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Sunday 3 March 2024 Lent 3

Cleansing the Temple then and now

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2.13-25

By Vladimir Nikiforov

Roman Catholic Priest in St. Paul’s Parish, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

Context: a Sunday Mass with a mixed urban congregation of 250-300

Aim: to provoke hearers to move from reading the instructions to living them

You are on the plane and find a packet of nuts with the instruction: ‘Open packet, eat nuts.’ Do you need such an instruction? Well, at least you will not be trying to eat the nuts without first opening the packet. Sometimes those instructions are not very helpful and leave you puzzled. For example, the instructions with a hair dryer tell you, ‘Do not use while sleeping.’ Of course, that may be useful for sleepwalkers. Or maybe someone once fell asleep why drying their hair and some dreadful accident happened.


In our First Reading today, God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments. We can call them God’s basic instructions. Here is a manual for a good life. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radically reinforces the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Torah requires a court trial for a murderer, but Jesus says anyone who is angry with a brother or sister should be subjected to a judgement. However, in today’s Gospel we see Jesus himself angry. He uses a whip to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple.


What did the moneychangers do at the Temple? (Any vegetarians or vegans here please stop listening now or you may find it disturbing.) In Jesus’ time people expressed their commitment to God by making offerings in the Temple. They offered what they produced on the land that God gave them for sustenance. Meat was considered the most valuable food, and it made a precious gift to God. That is why in Jesus’ time the Temple looked like an industrial slaughterhouse with hundreds of sheep and other animals being killed and butchered every day. That is also why sacrificial animals were on sale in the Temple precincts.


According to the religious law, no coins with the images of pagan gods or of the Roman Emperors could be accepted within the Temple. So, moneychangers exchanged these coins for acceptable coins. Like any trade, this kind of commerce was not free from abuse. For example, those who brought a sheep from their fold for the sacrifice could be told that it was not good, forcing them to buy a ‘proper one’ in the Temple. Still, it was a perfectly legitimate business.


So why did Jesus disturb the trade in the Temple? It was clearly a prophetic gesture. The great prophets of the past used to shock the public with their behaviour so that people would begin listening to their message. So does Jesus. To him the Temple worship is supposed to express the love of God and the love of neighbour. A heart empty of love cannot worship God. If people enter the House of God and begin their worship by haggling over a lamb it turns their worship into a travesty. As Jesus says, ‘Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’


The Temple of Jerusalem has been in ruins for nearly two millennia. At first sight, the dramatic scene from Jesus’ life has no connection to the reality we live in. Or has it? In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 a group of concerned activists assembled around the main Christian shrine of Britain, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. They protested against the unrestricted power of the global corporations which only pursued their own gain, ignoring the interests of the nation. The protests were supported by the working group on Alternative Banking. Among their number were bankers, a professor of financial law, the heads of various credit unions and other professionals. They hoped Saint Paul’s Cathedral would provide a platform for expressing the alternative views so that a national discussion could begin.


Those who had no voice hoped to be heard in one of the main Christian sanctuaries of this country. But the ongoing street gathering disturbed the flow of tourists to the cathedral. It was losing money. Instead of welcoming the activists and giving every ounce of support to their campaign, St Paul’s cleansed the steps, closed the doors and asked for its current way of life not to be disturbed. Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple. This time the moneychangers drove Jesus away. Only a few prominent Christians expressed their anger and shame about it.


Jesus’ life and actions, as they are set out in the Gospels, are our best help for seeing how to live our lives as the children of the same Father in heaven. Our best instruction manual is Jesus himself. Let us try to imitate him. Let us try to follow the voice of his Spirit that is given to us.

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