Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent (7 March 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:13-25 – NRSV).
ALTERNATE TRANSLATION OF JOHN 2:13-22 FROM Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 114):
Since the Jewish Passover was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple precincts he came upon people engaged in selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and others seated, changing coins. So he made a [kind of] whip out of cords and drove the whole pack of them out of the temple area with their sheep and oxen, and he knocked over the money-changers’ tables, spilling their coins. He told those who were selling doves, “Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market place!” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
At this the Jews responded, “What sign can you show us, authorizing you to do these things?” “Destroy this Temple,” was Jesus’ answer, “and in three days I will raise it up.” Then the Jews retorted, “The building of this Temple has taken forty-six years, and you are going to raise it up in three days?” Actually he was talking about the temple of his body. Now after his resurrection from the dead his disciples recalled that he had said this, and so they believed the Scripture and the word he had spoken.
There are similar accounts in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:11 & 15-17 and Luke 19:45-46. The synoptic accounts are much shorter and they come towards the end of their Gospels, just prior to the passion narrative. John’s account has much more details than the synoptics and it comes near the beginning of his Gospel.
It seems particularly significant that each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus cleansing the temple. However, scholars are split on whether or not the event occurred at the beginning or towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Of course, it is possible that there were two cleansings.
John is meticulous in linking Jesus’ ministry with the major feasts of Judaism: “In addition to other feasts, he mentions three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 11:55), possibly a fourth (5:1). This one probably takes place in ad 28. That he calls it the Jewish Passover (lit. ‘the Passover of the Jews’) is taken by some to indicate that his readers are primarily Gentiles for whom the very elements of Judaism must be explained, and by others to indicate that, as a Christian toward the end of the first century, he is writing from a dismissive and censorious point of view, setting ‘the Jews’ over against Jesus and his church. Neither view is satisfactory. It is hard to believe that John’s readers are Gentiles so ignorant of Judaism that they do not know the Passover is Jewish, when at several scores of points John’s argument depends on his readers’ grasp of subtle and detailed points of Old Testament history and Scripture. It is equally unjustified to detect in this reference to ‘the Jews’ a sweeping indictment of all things Jewish from the perspective of the late first century, when elsewhere John argues that salvation is from the Jews (4:22; cf. notes on 1:19) and uses various devices to portray Jesus as the one who fulfills the promise of Passover. It seems more likely in this instance that because the Passover was celebrated in the temple in Judea, and the residents of Judea were called ‘Jews’ by both Galileans and diaspora Hebrews, the Passover is called the Passover of the Jews. This geographical approach to the expression fits the context, since the verse’s purpose is to explain why Jesus went up to Jerusalem in Judea. (People went up to Jerusalem, both because Jerusalem stood at a higher elevation than Galilee, and also because historically Jerusalem was the capital city—just as people go up to London from all over Britain.)
“The festival of Passover was celebrated on the 14th day of the lunar month Nisan (full moon at the end of March or beginning of April). It commemorated the night when the angel of death ‘passed over’ the homes daubed with blood in the prescribed manner, killing the firstborn in all other homes. In the consternation and revulsion that followed, the Jews escaped from Egypt (Ex. 12). Passover was immediately followed by the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread (15–22 Nisan). Cf. notes on 18:28.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 176.)
cattle, sheep, and doves: Animals used for sacrifices in the temple. People who travelled a long distance would appreciate being able to buy the animal when they arrived rather than bringing one with them.
the money changers: People traveling from all over the Empire would bring various currencies. Carson writes: “(T)he temple tax, to be paid by every conscientious Jewish male of twenty years of age or over, had to be deposited in Tyrian coinage (because of the high purity of its silver). This annual half-shekel (to use the language of the Old Testament) was equal to half a Tyrian stater or tetradrachm, and so two Jews often joined together to pay the tax in one coin (cf. Mt. 17:27; NBD, p. 792). The money-changers converted money to the approved currency, charging a percentage for their service. The tables of the money-changers were not set up all year round, but only around the time when the temple tax was collected. In Jerusalem, this was from 25 Adar on (the lunar month before Nisan; cf. Mishnah Shekalim 1:1, 3). (D A Carson, op cit, 178.)
He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables: Jesus was serious! There is no evidence – in John or the synoptics – that he actually hit or hurt anybody. Carson writes: “Jesus’ physical action was forceful, but not cruel; one does not easily drive out cattle and sheep without a whip of cords. Still, his action could not have generated a riotous uproar, or there would have been swift reprisals from the Roman troops in the fortress of Antonia overlooking part of the temple complex.” (D A Carson, op cit, 179.)
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”: Raymond E Brown notes, in reference to the naming of the temple as “my Father’s house”, that “the Temple is frequently described in the OT as “the house of God”; so also Mark 2:26. In Luke 2:49 we have the same idea as in John.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 115.) Jesus’ focus is clear. He is not concerned that the money changes and sellers are engaged in unethical business practices. He is concerned that they are in the temple conducting their business! The sense of this being a sacred place and the reverence engendered by prayerful silence is completely undercut by the busyness and noise entirely appropriate to the market place but out of place here. Implicit in this is a condemnation of a religion that has lost its focus. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.” The reference here is Psalm 69:9.
the Jews then said to him: John uses the word “Jews” where the synoptics would normally use scribes, Pharisees and lawyers: “This is a good example of Johannine use, for the Synoptic parallel (Mark 11:27 and par.) speaks of chief priests, scribes, and the elders of the people.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 115.)
forty-six years: Raymond Brown writes: “Josephus, Ant. XV.xi.1;#380, says that the Temple reconstruction was begun in the 18th year of Herod the Great (20/19 b.c.—this date is more reliable than the 15th year of Herod given in War I.xxi.1;#401). Reckoning from this we reach a date of a.d. 27/28, or more exactly, the Passover of 28. The hazards of establishing an exact chronology for the ministry of Jesus are well known, but this date agrees with that of Luke 3:1, which fixes the ministry of John the Baptist in the 15th year of Tiberius (October 27 to 28, according to the Syrian calendar with antedating). The number in John obviously refers to the Temple; however, because John says that the temple is Jesus’ body and because of 8:57 (“You’re not even fifty years old”), Loisy and others accept 46 as the age of Jesus, suggesting that he died at the Jubilee age of 50. The fact that the Greek letters in the name of Adam have the value of 46 was the basis of the interpretation of many Fathers, especially Augustine, who saw this number as a reference to Jesus’ human nature; see Vogels. While we do not regard “forty-six years” as a reference to Jesus’ age, we by no means exclude the possibility that Jesus was considerably older than Luke’s approximation of “about thirty years of age” (3:23) might indicate.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 115-116.))
In today’s Gospel – John 2:13-25 – we have an account of the cleansing of the temple. All four Gospels tells us about this event. John has more details than the others and he places the event right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The three synoptics place the event just before their passion narratives. Perhaps this suggests that, for John, the event occupies some kind of seminal or thematic place in his understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ ministry?
In the argument that follows the cleansing, there is a moment that might help us better understand John’s thinking. The religious authorities challenge Jesus: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In other words, “Who are you?” “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’”. Here is the crucial point: ‘This temple’. In the Jewish culture and tradition, the temple is the symbol of God’s Presence, the symbol of their very identity as a people. Jesus is now claiming to fulfil that role. He is establishing a New Covenant. In his being – “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14) – the Covenant story is taking on a radical new reality. Jesus is ‘this temple’.
Not surprisingly, this profound revelation is not grasped in that moment by either the religious authorities or the disciples: “The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”.
For the religious authorities, the means had become the end. The institutions – specifically the temple – had begun to displace the reason for the institutions.
Is it possible that we Catholics have also fallen into this trap? One of Australia’s greatest poets and a deeply committed Catholic, Les Murray, thought so. He wrote nearly sixty years ago: “For many historical and other reasons, some of them Australian and our own fault, Christianity is no longer On Top in Australia. Others …. will have gone into the modalities of this more effectively than I could do. All I have to add are some personal impressions. The first of these is that the experience is probably a salutary one for us. The time for ecclesiolatry, the worship of the visible church instead of God, is past” (Les A. Murray, “Some Religious Stuff I know About Australia” in D. Harris et al, eds., The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today, Lancer, 1982, 25).
The Church, with all its wonderful rituals and symbols, its well-thought out credal formulae and deep moral teachings, its practical agencies and beautiful buildings etc, is a means by which God seeks to love us into freedom. The Church is not the Kingdom. Not an end in itself.