Exodus 20:1-17 Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ …. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem…
The Lord has come into his city. We will follow him into his city on Palm Sunday.
Jerusalem is the place in which he has promised to make himself available, so that all nations can turn to Jerusalem and pray, appealing over the heads of their tyrants to the true God of all gods, and that the Lord will hear them. The temple is the palace into which anyone can come to have an audience with the king. It is also mechanism by which God’s people are made holy.
But the temple is not working. It is wrecking Israel and ruining God’s people. It has created the poverty that has rendered the people of Israel impure. Its sacrifices have been impoverishing the people until they are no longer able to appear before the Lord. The temple has become an anti-temple, a pagan sacrifice in which people are no longer made holy but instead consumed.
In theory each member of Israel would take his own animal to the temple, in order to demonstrate his own husbandry. The state of the animal would reveal the condition of his household. In practice, no one took their own animals with them to Jerusalem; everyone simply bought a prime animal from the livestock market at the temple. This made these sacrifices, necessary to anyone who wanted to come to the temple, financially ruinous. The sacrifices were intended to promote the good condition of the people of Israel, and so demonstrate their aspiration to holiness and their progress towards it. But in the first century, the system designed to promote holiness was creating poverty impurity, poverty and exclusion from the life of the nation. The mechanism of the temple had gone into reverse.
The temple is the place where the nation convenes and all its formal relationships – justice, education, political and constitutional life, economic life, finance and tax are carried out, all in public assembly. All the functions of citizenship and public life, all the various ministries of government take place here, in colonnades, accessible to all citizens. For the British, though, all these public services take place in the financial and governmental district of our capital, but their proceedings are in office rooms that are closed to us, communicated to us by a media only by a media more loyal to our governors than to us.
In the first temple courtyard is a livestock market, a vast series of pens through which sheep and cattle are pushed. On one side are the financiers who issue the dockets, cheques, bonds and receipts that represent this flow of animals which is the national meat supply. Could it be that it is us who, innocent and gullible as sheep, are being herded by our governors? Are we the cattle that they are buying and selling? Is this all for the long-term well-being of our people, or are we being farmed and consumed here?
Jesus sees that the elite that runs the capital is consuming the people, the regime itself is destroying the temple, the nation of Israel. He drives them out. He does not give up on the temple though, but preaches and teaches there, and at the same time he establishes the neighbouring hill, the Mount of Olives, on which is the Garden of Gethsemane, as an additional courtyard of the temple in which he teaches his disciples. When arrested in Gethsemane, he points out that he was also publicly available in the courtyards of temple, teaching there daily. Perhaps our obedience to him demands that we condemn those who have seized power over our nation, and drive out those who are consuming our people.
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…
The Lord we see the Lord throwing the animal-sellers and money-changers out of the temple courtyard. He cleaned the temple so that it could perform its proper function of keeping Israel pure and holy. He realises that he is himself the true high priest who must re-establish the true worship and true temple, even if this is at some other site (Mount of Olives) within or just outside Jerusalem’s walls.
The cycle has worked in reverse to make the people unholy. The Lord puts it into forward gear, so that it makes holy the people, instead of making them poorer.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables.
These various elements of Israel’s theology and worship had been hived off and captured and turned into the programme of competing religious parties are the parts that Jesus assembled and put back into employment. Israel was not in charge of its own national affairs. But it has a certain amount of political and religious autonomy. Jesus saw that if Israel attempted to throw off the rule of Rome, Rome would retaliate by taking away this semi-autonomy. It would do so by destroying the temple and bringing to an end the worship that took place there.
Jesus taught that the true calling of Israel is to bear and put up with gentiles, and this means to put up with the political domination of gentile empires. In this way, Jews had succeeded in travelling across the empire of Rome and making a substantial difference to it. Jesus warned that this coming destruction would be the act of God. God would act against Israel. This terrible outcome could be avoided if Israel recovered its true destiny as the holy people who held themselves above the violence of all other, gentile, nations. Israel was the innocent lamb. It could only flourish by recovering its holiness. The proper functioning of the temple was essential to this recovery the national mission. The political elite that that had installed itself in the temple was preventing the nation from recovering its identity and mission.
The common and debased currency of Judaea was not pure enough to be acceptable within the temple, so coins had to be changed at extortionate rates into the coinage that was acceptable for offerings. In theory each member of Israel would take his own animal to the temple, in order to demonstrate his own husbandry. The state of the animal would reveal the condition of his household. In practice, no one took their own animals with them to Jerusalem; everyone simply bought a prime animal from the livestock market at the temple, and this made these sacrifices, necessary to anyone who wanted to come to the temple, financially ruinous. The system of sacrifices which were designed to promote the good condition of the people of Israel, and so demonstrate their aspiration to holiness and their progress towards it. But in the first century, the system designed to promote holiness has gone into reverse, and was creating poverty and keeping people out of the temple.
Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple….
Driving the traders out of the temple, is just like driving the demons and alien spirits out of Israel. Access to Christ is free, not for sale. The whole creation is God’s free gift to all; no one should reduce access or charge for access to it. The Lord cuts down all the middle men who have inveigled themselves in and make a living charging the people of Israel for what the Lord makes available of them for free. What is always needed, now as then, is a Reformation, in which all the self-appointed agents, intermediaries and their hierarchies are chopped out.
In the trial and examination of Jesus, his interrogators, the Pharisees and Scribes will repeatedly ask – How? For if anyone one of us were to try such a thing, knowing it will not happen simply because we command it to, we have to seek power by gathering together the resources of manpower and material. We have to take from one place in order to use in another. So how will Jesus do this?
This is the question. By what authority does Jesus make things happen? Will he make a clean sweep of the multitude of tax farmers and their ideological supporters, and will he inaugurate the direct rule of God, by which Israel will triumph over the gentiles and ungodly, driving them out and then take up her task, long promised to her, of subduing and ruling over the Gentiles?
The version preferred by the temple authorities is that Jesus is the front man of some very sinister demonic power. The alternative is that Jesus is identical with the true Israel of the prophets, he is God’s front man and thus he is God himself, acting for Israel to free her from all other divinities, desperate and pernicious. They wriggle like eels on a line on the only answer that is possible. Things happen around Jesus by the authority of God. He is the power of God at work before us. It is in order that we are not confronted by a brute fact, but may be free, to follow or not, and so we may act only in faith, not forced to do so by any irrefutable manifestations of power.
By what authority does Jesus act? By what authority does he refuse to act as a king and take charge, but instead, to the distress of disciples, Peter and Judas, presents himself as the candidate for punishment and then on the cross makes himself the epitome of sin and guilt? By what authority does he insist on going through this discipline and punishment, this passion which any other created being would avoid? How can this one, publicly raised as a vile object of national revulsion, be God’s representative and God’s message? Has the God of Israel set himself against Israel? Has God set himself against man?
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…
How will he bring down this regime? Here in the temple he knots a whip and drives them out. And in its place will appear the new regime of the rule of the Lord. By ‘this temple’ Jesus means that regime and that set of economic arrangements, which then in predatory fashion lived off the backs of the people of Israel. The people of Israel are preyed on by tax farmers, and left impoverished. In the Gospel of Mark this year we will see the Lord driving out many ambiguous forces, infirmities and forms of alienation. Here he drives out these parasites on the body politic.
Here in the Temple there is a public showdown. Christ is going to engage these vicious masters, defeat them and wrest us out of their power. How is he going to do this? Not by fighting them as the world understands fighting. He does not raise an army, and this is the only occasion in which he even seems to raise his fists. But so we may understand what is doing on he acts out in miniature the battle waged on the cosmic level. He makes a whip and goes in and uses it, driving the pests out, in the same way he drives out all the various pests and contaminations, unidentified and unconfessed, that hold down the people of Israel.
Christ cleans the human body politic. This cleansing purge of the temple is the rapid cleaning of the body. The crucifixion is the throwing out of the parasites, the unclean spirits. Each of us is this temple, in which God dwells, and dwells with us. Yet each of us is filled with other needy, greedy spirits. They are mediators who have interposed themselves between us, so that, as they insist and we believe, we can only deal with one another through their agency. Each of us is filled with these desperate and hostile spirits. And the Lord drives them out of us.
The life of Israel has become centralised on the temple, so all politics is a battle for control of the temple, to control the taxes and tithes brought to it, the tangible expressions of Israel’s worship. Having bought the loyalty of the political leadership, these money-changers insist that you have to pay taxes in the currency they issue, and which you are obliged to borrow from them. All economic business can only be done in the debased coinage, and this debasement has pushed Israel back into debt servitude, a new captivity. Israel’s future is hostage to their cult of centralisation and debt, the very opposite of grace. Since Israel’s leadership has not been effectively worshipping some other Moloch rather than their own God, the people of Israel are in appalling condition in which we see them in the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus doesn’t intend to throw out the puppet government or the occupation power behind it and doesn’t intend to set up a rival government. He believes that Israel must continue to submit itself to the hard school of foreign power. Having a master is not the worst thing. While the gentiles are in power Israel can be a good student and how to rule itself. Israel is not in a position to be master because Israel has not learned self-mastery. It has followed the law of the Lord which makes you free – regardless of whether or not you have a master over you, and regardless of how good or bad, or domestic or foreign that master is. Israel is in no position to rule the gentiles, for she cannot rule herself. Like Israel, we have to stick at our long and painful apprenticeship and there is no release for us before our schooling and our sanctification is complete.
The Lord says that he can and will knock this entirely financial and fiscal regime down. This tower of Babel will come down, all at once, in a day. Then there will be silence for a day. Then, on the third day, he will build, a new in which the people themselves are the true economic product, in which the whole people of Israel, and all the peoples of the world with them, are able to grow tall in the garden of God.