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Jesus in the Temple

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Mar 11

Texts: Psalm 19 and John 2:13-22


The gospel of John set the scene so vividly that cinematographers like Franco Zeffirelli, and Martin Scorsese just needed a few props to complete the picture. It is the week of Passover at the Jerusalem Temple and thousands of pilgrims from all over the Empire are pouring into the Holy City to make sacrifices.

 Solomon’s Temple, itself—just the building—was only moderate in size. It would fit inside the infield of any baseball stadium, according to scholar Shaye Cohen. But the plaza around the Temple was immense, occupying the space of about ten football fields. (1) And it is in this plaza that John describes the scene of moneylenders and merchants. There were cages of doves, being sold for sacrifice, cattle bellowing, and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

 Pilgrims from distant places came with their local currencies and had to change money in order to buy animals to make their sacrifices. This is a typical scene at the Temple Mount during the festival of Passover. Nothing out of the ordinary. So—we wonder—why did Jesus react so strongly? What was it that displeased him? John’s gospel is the only one that mentions his wielding a whip, but all four gospels tell of Jesus upsetting the tables of the money lenders, in this event that is sometimes called “the cleansing of the Temple.”

 For Matthew, Mark and Luke, it seems that usury is the problem—not just the exchange of money, per se, but price-gouging. In the three synoptic gospels, Jesus is reported to say, “the temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” These are the precise words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, during the reign of King Josiah, in 627 BCE. His words and actions place Jesus squarely within the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.

 But something more seems to be going on in John’s gospel. And that “more” is complicated! For John, Jesus rejects the very activity of buying and selling. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Did you notice that Jesus refers to Solomon’s Temple as “my father’s house”?

 John claims that Jesus has a special relationship with God that gives him particular authority. The Jerusalem Temple is no longer simply a high holy place—but also, something personal, over which Jesus commands authority. John’s claim is audacious and it steers us directly into fraught territory.

  John raises questions over the authority of the Jerusalem Temple and challenges it as the one location for true worship. A couple of chapters later, when he encounters the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus will say, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23)

 For John, the locus of authority is not in the Jerusalem priesthood, nor in worship and sacrifice at the temple, but in Jesus, himself. God is not localized in a special place—the Jerusalem temple, or anyplace else—but is everywhere present, always near.

 I want to reflect with you for a few moments on two very different themes related to authority, beginning with Jerusalem itself, and concluding with a focus on Jesus’ authority in our lives.

 First, to Jerusalem. As you may know, Benjamin Netanyahu was in New York and Washington D.C. last week. Unpopular at home, and facing growing discontent, Bibi was trying to shore up an alliance with his newfound friend, Donald Trump. You will remember that in December, Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Whatever we may think of that, it is certain that Trump’s announcement scuttled decades of diplomacy and upset the delicate, tenuous balance of Palestinian claims and negotiations with the state of Israel.

Jerusalem is one of most contested places on the planet. And the Old City, occupying just one square acre, is the focal point for enormous conflict. We began with John’s scripture which describes activities on the Temple Mount in Jesus’ time. If things were complicated then—under Roman occupation, with multiple sects of Judaism, and a nascent Christian movement—they are vastly more complicated now. With the advent of Islam in 500-600 CE, there are now three major world religions that claim Jerusalem as a Holy City.

 Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening there, now. Just one small example. I will draw, not from the volatile world of politics, but from the world of archaeology. Last month the scholarly journal, Biblical Archeology Review reported the discovery of a clay seal (or bulla) from the 8th century BCE, just outside the walls of the Old City. (2) About one centimeter in diameter, such clay seals were used to signify ownership.

 This one bears the name Isaiah, and appears to date from between 729 and 687 BCE, precisely the era that the prophet Isaiah served in the royal court under the reign of King Hezekiah. Of course, the seal is a fragment. So, while it’s clear that it bears the name Isaiah, the other Hebrew letters must be reconstructed. Scholars believe that the damaged area of the seal may have contained the Hebrew characters, vav, h[e], and aleph. If this is correct, the complete seal impression would read, "Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet." (3)

 This would be the first and only evidence of the prophet Isaiah apart from Isaiah’s texts themselves. Adding credence to the claim that seal belonged to the Prophet Isaiah is this: a clay bulla featuring the seal of King Hezekiah, was found in the same excavation area, just 10 feet from where the 'Isaiah' seal was discovered. (4)

 This is incredibly heady stuff in the world of Biblical archeology! But here’s how it connects to our opening theme of authority over the temple. The bulla was discovered in a fortified area just outside the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Temple Mount. This area is known to Arabic speakers as Ḥaram al-Šarīf. And as it happens, this particular archeological dig is very close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

 Excavations in this area are always politically charged. But this discovery set off a new wave of controversy. Because it seems to attest to a Jewish presence in this location going back to the 7th century BCE, Israeli officials seized on it to assert Jewish sovereignty over the area. And in defense, Palestinian authorities responded by attempting to discredit the discovery itself. So, the discovery of a simple clay bulla, a centimeter in diameter, becomes the grounds for political conflict.

 All of this may interest us in a Bible-nerd sort of way. It may prompt us to look into Biblical archeology, the history of the Temple Mount, to learn about the history of Middle East conflict, to follow current news in Haaretz. It may inform our reading of Netanyahu’s visit with Trump, or even how we think about policy.  

 But let’s return to our original question about Jesus’ sovereignty over the Jerusalem Temple and, more importantly, the claim about Jesus’ authority in our lives.

 John’s gospel reads everything in light of the resurrection. For John, Jesus does more than speak God’s word. Jesus is God’s Word.

 Jesus commands authority because of what he has done for us. And his body is the temple through which God’s redemption takes place. Now, you don’t have to go all that theological distance with John to be duly impressed by what John is saying.

 Here is Jesus, upsetting the status quo in the temple—literally turning over tables and cracking a whip—in an act of prophetic witness. Jesus disrupts business-as-usual because he wants to show that the ordinary affairs of the temple cult have become corrupt. The sacrifices, the role of the priesthood, the exchange of currency at usurious rates. Jesus claims that none of these is the way to God. Or, more correctly, he shows that ritualized temple practices are not the only way to God.

 For John, Jesus’ authority is not tied to geographical sovereignty, but instead, to a living relationship with God. Now. It is time to insert a word of extreme caution because John has been read for centuries in ways that are anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.

 It is never that case that the law is replaced by the gospel, that Christianity supersedes Judaism, that ritual has no place in religious life—Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. Rather, if we read behind John’s words, we see a very Jewish Jesus, who stands firmly within the prophetic tradition of temple critique.

 From the gospels, we know a Jesus who had an intimate relationship with the God he called Father, Abba. We know that Jesus spent his time teaching, healing and eating with his friends—all things he learned from his Jewish upbringing.

When we read the story of Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” we must ask, might there also be a modern-day story about Jesus cleansing the church? What would he see in our practices? Would he see the life he so inspired? The relationship with God for which he gave his life?


1) https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/temple.html

2) https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/prophet-isaiah-signature-jerusalem/

3) https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/prophet-isaiah-jerusalem-seal-archaeology-bible/#/04-isaiah-seal-jerusalem.jpg

4) https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/prophet-isaiah-jerusalem-seal-archaeology-bible/#/02-isaiah-seal-jerusalem.jpg



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