The passage from the Gospel we have just heard is one of those few stories we find in all four Gospels. Something is unique about our passage though, and it is that John places this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the event during Jesus’s last week, a few days before he is arrested, condemned and put to death. And we would understand why this timeline make sense: Jesus acted in a provocative way in the Temple, radically putting into question the way religion was organized, which would have infuriated the religious leaders. After that, they would have felt even more urgently the need to get rid of him.
But that’s not the way John sees it. John places the “purification of the Temple” – or maybe a better name would be the “disruption in the Temple” – right there at the beginning. Why would he do so?
Well, one of the ways to see it is that the evangelists recalled and related the events of Jesus’s life, not necessarily according to what was chronologically accurate but rather in a way that would explain who Jesus was for them. In the case of John, it certainly makes sense, for two reasons that are important.
– In chapter One, John presents Jesus as the Word of God sent in this world to be God’s dwelling. In this passage, Jesus presents himself as the Temple. He does not so much oppose the physical Temple in Jerusalem to the Temple of his body, but he understands them in continuity. The Temple is an image, a materialization or if you prefer a sacrament of the inner Temple, heart and soul. God is present in the Temple in the same way that God is present in Jesus – and – as a consequence in each one of us. In the beginning of the Gospel, John announces to all people that we are called to become God’s children – to be ourselves, in our flesh, an indwelling of God in the world. Religion does not mean a lot if it does not lead us to change profoundly our hearts and our behaviors and leads us to be “witness” to the light that has been manifested to us (again, in John’s words)
Well, this is already something, isn’t it? If we could think of of people as as sacred as our churches, the altar, the cross or even the consecrated wine and bread we share for communion, no doubt that we would look at each other, and at ourselves, much differently. Perhaps that’s the beginning of conversion, to be able to see the beauty and preciousness of who we are when so often we are blinded by the business of life and down to earth preoccupations – in the same way that the sacredness of the Temple became elusive when it was turned into a marketplace.
– The second reason why John may have placed this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, is that in chapter one, John announces through the voice of John the baptist that Jesus is the “lamb of God” and it is an image that is very important to him and to the people who would come to join his community. In the book of Revelation, written by “John”, Jesus is presented many times as well as the “lamb of God”. It means that indeed, no sacrifices are required anymore, because Jesus gave his life for us and we, through him, are reconciled with God. This is what Jesus would be already announcing in this Chapter 2, driving out the animals out of the Temple to fulfill the sacrifice with his own person.
Again, this is also we may need to think about more deeply. The Jews in the Temple weren’t doing anything “wrong” by offering sacrifices – actually, the Bible commanded them to do these sacrifices (see the book of Leviticus!), but Jesus reminded them, as the prophets reminded the people before, that nothing replace a living relationship with God, along with practicing justice and mercy. Again, the Temple points out to this relationship and faithful living, but it’s really about becoming the Temple in ourselves and Jesus shows us the way, even more, includes us in this relationship and enable faithful living – and that’s what John is preoccupied showing.
– Now there’s a third reason why John may have given priority to this episode in Jesus’s ministry, I found this explanation in one the commentaries I read while preparing for this sermon, and I think it is worth sharing. The author said that generally, we recall more vividly times in our lives that are very emotional, and she said that when John sat to write his memories about Jesus, that was probably this episode that came to his mind because it made such an impression on him.
And as I thought about it, her explanation made much sense to me. According to the tradition, John was very young when he started to follow Jesus, the youngest of all the disciples, a teenager – probably 17 or 19 at best, and then he lived a very long life and it’s only at the end that he wrote his Gospel. And so, I can only imagine him, being very old, trying to remember what was that, that as a young man, impressed him so much about Jesus – what was that that made him fall in love with him and follow him. Certainly it could be what happened on that day at the Temple where Jesus chased the cattle, overturned the tables and argued with the merchants, that made John fall in love with Jesus and made him want to follow him to the end. John, maybe unlike the other evangelists, wasn’t shocked or unsettled by Jesus’s outburst. Unlike the other evangelists, John didn’t place this episode sandwiched between many others events of Jesus’s life, and once we’ve been much acquainted to the meek and mild Jesus. John placed this episode at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry because for him it was who Jesus was and he loved it! A Jesus who was a breath of fresh air in the Temple and who was turning religion upside down.
Young people are much more at ease with anger and rebellion than we are when we reach a certain age. They want things to be different – even sometimes they just want something to happen, no matter what. Tradition does not reassure them a lot, they don’t generally find it comfortable – more likely they find it boring. I remember when I was a teenager I didn’t go to church hoping to find things the way they always were – I wanted to see something new, to hear something new, to do something new. Something that would bring me closer to God – something that would make God become alive for me.
And I really think this is what Jesus did for John. John must have thought that Jesus was really offering something different, something that wasn’t boring, something real and authentic, something that made God come to life for him. Jesus was offering something new. If you read through John’s Gospel, you will realize that almost each chapter could be called by the newness it brings:
New Revelation. New wine. New religion. New birth. New water. New food. New light. New eyes. New life. New love. And this is also what Paul testified about. Jesus brought a whole new way of understanding God. So different that it looked completely foolish to the philosophers and the religious traditionalists!
When Jesus came among the people of Israel, they had been offering sacrifices for twelve hundreds years for the forgiveness of their sins and their impurities! But as Nicodemus, a lot of them were longing for a new level of spirituality where they could be brought closer to God’s heart, to be more intimate with God – and we know that even the Jews who didn’t come to follow Jesus stopped offering sacrifices after the destruction of the Temple, the religion was much changed and more internalized.
Actually if we look in the Bible, from the beginning God wants to bring new life to God’s people. We have just read about that in the book of Exodus. Before God asks anything, God reminds the people that God “brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. God brings liberation to the people and for one reason or another, the people of God always end up “taming” God, “entrapping” God in their Temples, dogmas or prejudices!
So what about us? Are we on the side of those coming to the Temple to perform the same rites hoping God will answer our prayers, or are looking for something new to happen? Not just novelty, something that would flatter our senses or bring some entertainment, but are we looking for a fresh and authentic way to relate to God? Are we looking to grow, do we feel the need to deepen our relationship with God, to learn about God, to learn from God? And to let this happen: Are we able to let go of what has grown old? Are we willing to have an honest look at what isn’t working anymore and find ways to renew and understand better our faith and bring it to the next level?