Those cryptic words of Jesus were spoken in the aftermath of an astonishing scene. The anger we see in Jesus in this extract from John’s gospel seems at odds with the image we have of a gentle and meek character. We might describe it as righteous anger. Very rarely is anger truly righteous, but here it was directed at people who were making the house of God into a place of exploitation. This doesn’t mean that Jesus would object to fundraising events in our churches, or raffles or tombola. In the Jerusalem Temple it was not a question of fundraising, but of profiteering and extracting unjust sums of money from the people who came in faith to the Temple. The sanctity of the Temple had been defiled by market values.
When a special, holy place is destroyed or badly damaged it causes great sadness. Such places are symbols that point beyond themselves, such as the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, damaged by fire almost two years ago. When churches, mosques or temples are attacked or vandalised we feel sad and angry because, although they are inanimate structures, they embody the faith of a community and are deeply meaningful. They can, of course, be rebuilt, often in a beautiful way, but it tends to take years and huge amounts of money.
We know from the things he says in the gospels that Jesus knew the Temple would not last. He may well also have known that it would be rebuilt, although none of this would be in his lifetime on earth. So the Temple authorities were confounded when Jesus said: “Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up.” The gospel writer helps us out by telling us that the sanctuary he was speaking about was his own body. We know that Jesus would be put to death and raised on the third day. But no one in the Temple on that day could have had any idea at all of what Jesus was speaking about.
If certain buildings, like the Jerusalem Temple, are special because of the faith to which they bear witness, then how much more special are the people who confess that faith? In another place in John’s gospel Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman and tells her that the time would come when the worship of God would not be confined to this or that mountain on which temples had been built. People would worship “in spirit and in truth”. In Jesus we see how the human person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. By the grace of God, this gift of the Spirit is poured out into the lives of all who believe in him.
Just as Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, he gives us the means by which the Temple, which is our own body, can be cleansed of all that is at enmity with God. The Holy Spirit dwelling in hearts made pure, brings to life the commandments of God that we hear of in the book of Exodus. No longer are these laws just written on a page, but they are inscribed on our hearts and are brought to life as we live as followers of Jesus.
Psalm 18, reminds us that the law of the Lord is not something to enslave us, but a law that gladdens the heart and revives the soul. The love of Christ chases out the darkness within us, so that we can be fashioned into that living temple which is the dwelling place of God in human life.
As we approach Passiontide we come to focus more closely on the Cross. This instrument of death and shame was revealed as the place where sin was overcome and the power of death destroyed. No matter how unworthy we might be, God wants us to share in the forgiveness of sins and in newness of life.
The thing that made Jesus passionate and angry was the way in which people of faith were being prevented from drawing close to the God who is Father of us all. In the kingdom of God, the values of the market should always be subordinate to our true relationship with God and with one another. God does not judge us by our success or our economic value. He calls each of us to be temples of the Holy Spirit. So let us pray that our hearts may be cleansed, and let us prepare to welcome that gift.