This one is difficult because we often read it in such a superficial meaning, we miss what’s REALLY going on. Don’t get me wrong, that superficial meaning is there, but why stop there when it is SO MUCH COOLER STUFF TO SEE!?
Clearing up the picture
The temple was big – very big
Let’s make sure we have this picture right. Jesus didn’t march through the whole temple driving out the moneychangers and those selling animals for sacrifice. He did so in one courtyard. Herod’s temple complex was roughly the size of four football fields – 2 long and 2 wide. Now, if something is going on 2 football fields away from you – with some walls and a bunch of people in the middle, how much is it going to disturb you?
Let’s look at it on our campus here. If you’re in here in adoration one day during school, and some kids make a ruckus in a bathroom, will you even notice?
No? Obviously not. So Jesus didn’t clear out (or “cleanse”) the whole temple. He did something that only some people in one area would even notice. Why? We will get to that.
The animals in the marketplace weren’t the problem
Also, let’s throw aside one thing that is incorrect in most superficial readings: the sale of the animals for sacrifice was not just profiteering. This wasn’t like the guys selling a 10c soft drink at a ballpark for $8. They really were performing a necessary service. Remember, if an animal had a blemish or injury of any kind, it could not be sacrificed. So, let’s say you live up in Nazareth or Galilee – you have to walk this ox or lamb 100+ miles to get to Jerusalem for the sacrifice – you don’t just load them in the back of a truck. You’re cruising along and a few miles short of Jerusalem, a bear comes to mess with you – or even just a particularly nasty pothole. Your ox steps in it and injures itself. Congratulations. You have a well-exercised T-bone because he’s no longer eligible for sacrifice. And you have no animal for sacrifice until you plod up 100 miles back home, inspect and pick out another ox, then walk back down – and hope that bear or pothole isn’t waiting in ambush for your second trip.
Because of that risk, the custom arose that those coming to sacrifice would simply buy animals for sacrifice in the courtyards of the temple, and those animals were already USDA inspected and approved for sacrifice. Better plan, no?
The money changers were also necessary. The coins used in the day would have been stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” It was considered scandalous, blasphemous, and idolatrous to put money naming some false god into the temple treasury, so those coins – the ones in common usage – had to be exchanged for the temple currency.
A Prophetic Action
So if that’s the case, what is the story trying to say? Why did Jesus do this? Did he want people to no longer be able to perform sacrifices?
Look at the way the language of this event unfolds. It follows the form of a prophetic action. This was an action that MEANT something far more than it DID something.
First, a prophet (in this case, Jesus) does a striking or seemingly outlandish act. Look back in Ezekiel for the some of the best of these – he has some really odd ones.
Jesus forms a whips out of cords and drives out those selling things and exchanging money. Even though it would only be seen and noticed by a few, it was a pretty shocking act. It threw at least that part of the temple into disarray. Jesus’ disciples recalled a psalm – and this has its own importance, but I’ll let you read up on that on your own time.
Second, the prophet is questioned about the act’s meaning or authority.
The temple authorities ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Third, the prophet (Jesus) explains the meaning – sometimes clearly, sometimes cryptically, sometimes in terms that would only become clear when the events to which the prophecy points come about – this last one is the case here.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
John offers an editorial comment here to explain what he meant. He was talking about the temple of his own body. That temple would be destroyed and raised up.
Then – and only then – the final meaning of his action would come to pass. Jesus was not saying that it was bad to get appropriate animals or coins for sacrifice and offering was a bad thing. Rather, he was pointing to the end of an era that would soon come about.
The end of temple sacrifice
The moment Jesus hung on the cross and breathed his last, the time of sacrifice in the temple came to an end. The veil was torn and the temple sacrificial lambs that pointed to Jesus day after day and year after year for all those centuries were surpassed by one perfect, living, and lasting sacrifice.
There were those who refused to believe – the temple authorities who were afraid of losing power even though the gift they would receive was infinitely better. There were those who immediately believed – his disciples. There were those who quickly believed – the next chapter is a conversation with one of the pharisees who saw this event and comes at night to learn from Jesus. There are those who understood only after his death – many of the Jewish people who heard the Gospel proclaimed at Pentecost and after. And there have been those who have come to believe over the centuries.
We did not cease to have sacrifice and offering to God. We rather ceased to need the sacrifices to happen in the temple in Jerusalem. We began to offer one eternal sacrifice in Christ and a constant sacrifice of our own lives.
That is the message Jesus proclaimed in the temple that day. That is the sacrifice we are called to offer today. So, take the words very seriously in a few minutes when I invite you to pray that my sacrifice (the Eucharistic sacrifice on the altar) and yours (your very lives) will be acceptable to God. We pray together that he will accept our sacrifices for his own glory and our good.
I preached this homily at Saint Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on March 4, 2018, the 3rd Sunday of Lent.