the temple as a way to get close to God – because in Jesus God has come to us. We do not need to go to a temple for forgiveness, because Jesus told people their sins are forgiven. We do not sacrifice animals because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for sin – he is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us so that we could come close to God
In other words, Jesus replaces the temple. We can go a step further. He is the real temple. He does perfectly everything that the temple building was trying to do
What does this mean? Firstly our church buildings are not like the temple. Yes they are places of worship where we gather together to experience the presence of God – but they are not the way that we come to God. We cannot just read the Bible and wherever it says temple think ‘church building’. That also means we have a different attitude to sacred space – we are able to use it in different ways and for a wider variety of purpose.
Secondly, the Jerusalem temple should not be a crucial thing for Christians. It was a sign pointing to Christ, and is now fulfilled. Judaism learnt to manage without the temple when the Romans destroyed it. Christianity has no need for the temple. We have to recognise the modern location is a political reality, a flashpoint but we must not believe those who want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple.
For, thirdly, it is Jesus who brings us all to God. The temple had different grades of holiness – for priests, men, women and last of all non-Jews. But whoever we are, we can come to God equally through Christ. There’s no hierarchy of Christian believers. Wherever we are, we can have a relationship with God through Christ. Even if someone is alone – housebound, in prison, lost in the middle of nowhere, they are in the presence of God. He sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts – he is with us always, so that each one of us becomes the temple, the place of his Presence. Let us acknowledge his presence with us now. Amen.