Reflection 36 – Sanctuary?
Lectionary Passage – John 2 vv 13 – 22
All four Gospels record for us the dramatic incident that is referred to as the Cleansing of the Temple by Jesus. The accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, for such a significant event, are surprisingly brief – just two or three verses. They follow one another quite closely; in Mark we read a slightly longer statement from Jesus – to ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer’ we find the addition ‘for the people of all nations.’ But it is still only three verses.
As we would expect, John’s version of the incident is considerably longer, goes into more detail and also tells us about the challenge from the religious authorities coupled with what seems a somewhat enigmatic statement from Jesus.
However, there is a much bigger difference between John and the other three Gospel authors. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story at the very end of Jesus’s life – within the context of that final week in Jerusalem, John places it at the very beginning f His ministry. There can hardly have been two cleansings. It would have been unthinkable, having seen it happen once, that those in charge of the Temple would have even begun to tolerate a second cleansing. It is such a climatic act that it fits naturally into all that happens in terms of conflict with the leaders in Jerusalem. So how do we reconcile this apparent fundamental difference in the timing?
Some points of clarification and explanation. The first three Gospels – known as the Synoptic Gospels, share not only a great deal of material and style but also the broad outline of the ministry of Jesus. They tell us of the beginnings of His ministry in Galilee and of His movement towards and in Jerusalem at the end of His life. There is a narrative style and many, many incidents and healings as well as conversations are included. In contrast, John records comparatively few incidents but often goes into much greater detail and depth about both the conversations between Jesus and those He encounters and also the statements by Jesus about Himself. Many of John’s ‘events’ take place in Jerusalem – especially within the context of one or other of the great Jewish Festivals.
Importantly, John is not so much concerned with the chronology of the ministry of Jesus as he is with the theology – showing us who Jesus IS. From the outset, Johns shows us a Jesus who is empowered with the authority of God Himself. Here that authority is shown in the all-important Temple itself.
The Temple in Jerusalem was arranged in a series of ‘courts’ surrounding the central Holy of Holies. The outermost court was The Court of the Gentiles into which anyone and everyone was permitted. Worship involved both sacrifice and offering. The rules insisted that any animal to be offered in sacrifice had to be perfect and had to be inspected and approved as such. Offerings could only be made in acceptable coinage. Worshippers, pilgrims to Jerusalem, needed to change their everyday money into Temple money; they needed to purchase acceptable animals or birds to offer. There was a trade in these items and that trade took place in the Court of the Gentiles. It was closely licenced and governed by the Temple staff and it was legitimate. Except that it was open to corruption and overcharging. And it was a cacophony. Imagine the noise – thronging crowds at the end of their pilgrimage journey, animals bleating, birds cooing, traders arguing about the prices with their customers!
It is a graphic scene, made more so as we picture Jesus, a hurt and angry expression, quite violent action overturning tables, a strong commanding voice ordering ‘Out! Stop!’ and with a whip driving out animals and market traders.
Like more than one of the conversations that John records, the one that follows in the Temple with the authorities is on two levels. Like one of the prophets of old, Jesus could read the signs of the times. Recognising the threat posed by the collision between the imposition of Roman order backed up by the empire’s military might and the Jewish longing for freedom and independence supported, in part, by such resistance movements as the cloak and dagger Zealots, Jesus had already predicted the destruction of the Temple. Now, with a real threat to his person, Jesus talks not only of destruction but of Resurrection. The Gospels were written long after the event. In recollection and in the light of the Resurrection, the penny dropped for the disciples and they realised that Jesus was talking about Himself. At the time this must have been obscured and seemed unintelligible.
Where do we go with his story, what is here for us?
One of the books that I remember from way, way back in my early childhood is ‘If Jesus came to my house’. It is a very simple story of a child welcoming and sharing with Jesus. What if Jesus came to our Church?
I am sometimes very aware of just the busyness of Church on a Sunday morning. We meet friends, we see people that perhaps are outside our normal circle, we greet one another, ask questions about their wellbeing and welfare, and about their children and grandchildren. The normal process of a family of connected people coming together. But, and I am as guilty as anyone of this, because we are pushed for time and want to make the most of the opportunity, our meeting and greeting easily passes into the business of all of the aspects of Church life that are outside the sphere of Worship. I am quite sure that our Heavenly Father delights in His people interacting with each other. But, and it’s a big but, are we so preoccupied with all these peripheral concerns that an atmosphere of Worship goes out of the window?
I love the word Sanctuary with all its connotations. Undeniably we live hectic, pressured lives. We try to cram as much as possible in – and that includes Sunday mornings at Church. In doing so do we crowd out an opportunity for others and for ourselves to be quiet in the House of God. Do people joining us in our Worship time find a real sanctuary from all the pressures of daily living, find refreshment for their mind and renewal for their soul? With all the emphasis today on our mental health, is the Church which we attend really a House of Prayer for us and for those who worship alongside us?
To quote (or probably misquote) T.S. Eliot – for us and our Church, is Jesus with His authority ‘The still centre of the turning world’ or would he need a whip of cords?
Bryan Coates March 2021