This coming Sunday, we will hear the dramatic story of Jesus' "cleansing of the temple," as it is often called, from John 2. We know the story--how he braided cords into a whip and chased out the animals, overturned the tables, poured out the coins, and criticized those who had made his "Father's house a marketplace." We know what happens, but do we know what it represents?
It is interesting to me that we have switched to John's gospel account. In one way that makes sense: this will only be the third week of Lent, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who also record this event, place it during the last week of Jesus' life. John, however, places this temple moment toward the beginning of his account, choosing not to portray only one trip by Jesus to the holy city. But John's account of this story is different in another way. All three synoptic accounts record Jesus' criticism of the temple operations through his quotation of Isaiah 56:7: "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers." In other words, those account make the cleansing of the temple an issue of access. The implicit criticism of the "robbers" is that they have made the necessary mechanics of worship--the required changing of money into the temple tax or the selling of animals for the required offerings--an unfair practice that prohibits access to those who could not afford it.
John doesn't have that approach. Instead, in John's account, as we will hear on Sunday, Jesus said, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" When asked for a sign of the authority by which he did these things, he responded, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," meaning, of course, "the temple of his body." In John, therefore, Jesus isn't specifically critical about the "robbers" and their unfair prices and exchange rates but seems critical of the practice itself. His focus, as crystallized in his comment about his body being the temple, is about shifting the locus of worship away from the structure and mechanics of the temple cult and toward the heart of the worshipper.
This is both a theme throughout John's gospel account and seems to be a priority for the Essene community with which some scholars have identified Jesus' ministry. Remember in John 1:51 how Jesus says to Nathaniel, "You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man?" Remember in John 4:21 how Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well that "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem?" I'm told that the Essenes were those Jews who had moved away from the city and the temple-centered worship and chose ascetic practices in its place. If that's the case--if the cleansing of the temple in Sunday's gospel lesson is supposed to be a criticism of the mechanics of worship and not the spirit behind it as well as an invitation to consider the relocation of our worship from the buildings to the heart--shouldn't we hear something besides the Ten Commandments as our first lesson?
When we hear the Law given to Moses in its clearest, most easily identifiable form and then hear Jesus cleansing the temple, it is easy to draw the false connection between Jesus' actions and the commandments given on Sinai. Jesus' action is not a repudiation of Judaism. Jesus' driving out the animals and overturning the tables isn't a rejection of the Mosaic tradition. It's a clarification and a prophetic purification of it. Jesus may not like temple worship, and I'm pretty certain he would feel the same way about what we do at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, but he wasn't critical of the Law--just our attempt to weaponize it.
How about emphasizing the relocation of the connection between God and earth through a reading of Jacob's dream from Genesis 28, which we otherwise only read on Proper 11A or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels? Or what about telling the moment when Joshua meets the angel of the Lord and is surprised to discover that he is standing on holy ground in Joshua 5:13-15, which doesn't show up in the lectionary? Perhaps we could read of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 36 or Solomon's plan to build the temple in 1 Kings 5, neither of which is in the lectionary?
I don't have the answer, of course, but, as we approach Lent 3B, it's imperative for us to remember what the cleansing of the temple was all about and what it was decidedly not about. How we hear Exodus 20 and John 2 paired together makes a difference in our understanding of the Old Testament, in our understanding of Jesus and his ministry, and in our understanding of contemporary Christian worship. In other words, it's worth getting right.