In the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus cleanses the Temple, driving the merchants and money changers from the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem.
The Temple Economy
Why does Jesus get so upset with the money changers in the courtyard? The Temple was built by Solomon around 950 BCE, destroyed in 587 BCE, and rebuilt between 538 and 515 BCE. The Temple itself was not really a public place of worship, but rather a place where the Levite priests conducted religious ceremonies. They made offerings by burning grain or preparing a sacrificial animal, such as a dove or a lamb. The Temple’s inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, housed two enormous angels of olive wood, leafed in gold. These angels flanked the most important holy object in the Temple: the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was purpose built to hold the two stone tablets which had inscribed upon them the ten commandments (Exodus 25:21, 1 Kings 8:9).
Over time, an economy developed that accompanied this system of worship. 2 Chronicles 24:5 tells us that the authorities imposed on the people of Judah an annual levy to pay for the up-keep of the Temple. In Ezra 7:17, King Artaxerxes orders the Jews to return to Jerusalem and that he even facilitated the sacrifice of animals in the Temple on their behalf:
With this money be sure to buy bulls, rams and male lambs, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and sacrifice them on the altar of the temple of your God in Jerusalem.
Eventually, the tradition of bringing animals to the Temple in order to be sacrificed according to the Law of Leviticus became so common as to be commoditized. By the first century C.E., adherents to the faith of Moses from around the Mediterranean (from Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria) would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, often during the Holy Week of Passover. These religious pilgrims would purchase an animal that the high priest would immolate on the altar, according to Levitic law. Because a visitor to the Temple could not bring the image of a false God into the Temple itself, he or she would exchange foreign currency for shekels in the courtyard. Thus, the Temple economy evolved into the rather crass sale of goods and money in the immediate environ of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem itself.
Jesus Visits the Temple at Passover
Today’s passage tells us that Jesus went up to Jerusalem during the Passover. This would have been a tourist “high season.” The Temple would have been packed with pilgrims from around the Mediterranean, who would have outnumbered the local inhabitants. Upon encountering the moneychangers and vendors, Jesus rather uncharacteristically loses his temper. He fashions a whip and drives the vendors out of the courtyard of the Temple.
Jesus exclaims, rightly, stop making my Father’s house a marketplace. We should not be surprised that Jesus would respond as he did. The Temple in Jerusalem was the most important place of worship in Judea, and its courtyard was being turned into a bazaar. In keeping with Jesus’ message of spiritual reform and repentance among the Jews, he demands that the merchants leave the courtyard. However, in doing so, he threatened the the Temple economy, and in so doing, he infuriated the High Priests and Elders.
“Destroy This Temple and I Will Raise It Up”
Jesus then uses a figure of speech that challenges some in the crowd. He says, destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up. The pilgrims in the Temple, without a doubt, thought that Jesus was speaking of the Temple building. And, in fact, his comment about destroying and rebuilding the Temple angered a good number of people. At the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, his words are used against him (Mt 26:61; Mk 14:58). Later, when Jesus is on the cross (Mt 27:40; Mk 15:29), the crowd ridicules him for bragging that he could rebuild the Temple in three days.
The Law Comes From the Heart of God, Not From Dead Stone
The Temple in Jerusalem has the “Holy of Holies,” wherein is stored the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark contains the Law of Moses: the Ten Commandments. But when the Temple leaders encounter Jesus, they are not ready to accept that the Messiah might challenge the Temple’s ‘business as usual.’ When Jesus says in three days I will raise up [the Temple], the pilgrims believe him to be speaking of the Temple, yet he is really speaking of his own body. Jesus clearly implies that with his death and resurrection, he replaces the law written on stone with the authority of the risen Lord, who is the Son of God. Jesus suggests that what the Temple ought to accomodate is not the law written on stone, but rather a more direct encounter between God and man.
If it is the case that the source of the law of God is Jesus, and not the stone tablets in the Temple, then consider how prophetic are such passages as Psalm 37:31, The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip. Or Psalm 40:8, I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. Or Isaiah 51:7, Hearken to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law. This passage from Jeremiah 31:33 is a covenant:
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And consider this passage from 2 Corinthians 3:3, you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Since the Passover of the Jews was near,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,
as well as the money changers seated there.
He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
and spilled the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables,
and to those who sold doves he said,
“Take these out of here,
and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
Zeal for your house will consume me.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,
many began to believe in his name
when they saw the signs he was doing.
But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all,
and did not need anyone to testify about human nature.
He himself understood it well.