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The Real Temple

The Second Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, but the temptation to think that God has a house, that anything other than Jesus is where we could seek God’s presence, remains as strong as ever.

A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church for the Third Week of Lent in Year B  on John 2:13-22

It’s hard for us to have a real sense of the role of the Temple for Jews in Jesus’ time, so as a result, this too-familiar story where Jesus drives out the sacrificial animals and turns over the tables of the money changers, kind of passes us by in a haze. We fail to grasp what a shocking event this was. And, more importantly, we fail to grasp what the story reveals about who Jesus is.

But behind the ancient story there are two profoundly important question. Who is this Jesus person? And what does he want from us?

Before we get into the background, I just want to draw your attention to a couple of things about the text.

Firstly, when John refers to “the Jews” it’s worth remembering that, in this context, John is referring to the leaders of the Jews – the ones, in this context, in charge of the temple. Obviously, Jesus was Jewish, as were his disciples and the first generation of Christians.

Secondly, what exactly Jesus did with the whip of cords. Most art inspired by this incident shows Jesus laying about himself with gusto – people fleeing, tables tumbling, the whole nine yards. However, if we actually read the text, we will see that Jesus only “drove out” the sheep and cattle. The whip was how to control large, unruly livestock. He did turn over the tables of the money changes, but he didn’t actually assault anyone, as far as text goes. Even without that, he mad himself profoundly unpopular, for reasons which we’re going to get into now.

The Temple is technically known as the Second Temple, because the First Temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians something like six hundred years before the opening of today’s story.  

This new temple was an astounding structure. It was truly enormous. To build the new temple precinct, they had levelled a neighbouring mountain and used the spoil to fill in the valley and built up the walls with titanic blocks of stone. The total area of the Temple Mount was apparently something like 133,000 square metres[1]. To put that into context, that’s about six times as big as the MCG.[2]

Like the MCG[3], the temple was a place of pilgrimage – which is part of the reason it needed to be big. Hundreds of thousands of people would flock there every year for Passover, and all throughout the year sacrifices were being offered for a million different reasons because the sacrificial system was central to the Jewish worship of the time. You might recall, for instance, Jesus’ earthly parents presenting him in the temple soon after his birth.

To get some sense of how important the Temple and all its activities was to the culture, imagine the MCG and the Shrine of Remembrance, and ANZAC day and the Boxing Day Test and the AFL Grand Final all rolled up into one.

The Court of the Gentiles, where our story takes place, also functioned as a marketplace. If you need to sacrifice, say, a sheep, then, even if you happened to be a shepherd, it would have been hard to herd it all the way to the Temple from your home a hundred or so kilometres away. And, of course, not everyone would have had a handy animal ready to offer to the Lord. So you needed to buy one.

The moneychangers were there to exchange imperial currency for Tyrian currency, perhaps because Tyrian coins had a higher silver content than imperial coins. Perhaps that’s how the money changers were ripping people off – quibbling about the quality of the coins, engaging in shady maths in rounding values up, charging extortionate fees… Anyone who has had to change money at a border will be very, very familiar with the situation.

The Temple was divided into courts of varying levels of sanctity, where different categories of people were allowed to go.

At the outermost level, where anyone at all could go stood the court of the Gentiles, and right at the centre was the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go. Even he was allowed in only once a year so that he could offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people. It seems to have been a risky business: he had to have a rope tied to his ankle, so that he could be dragged to safety if he were overwhelmed by the experience, which sounds to me like the voice of hard-won experience.

So far so interesting, but I appreciate that we aren’t really here for a lecture about two-thousand-year-old religious architecture and practice.

Here’s a more striking question: what precisely is Jesus so angry about?

The, slightly disappointing, answer is that we don’t really know. Not exactly. Was it because the Court of the Gentiles – the only place that people outside the faith could come, had been turned into a bazaar? Was it because the place which should have been dedicated to God had become a place primarily dedicated to turning a profit? Or something else, something we don’t quite understand?

This whole episode reminds me of the story of the Widow’s Mite. As you may recall, Jesus watches a widow put two small coins into the offering – all she had to live on – and said that she had put it more than the rich had done. This is often told as a story in praise of the woman. She gave everything  – thus we should do the same. But perhaps the story is really criticizing out the exploitative system of the temple which takes everything from the poor, who it should be helping?

As I said: we don’t know exactly. But we do know two things.

Firstly: Jesus was furious about what was going on there, and he clearly saw it as a corruption of the true meaning and purpose of the temple.

Secondly: it was a highly controversial, dangerous act. The leaders of the Jews demand some sort of proof of his authority to do this disruptive thing, and his response was, if anything, even more shocking: if you destroy this temple, in three days I will raise it up.

This must have not only been shocking, but incomprehensible. We know from the accounts in the other gospels that it was saying this sort of thing that got him killed.

But why was it so shocking? Why wasn’t it met with a shrug of the shoulders? It’s such a strange thing to say. Surely the reasonable response would be: This guy is obviously off his head. Send him packing!

Imagine if someone disrupted the ANZAC day parade, and, when challenged, said something like “I am the true spirit of ANZAC, not all these parades and games of two-up!” We would think he was at the very least a little eccentric. We wouldn’t take him seriously.

To understand why the hearers were so angry we have to consider (again) what the Temple meant. The Temple was literally God’s house. Of course, God is so amazing that, when the great prophet Isaiah saw him, even the hem of his robe filled the temple[4]. But it was the temple that his hem filled, not some random bit of real estate in a nearby town. If you wanted to worship God, you had to go where God was: you had to go to the Temple. There were local synagogues dotted around the countryside, where the faithful gathered and studied and discussed the Scriptures and how best to observe the Law. But the central thing, the thing around which everything else orbited, was the Temple and what happened there.

What Jesus is doing here is putting himself in the place of the Temple. He is saying: the presence of God is not in this temple, but in me.

The New Age movement has softened how this sounds. We’re quite used to people saying that, to find God, one need only look within. It’s a bit of an Instagram trope to refer to people as “goddesses”, who apparently find the divine within by doing yoga and detox diets.

That idea is completely absent in Jewish thought. God is God, and we are not, and between the two is a vast gulf. The presence of God is so frightening that, to take only one example, Moses, the friend of God, had to hide his face. That’s why the High Priest had to take such extreme precautions before entering the Holy of Holies – not because of health and safety regulations around incense, but because the presence of the Lord – the totally other – was so profound, so much realer than anything else, that it was like having a mountain falling on you.

What Jesus is claiming is that he fulfills the promise of the Temple. The presence of Jesus is the presence of God.

This raises uncomfortable questions for us. The Second Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, but it still very hard for us to escape the pull of the sense that God has a literal house.

Of course, we don’t think of it like that. We can say the right things: we all know in theory that God isn’t constrained to particular times and places; that the whole world, the whole universe, is the sphere of God’s action. But it is so hard for us not to feel that God is primarily to be found where we have always found God.

I like to joke that there is a lingering superstition in church circles that God is to be found in the organ. Like God, the organ is much loved, ancient, and impressive. And if you suggest removing it, you can feel the temperature in the room drop by several degrees[5].

But the problem isn’t the organ as such. It’s the whole question of where we find the sacred – where we have always found the sacred.

In the end, the real question is no what Jesus’ problem with the Temple was.

Rather, the real question, Jesus’ question to us is this. Will we allow Jesus to be the real, the true Temple? The true place where we can encounter God? And: what does it mean for us, in our particular situation in Preston High Street, that Jesus alone is the place where God’s presence can be found?

At its most confronting the question is this: What does this Jesus want from us? How are we going to collaborate in the mission of the God who sends us, the one who loves us and knows us by name?


[1] When I preached this, I asked how many MCGs would fit into 133,000 square metres, and someons suggested “a hundred”, which pays a compliment to the ambition and scale fo the temple, but perhaps overestimates the capacity of C1st engineering capacity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Temple#Platform,_substructures,_retaining_walls

[2] https://mcgthehistory.weebly.com/size-and-capacity.html

[3] The MCG, for non-Australian readers, is the Melbourne Football Ground, and one of two sacred sites in Melbourne (the other one being the Shrine of Remembrance) People have been banned from having their ashes scattered there, because it happened too often. It’s a hard culture to understand for outsiders.

[4] Isaiah 6

[5] If your church doesn’t have an organ, perhaps you might consider what takes its place. Where is the worship band, for instance, placed? How authoritative is your minister?

Image: Greco, 1541?-1614. Christ Expelling the Money Changers in the Temple, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48047 [retrieved March 3, 2021]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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