Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jesus Drives out the Money Changers

This article first appeared in CONNECT! magazine

I tend to feel uncomfortable around people who are angry. I often wonder if I'm to blame for their foul mood or if I should do something to make the situation better. Anger is a difficult emotion to experience whether in oneself or in others.

The gospel doesn't tell us how the crowds reacted to Jesus' prophetic expression of anger in the temple. No one tries to stop Jesus. No one voices outrage at his extreme actions. Though it would seem to be the perfect opportunity for the authorities to apprehend Jesus for causing a disturbance, they appear to be fearful of inciting the crowd. It could be that the crowd agreed with Jesus about the greed of the moneychangers. It could be that they were already used to Jesus' forceful words against those who manipulate religion for their own profit. Whatever the case, Jesus' action does not appear to provoke outrage on the part of the people. He exercises the same authority in the temple which he does in his teaching, freezing in awe those who witness his actions.

As a good and pious Jew, Jesus loved the temple which he called "my Father's house". His outburst of anger makes no sense otherwise. Jesus is not having a temper tantrum, but expressing real disgust and disappointment at the commercialization of his Father's house. His anger is an expression of love not an assertion of power. It is the anger of a father who sees his children in harm's way and the passion of a jilted lover.

The religious leaders,however, require of Jesus a sign proving his authority. It is then that we hear Jesus' strongest identification with the temple: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up ." It is a cryptic message only understandable in the light of his death and resurrection. Like so many of Jesus' other words in John's gospel, they would have to be guarded in the disciples' hearts until his resurrection. The Temple is Jesus' body - Jesus himself - victorious in death and risen in glory.

In Jesus' day, the temple was the pulsing center of Jewish life and worship. It was there that God dwelt in all his glory. It was there that sacrifices of oxen, sheep and doves were offered in atonement for sin. Its sheer size and the beauty of its adornments were sources of pride for the Jewish nation. The idea of it being destroyed was offensive, and any suggestion of it being rebuilt in three days was ridiculous. Just imagine someone saying the same thing about Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome! There's no doubt that Jesus' actions in the temple began the chain of events which would lead to his passion and death.

Before the building of the temple under King Solomon, God's presence among his people was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which housed the tablets of the law written by God himself on Mount Sinai. There was no permanent place to keep the Ark of the Covenant. Rather, it traveled with the people in a tent. God walked as his people walked. They lived in tents and so did he. When the people took up more permanent residence in the land and established a dynasty in Jerusalem through King David, then God took up a more permanent residence in a temple of stone.

Jesus is the new temple of God's glorious presence among us. The Ark of the Covenant and the temple symbolized God's desire to walk with his people. In Jesus, God takes up the tent of our human flesh and builds us up into a living temple whose permanent place is heaven. Jesus becomes both the altar and the lamb of sacrifice. It is a temple located wherever God's people are located. It is a sacrifice which requires no moneychangers. It is a temple which can never be destroyed.

We can bet that Jesus has the same passion for his people, the new temple, that he demonstrated in the temple of Jerusalem. Whenever God's people are denied access to the saving mysteries, whenever obstacles are placed in the way of their expression of faith and whenever they are denied justice, Jesus' ire is raised. And, ours should be as well. We think of those living in countries like China and Saudi Arabia where Christians are denied the free expression of their faith. We think of Christians who are persecuted in India. At home, we think of parish leaders who make access to the sacraments and the religious education of children needlessly burdensome. And, we think of ourselves when we deny the right of a good example to those who know us to be Christians. Under such circumstances, those who share the love of Jesus ought to start knocking some tables over.

The Catholic convert, Dorothy Day, often commented on the lack of passion she witnessed on the part of Christians as compared with her atheist friends. And, the criticism is often leveled that we are too busy looking forward to heaven to stoop down to help our brothers and sisters on earth. We can get angry, but it is often directed at trivial issues such as whether the bells should be rung during the Eucharistic prayer or who will get a solo at the Christmas pageant.

However, as we grow into the sense that we are members of Christ's body, forming a temple which spans the globe, we can no longer fail to be interested in the sufferings of others whether they be close by and within reach or in other countries. We will be unable to walk past the panhandler or overlook the stories of persecution. It will mean making a contribution, writing a letter to a Senator or even walking a picket line. It will mean holding them always in prayer at the temple of the Eucharist.

When we reach out to others, we are helping to build the New Temple. The same Dorothy Day once wrote: “People say, 'What is the sense of our small effort?' They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.” That is the work of Christ in the Holy Spirit to raise us up as a temple where his mercy is manifest to the world.

(image by Boris Olshansky)

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