“The Lamb and the Temple”
Third Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 19, 2006
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“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.”
I would like to begin, this morning, with two rather fervent pleas.
The first is this. Please read the Bible. It is a treasure of untold value, and has the power to stir the human soul, to expand our minds and hearts, and to reveal mysteries to us that defy human comprehension. But it can do none of those things if it is simply a book that collects dust on a shelf, or if the only time that we read it is when we come to church and someone else tells us what we are supposed to think about it.
My second plea is related to the first. When you find a passage that contains some strange detail that might easily be skipped over, pay attention. This is particularly true if that small detail seems, at first glance, to be offering a contradiction with some other passage in Scripture. The German-American architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe is said to have coined a phrase that is worthy of our consideration when we read the Bible when he stated that God is in the details.
It is always unfortunate when we skim quickly over the details. The Bible continues to be studied and treasured, thousands of years after it was written, not only because of its intense and majestic power, not only because of its narrative and poetic genius, and not only because of the wisdom and truth that it contains, but also because it is when we pay attention to the details that we begin to realize that there is usually far more going on than what is apparent at first glance.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of John offers a perfect example of one such story where attention to the details opens up levels in this passage that we do not at first appreciate.
Many of us have appealed to this passage as an excuse for anger. There is nothing wrong with getting angry – we reassure ourselves – look at Jesus. He got angry in the Temple. But is this really the message that this passage is seeking to convey to us?
Well, no – not if we pay attention to the details.
So what is the first detail that is offered to us? “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.”
These words seem like little more than a statement of the time and place of the events about to be described. So far, so good—or so it seems.
But this first detail is actually quite problematic. After all, consider where this story is placed in John’s Gospel. This story of the cleansing of the Temple is told in each of the four Gospel accounts—but what is troubling is that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, this story is placed almost at the end of Jesus’ life, in the final week leading up to his death. You might remember that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story of the cleansing of the Temple occurs after Jesus’ triumphant entry on Palm Sunday, and only a few short days before his crucifixion.
But not in the Gospel of John. This story is found in the second chapter of John, almost at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. His work had only just begun, his fame was only just starting to grow; in the Gospel of John, this passage is set at the beginning, and not the end of his story.
So what do we do, as readers, with this seeming contradiction in the details about when this event occurred? Some commentators dismiss this as a mistake either on the part of John’s author, or on the part of the other Gospel accounts who simply got their chronologies mixed up. An understandable error, perhaps – and not a detail that is worthy of much attention. That is, if the details don’t matter.
Still others suggest a more implausible option—namely, that there may have been two outbursts in the Temple—one close to the beginning of his public ministry, as recorded in John; and one close to the end of his life, as recorded in the other Gospel accounts.
Both of these explanations leave much to be desired. They invite us either to believe that the Gospel writers and compilers were beset by confusion; or, we are invited to construct elaborate theories about two occasions of the same event when there is no other suggestion that Jesus had such an incident in the Temple on two separate times.
Such explanations are rooted in a profound uneasiness about the seeming contradictions, paradoxes, and tensions in Scripture—and are rooted in a belief that the Bible needs to be defended if its power and authority is to be maintained.
But the Bible does not need our defense; and the writers of the Gospels knew what they were doing. These were brilliant authors who were not as preoccupied with literal readings as we tend to be; but rather realized that the message that they were seeking to convey was far more important than a complete flattening of any possible discrepancy between their different accounts.
We do well, therefore, as readers of these texts, to pay close attention when we encounter those details that do not easily line up with others. God just might be found in the details.
So what message might these texts be seeking to convey to us, as readers?
In order to answer this question, we need to pay attention to another one of the details. Namely, we must pay careful attention to who it is that Jesus drives out of the Temple in John’s Gospel.
Our typical reading of this story is that Jesus’ primary desire was to drive out the people who were transacting business in the Temple—as is clearly suggested in the other accounts of this story. Mark’s account of this story, for example, makes it clear that it was the business people that Jesus was driving from the Temple. In Mark 11, we read, “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple.”
But listen again to what it actually says. “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 drove all of them out of the temple -- both the sheep and the cattle. On the basis of the details that this passage provides, there is no reason to believe that Jesus, in some fit of righteous anger, took a whip to any human opponent. Whips made of cords were used to guide the movement of animals, not to assault other people. To pay close attention to the details in John’s Gospel, therefore, seems to suggest that Jesus’ primary concern was to drive the animals out of the Temple.
So what is the point of our attention to this strange detail?
The point is this. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel – only a few verses before this passage -- we read, “the next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of he world!”
The concept of the Lamb of God – which is one of the first titles attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John – was explicitly connected with the sacrificial system of Jewish Temple worship. Up to that point in Jewish religious practices, other animals—such as sheep, cattle and doves—were offered, in sacrifice, in order to atone for sin and to be reconciled to God. Pilgrims and travelers would come from distant places in order to make those sacrifices. Rather than having to drag their animals with them, however, a system had been set up so that those faithful travelers could purchase the necessary animals close to the Temple and then perform their religious duties during the Passover celebrations. Those who were changing money and selling the animals were actually providing a very helpful service to those who had made the long journey to the Temple. It was a service that was enabling people to fulfill the requirements and duties of their religious beliefs.
So why would Jesus interrupt this helpful service? Why would he drive all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle?
Could it be because Jesus was, as John the Baptist had proclaimed, the Lamb of God? That is, could it be because Jesus knew that, with his coming, the ancient sacrificial system which required the destruction of living things in order to be made right with God was about to be eradicated? And could it be that when the Lamb of God arrived at the Temple that day, the time had come for the other animals to be driven out because they were no longer needed?
Which brings us back to our original question. Why is this story placed so early in John’s Gospel, in distinction from its placement in the other Gospels?
Perhaps it was because the author of the Gospel of John wanted to emphasize, right from the start of his account, that Jesus, was changing the rules. He was displacing the ancient sacrificial system because he was the Lamb of God that takes away the world’s sin, and because of his coming, the faithful no longer needed to perform violent and destructive practices in order to receive God’s forgiveness. With Jesus’ passionate declaration, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”, Jesus may not have been decrying the business transactions themselves, but rather proclaiming that the animals that he drove out no longer needed to be bought and sold in order for people to be made right with God. The faithful no longer needed to kill things in order to atone for their sins; blood sacrifices of living things were no longer required.
So what does this passage have to say to us today? After all, most of us would agree, quite readily, that we do not need to kill animals in order to be made right with God. It would have been more than a bit startling if any of you had been greeted by one of the ushers, at the door, as they handed you your bulletin, with the question of whether you wanted to purchase a sheep, a cow or a dove to sacrifice during this morning’s service.
But, though we might smile at such a suggestion, we must also be aware that we continue to live in a world in which destructive violence is still done in the name of God. It may not be sheep and cattle and doves who are being violently destroyed, but the news, each night, reminds us that there are still people in this world who think that doing violence to other living beings is required by God and can somehow speed the soul of the violent offender into paradise. And before we point the finger too quickly at suicide bombers and religious fanatics, we must all realize that there are more subtle ways that such a message continues to be embraced. Violence, and the threat of violence, continue to be justified in spiritual terms. Violence, and the threat of violence, continue to be seen as indispensable tools for the establishment of just and lasting peace. We think that violence can have a redeeming value if we link it with some desired goal. As a people of faith, we must accept that the myth of redemptive violence has to end. Violence, even when couched in religious terminology, stands in contradiction to the goal towards which we strive – the goal of a just and lasting peace for all of God’s beloved creation.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ invites us to a different perspective on the world. It invites us to rest in the knowledge that the self-giving compassion revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God, is all that is required to create the conditions for the coming of God’s kingdom. In Jesus, we are invited to realize that God does not ask us, nor is God pleased, with acts of cruel violence—whether done to other human beings or to any other living being. The requirements for God’s forgiveness fundamentally changed on that day when the Lamb of God drove the other animals out of the Temple. The Lamb of God had come.
A close attention to the details reveals, therefore, that the author of John arranged his narrative to underscore this claim that the Lamb of God had come to the Temple – and everything was about to change.
But, as we continue to read the passage, we begin to realize that there is a second powerful claim that is also being made in this text.
After Jesus drove the animals out of the Temple, after he upset the tables of the moneychangers, the authorities approached him, likely in a rather frustrated and upset mood. “What sign can you show for doing this?” they asked. What right, what authority do you have to act in this way?
His answer was cryptic, even to his disciples who, as the text later informs us, did not fully understand what he was saying until after his death and resurrection. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.
The author of John’s Gospel furnishes us, as readers, with an explanation about the meaning of his words, when the text later states that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
But, again, we need to ponder a seemingly simple detail.
What, really, does this mean? What was the meaning of Jesus’ words about his body being the Temple of God?
In order to fully appreciate what Jesus was claiming, we need to remember that he Temple, in Jerusalem, was not only a place of sacrifice; it was also the place where God chose to dwell with the people. The Temple was intended as the most important place of divine encounter and divine revelation.
In claiming that his body was the new Temple, therefore, Jesus was claiming that he was the new dwelling place of God on earth; he was the One in whom the place of divine encounter and divine revelation was to be experienced.
This has been, and this continues to be the claim of the followers of Christ throughout the ages. We are not a people who believe that there is any specific place on earth to which we must journey in order to encounter with God; we are not a people who believe that we must make long pilgrimages to designated holy places.
And this is because our Temple is not a building. It is a person. Although we may gather together in buildings made by human hands, our true encounter with God is not dependent upon the building in which we meet but rather upon the relationship that we have with the One who is the living Temple, the One who has brought us into a new communion with God. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is, simultaneously – and mysteriously -- the Temple in which the divine and the human come together.
The details in this passage from the Gospel of John, therefore, are profound and they are significant. Far from being a simple story about Jesus getting angry about corruption in the Temple courts, this is, rather a story which makes bold claims about who Christ is, about what he has done for us, and about what his coming means for our relationship with God. This is a passage that does not seek to excuse anger, or violence; rather it proclaims good news. The Lamb of God has come, and has taken away our sin. The place of encounter between God and humanity is no longer in a physical building made by human hands, but in a living relationship with a person.
And all of this is because Christ was the Lamb; Christ was the Temple; and God was in the details.