Christ Drives the Money-Changers from the Temple by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626, 43x32 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia.
When I read John 2:13-22 about the cleansing the temple, I’m shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Who is this angry Jesus, whip in hand, driving the animals from the temple and overturning the moneychangers’ tables? He is not the tame Jesus I normally have framed in the portrait gallery of my mind.
Jesus says to those selling doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (16). In the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, he adds, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (11:17). Apparently there were two main things that set Jesus off—profaning sacred space and preventing prayer—even more than the economic injustice and exploitation of the poor most commentators focus on.
Jerusalem in general and the temple mount in particular were sacred in ancient Israel. The Psalmist calls them “the city of our God” and the “mountain of holiness” (48:1). It was here that Abraham took his son Isaac to sacrifice him at Yahweh’s command, and it was here that Yahweh provided a substitute. It was here that King David brought the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon built his temple. For the Jew, it was the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth touched. This was holy ground. The buying and selling of animals and exchanging of money at the temple, however necessary for its ritual, was a form of desecration. Not to mention that the merchandising likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles, disadvantaging those foreigners who wanted to draw near to God’s house.
It’s too easy for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer, if we think of Jesus as just a social reformer, cleaning up corruption at the temple. The idea of profaning the sacred, on the other hand, should make us turn the focus inward. We need to think about the ways we confuse the secular and the sacred in our own lives. Peter Kreeft says, “Our society sometimes doesn’t seem to know the difference between sex and money. It treats sex like money and treats money like sex. It treats sex like money because it treats it as a medium of exchange, and it treats money like sex because it expects its money to get pregnant and reproduce all the time.” This is but one example of how we profane the holy. I’ll leave you to think of others.
Then there’s the bit about my house being called a house of prayer. It’s not the temple ritual that Jesus is much interested in. In fact, he came to put an end to that. But he cares deeply about helping people to connect with God, directly, through prayer. With all of the noise, smells, and haggling going on, no one could pray and that made Jesus angry.
Jesus prayed often. He prayed early in the morning, in the evening, all through the night. He prayed when others slept. He prayed at meals. He prayed before important events in his life. He prayed before he ministered and when he did miracles. And he taught his disciples how to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. If there was anything Jesus was passionate about, it was prayer.
He became angry when he saw that there was neither room nor enough peace and quiet to allow people to pray. If Jesus cared that much about prayer, maybe we should take it a little more seriously ourselves. Perhaps it’s time we did a cleansing of our own temple—a little spring cleaning in our hearts to remove all of the things that keep us from praying.