Jesus the New Temple of God: Are Today’s Churches becoming Dens of Robbers? (3rd Sunday of Lent)

I invite you to enter deeper into the mystery of God’s Word this weekend. We are presented in the Gospel with one of the most challenging images of Jesus in the cleansing of the temple. What a frightening site it would have been to see this gentle and merciful God in a righteous rage, physically driving out the money changers and the sellers of oxen, sheep, and pigeons! As Jerome says; “a certain fiery and starry light shone from his eyes, and the majesty of the Godhead gleamed in his face.” What could have driven the Lord into such a righteous rage?

The first message for us is that what happened in the temple is a sign given by Jesus. It should not be taken literally. The Gospel of John is divided into two parts, the first part (John 2-12) is called the book of sign, and the rest of the Gospel is called the book of glory. In the first part, Jesus reveals his divine identity through signs and symbols, through his miracles, his words, and deeds. These signs (the miracle of Cana 2: 1-12, the healing of the noble man’s son 4: 47-54, the healing of the sick man at the pool of Bethzatha 5: 1-16, the feeding of the five thousand 6: 1-14, the cleansing of the temple, the walking on the water 6: 1-14, the healing of the man born blind from birth at Siloam 9: 1-17 and the raising of Lazarus 11: 1-14) all tell us something about the divine identity of Christ. They also reveal to us his mission on earth as the one who brings the New Covenant and his saving mystery. These signs also invite us to enter into this new life with Christ and how we can share in this saving mystery and its implications for our lives as well as for human and cosmic destiny. So, we must dig deeper to find the spiritual significance of the cleansing of the temple. Indeed, at the end of the account in the Gospel today we read in John 2:23 that this was a sign from God, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he gave.”

The second message ties with the first and second readings in terms of how the Second Testament builds on the First Testament: the temple along with the Laws, the Rituals, the Sabbath, and the Land were all signs of what is to come. The Law was given by Moses as we see in the First reading as ‘a sign’ of the covenant. The people were required to keep the commandments in order to be holy and worthy unto YHWH. The law ‘tied’ the people to the Covenant for example in the Deuteronomic codes there are many punishing requirements (Rituals, sacrifices, obligations carried out in regulated and precise manner) which must be kept if the people were not to incur the wrath of God. The blessing of the Land obviously was the promise made to the people by God as long as they kept their part of the deal. As Paul writes in the Second reading, the Jews look for ‘signs.’ Sign here has to be understood as the evidence, the blessings, the realization of the promises made by God to their ancient fathers and mothers. They searched for these signs not only in the prophets, in the temple of Jerusalem and in the law, but above all in the Messiah of whom it was prophesied that he will suddenly enter into the temple (Malachi 3: 1-4).

I am sure that those money changers who were whipped by the Lord on this day were not expecting the Lord to enter his temple this way! But then Christ comes not with these external signs and rituals but carrying the weight of the sin of the world on his shoulders. This is a scandal to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. This is so because the ways of Christ were different from their notions of God and of the Messianic expectation. They could not understand the idea of a suffering God or the image of a God who is weak and vulnerable in order to save the weak; a God who enters into the mess of human life to heal humanity from within. They could not fathom the idea of a forgiving and merciful God against their notions of the vengeful Greek pantheons and the frightful images of a punishing God in the Old dispensation.

We must look at the logic of the Cross in order to understand both the mission of Christ and our own Christian calling. We must enter into the logic of the Cross as God’s people in order to find our path towards the reform of our lives and the reform of our churches to embrace the humility and brokenness of the Good Lord which could lead to the interior transformation of our Christian faith if we want Christianity to capture the cultural imaginations of our times.

Today’s Church: A Den of Robbers?

This leads us to the third message. What was the reason for the ‘righteous rage’ of Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem? Jesus was pained by the fact that God’s temple was being desecrated. He was horrified by the false religious practices which drove God’s people away from God by emptying the temple of the presence of God. Sometimes we can drive God away from our churches when we drive the poor away through our preaching and pastoral practices which emphasize money, offering, etc all of which wound the hearts of many poor people in our communities of faith. The life of God and the love of God are given freely by God to all who come to the Lord. No one should be excluded from the presence of God because they are poor or insignificant.

According to William Barclay what was going on in the temple of Jerusalem was ‘worship without reverence’, “in that court of God’s house at Jerusalem there would be arguments about prices, disputes about coins that were worn and thin, and the clatter of the market place.” The church today must guard against a Christianity which promotes ‘worship without reverence’, ‘devotionalism without deep faith’, and religious rituals and liturgical displays which promote superstition and magical notions of grace, sacraments, and sacramentals.

In our times, some of our churches are becoming again ‘the den of robbers’ as our churches are fixated on capital campaigns than on evangelization. In many parts of the world, the prosperity Gospel preachers are perfecting new exploitative strategies to extort money from the poor and the downtrodden masses of our people who are hanging on to God as the only stable reality that can give them hope in a hopeless situation. The idea of the ‘big God of the big men’ is found in all kinds of stratagem for fundraising and the burdensome imposition of tithes and church levies on poor people. A church which preaches more of Christ and of the values of his kingdom and the foolishness of the Cross; a church which in her way of living and acting makes the worship of the true God, and the truths of our faith more visible, believable, and credible through her prophetic and witnessing, will speak to the souls of God’s people in our times more than a church which preaches money and any form of payment plan in exchange for the graces and blessings which God gives freely to all those who come.

The Christian faith has suffered and continues to suffer today because of this emphasis on money. There are many church leaders who have an uncontrollable passion to build big mansions for a God who does not even need a physical house to become present to God’s people. The only space God needs is a small and clean spot in our hearts where God can dwell. I remember the famous line attributed to the papal preacher of Indulgence, Tetzel in the 16th century—one of the most proximate causes of the Reformation—he was famously quoted to have said of the money which the faithful were required to give to make satisfaction and ‘quicken’ the passage of souls in purgatory to heaven: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” Like the sellers in the Temple of Jerusalem, there are many preachers and church leaders who must hear the Lord’s Word anew today that ‘my father’s house is a house of prayer and not a den of robbers.’

The final message from this Gospel is that Jesus is the new temple of God not made by human hand, not hewed from any cultural reality, and not restricted to any land or space. It is important to note the words of Jesus in Mark (Mk 11:17-18): “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”; and his words in John (2: 19) “destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” Let’s connect this to the Old Testament to conclude our reflection. In the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of this temple in I King 8: 43 he asks God not only to bless the people of Israel but also all foreigners who come to the temple so that “all the peoples of the earth may come to know your name and like your people Israel, revere you, and know that your name is given to the temple I have built.”

The temple was meant to be welcoming of all people. Indeed, the temple was a miniature cosmos where the whole earth gathers in the name of God. Sadly, the temple Jesus saw on this day was filled with all kinds of abuses. There were segregations and social stratification; there were ranks and hierarchies and clear lines of separation of people based on race, rank, status, class, sex, and creed. The temple which was supposed to be a place for all of God’s people became a place where segregation was practiced and where inequality was so clearly evident in the seating position. Unfortunately, for the Gentiles, it was in their own segregated seating section that the animals were being sold and money being changed. It was nearly impossible for anyone to pray and be in the presence of God with all ‘lowing of the oxen, the bleating of the sheep, the cooing of the doves, the shouts of the hucksters, the rattle of the coins, and the voices raised in bargaining disputes’ which seemed like modern auction sales!

Jesus was wounded by the fact that the people who come all the way as it were to ‘Zion’ to encounter God could not do so and were exploited by those who should promote their union with God. He then announced the end of this vanity fair and the beginning of something new. The sign of the cleansing of the temple is that in Christ God is inaugurating a new temple; that in Jesus, God is offering the world something radically new and different and that this new temple will not be destroyed by sin or spiritual abuse of any kind.

What Jesus brought to the world is not wealth, power, or laws. Jesus brought us, God. Jesus brings to us salvation from sin and evil. What Jesus brought to us in not basilicas, temples, and splendor, or pomp and glory, ranks, and classes. He brought us the triumph which comes from the self-surrendering sacrifice of the Cross. Jesus brought us the beauty of God’s love and mercy, and the splendor of truth shining in our humble hearts and leading us from falsehood into truth, and from darkness into light. Entering into this new way of believing, behaving, belonging, worshipping, and witnessing is the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom. This new temple is also the Church which offers the world not money, power, dominion, or any other thing other than the gift of the Gospel message of love and peace addressed particularly to the poor, but given to all people through Christ, who is that genuine newness that surpasses all our human longings. Everyone is welcomed into this church not with goats, sheep, and money but with a humble and willing heart, open to God. This is so true in our trying times.

(c) Stan Chu Ilo

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