One foggy, stormy night at sea, a ship’s captain caught sight of what looked like the lights of another ship heading straight toward him. He ordered his signalman to relay a message to the oncoming ship: "Change your course twenty degrees to the south." Immediately came the reply, "No, you change your course twenty degrees to the north." The lights were getting closer, so the captain responded firmly, "I’m a captain. Change your course south."
But the reply was equally firm, "I’m only a seaman but you must change your course north." Outraged at such insolence as the lights loomed nearer and nearer, the captain fired back the message, "You idiot! I’m giving you one last chance to change your course south. I’m on a battleship!" To which he received the cool reply, "I’m giving you one last chance to change your course north. I’m in a lighthouse."
Jesus clears the moneychangers put of the Temple and the Jews ask him: What sign can you show us to justify what you have done? What they are really asking, of course, is: by what authority did you do this? And this is a very appropriate question. The priests have authority in the Temple but as in our little story: they may be the battleship, but Jesus is the lighthouse.
The Synoptic Gospels—that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have Jesus cleansing the Temple at the end of his public ministry and as an immediate prelude to his passion and death. But here in the Gospel of John we have this scene at the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. This is important. In the Synoptics the incident is used by the priests and scribes as just one more reason to do away with Jesus.
But in John it is taken to much deeper levels. For example, in driving the cattle and sheep out of the Temple, something not mentioned in the Synoptics, we are led to ask whether Jesus was objecting to their presence in the Temple precincts which surely was an abuse by the priests at that time or if he was objecting to the whole notion of animal sacrifice. We are led to the latter of these explanations, especially in view of the fact that Jesus himself was to be offered as a sacrifice for the expiation of the sins of the whole of humanity.
In John we have the interplay between the priests and Jesus, which again is not in the Synoptic Gospels, about destroying the Temple and in three days raising it up. Jesus, as we are told was referring to himself. We mustn’t forget that the destruction of the Temple took place in 70 AD and was fresh in the minds of the Christians communities to whom this Gospel was addressed. The Temple we are told in the text took forty-six years to construct and yet it was to last a remarkably short time. Its destruction by the Romans was so complete that we don’t actually know much about it.
Or we didn’t until a hobbyist in Essex began to build a model of it—there was a long and fascinating article about him in the papers some years ago. Apparently, the scholars have studied the Temple from all sorts of angles; as historians, as liturgists, as theologians, as anthropologists, but never from the construction point of view. It became an obsession with this man to make a model of the Temple and it took him many years; three years alone for the basic research. But now he knows more about the Temple than anyone living and scholars are now coming from all over the world to learn from him.
Anyway, I suppose that we are led to conclude that the whole passage is about Jesus himself. This is often the case with John; we are led from what Jesus did to what it tells us about him.
It is a case of not so much that he was angry with the traders and so wanted to cleanse the Temple, but that it was now time for the whole notion of the Temple to be swept away. That he was to be the Temple. He was to be both the victim and the sacrifice. That his followers were to live a new life—through him, with him and in him.
The Christian community is to be centred on Jesus. The Church is to be no more a mere building but a community of believers. The privileged meeting place between God and his people is no longer to be the Temple but the person of Jesus himself. He is the Temple.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that we do away with all Church buildings, far from it. We continue to need them but the important thing is that they don’t become ends in themselves but rather places where we encounter Jesus. And we do this first and foremost in the Eucharist. The altar is the principal focus; the lectern for the proclamation of the Word has due prominence; and the tabernacle for the reservation of the Eucharist is in a place of honour.
The Church building is sanctified by the prayers of the believers. It is a place set apart for worship and devotion. And it deserves special respect. But this is not the Temple of old where thousands of animals were sacrificed to placate a jealous God. This is a privileged place of encounter between the living and loving God and his holy people.
But the Temple is also within us. Our hearts are also a Temple, our very personal privileged meeting place with God. And it is our hearts that need periodic cleansing of all that distracts us from Jesus.
And that’s what Lent is about, clearing away the dross, driving out the material attractions, making room for Jesus. Our hearts need to become a tabernacle in which we reserve the living Lord.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket