Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (9 November 2014)

Gospel for Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (9 November 2014)

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. 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 told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22)

Introductory notes

1. Each of the four Gospels has an account of the cleansing of the temple – see Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48.

   a. The three synoptics situate the event in the final days of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem suggesting a direct connection with his passion and death. In the synoptics, Jesus goes to Jerusalem only once.

   b. In John, most of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Jerusalem and Judea. John situates the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of his Gospel.

      i. Scholars are uncertain as to “the precise time or the precise details of this event in the life of the historical Jesus”. More likely it took place towards the end of his career, and was one of the reasons for the decision he should be eliminated (cf Brown, Gospel, 1:116-120). For the Fourth Gospel it is placed at the beginning of the story as an excellent literary introduction to the theme of conflict between Jesus and ‘the Jews’, and it forms part of a series of responses from within the world of Israel.” (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 80.)

2. The “Jewishness” of this story is notable – Jesus moves from a Jewish wedding celebration at Cana to the Jewish feast of Passover in Jerusalem. The contrast between those “Jews” who do believe (epitomised in Mary and subsequently the disciples) and those who refuse to believe (epitomised in the religious authorities) is stark:

   a. “For the first time in the narrative, ‘the Jews’ become active protagonists. Following the model of unquestioning trust in the word of Jesus provided by the mother of Jesus, a Jewish woman at a Jewish celebration in a Jewish town, the response of ‘the Jews’ to Jesus takes place in the city of Jerusalem, at a Jewish feast. …. While 2:1-12 is described as a ‘sign’ by the narrator (v.11), 2:13-25 is highlighted by a request for a ‘sign’ (v.18) and concludes with many in Jerusalem going to Jesus because of ‘the signs’ that he did (v.23).” (Francis Moloney, op cit, 76.)

3. It is puzzling why John refers to “the Passover of the Jews”. One scholar writes: “That he calls it the Jewish Passover (lit. ‘the Passover of the Jews’) is taken by some to indicate that his readers are primarily Gentiles for whom the very elements of Judaism must be explained, and by others to indicate that, as a Christian toward the end of the first century, he is writing from a dismissive and censorious point of view, setting ‘the Jews’ over against Jesus and his church. Neither view is satisfactory. It is hard to believe that John’s readers are Gentiles so ignorant of Judaism that they do not know the Passover is Jewish, when at several scores of points
John’s argument depends on his readers’ grasp of subtle and detailed points of Old Testament history and Scripture. It is equally unjustified to detect in this reference to ‘the Jews’ a sweeping indictment of all things Jewish from the perspective of the late first century, when elsewhere John argues that salvation is from the Jews (4:22; cf. notes on 1:19) and uses various devices to portray Jesus as the one who fulfills the promise of Passover. It seems more likely in this instance that because the Passover was celebrated in the temple in Judea, and the residents of Judea were called ‘Jews’ by both Galileans and diaspora Hebrews, the Passover is called the Passover of the Jews. This geographical approach to the expression fits the context, since the verse’s purpose is to explain why Jesus went up to Jerusalem in Judea. (People went up to Jerusalem, both because Jerusalem stood at a higher elevation than Galilee, and also because historically Jerusalem was the capital city—just as people go up to London from all over Britain.) (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 176.).

4. John mentions the feast of the Passover a number of times in relation to events and teachings of Jesus. Apart from the two references here, he mentions two others – 6:4 (when Jesus feeds the five thousand) and 11:55 (when Jesus is arrested, tried and executed).

   a. In 1:29-34 John the Baptist has announced Jesus as “the lamb of God” reminding the reader of the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover – see Exodus 12:1-28. See also Numbers 9:1–14; Deuteronomy 16:1–8; Ezekiel 45:21–25.

   b. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are set clearly within the context of the Exodus.

   c. This also prepares the listener for the revelation that the last Passover mentioned in John’s narrative will in fact be Jesus’ own Passover – see 13:1. In this he is to become the new Temple – “he was speaking of the temple of his body ….”

   d. We recall John 1:32, where John the Baptist sees “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode (ἔμεινεν) upon him”. Also 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

5. Where the text refers to buyers and sellers operating “in the temple”, scholars assume it is a reference to “the temple area” – ie the outer court of the Gentiles.

   a. Scholars vary in their opinions as to the appropriateness of the trading that was be conducted:

      i. “Gentiles were already considered to be unclean people. Polluting their court by the dubious trade that went on there added to contempt for them. Worse still, the animals sold and bought in this illegal trade were offered in sacrifice to God, something that benefited the leaders. The situation recalls that of contemporary drug trafficking where the drug barons stay at home and get the little people to do the dirty work for them.” (Teresa Okure, “John” in The International Bible Commentary, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 1465.)

      ii. On the other hand: “Jesus discovers merchants in the Temple area (v.14) who were selling the oxen, sheep and pigeons necessary for the Temple cult. They were also changing Roman money into Tyrian money, so that people might pay the Temple tax with coins not bearing effigies …. These activities, …. while not praiseworthy were not intrinsically wrong ….” (Francis Moloney, op cit, 76.)

   b. The key seems to be the loss of a sense of the place with its sacredness and history and ultimate purpose. The final words of the messianic prophet Zechariah are recalled: ” …. there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” (14:21) “On that day” God’s house will be a house of prayer for everyone, including even the “unclean” Gentiles.

   c. The synoptics do not cite the prophet Zechariah but Isaiah: ” …. my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7) (See Mark 11:17; Matthew 21:13; Luke 19:46)

6. At the centre of this event is the importance of the Temple in Jewish tradition:

   a. David wanted to build a temple but was prevented by the prophet Nathan: “The word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? etc” (2 Samuel 7:4-5). We also read in 1 Kings 5:3 the explanation given by Solomon to Hiram: “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with
which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.”

   b. In this same prophecy of Nathan we hear the prophet say: “When your (David’s) days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-13)

   c. The Bible tells us that the Temple was constructed under Solomon (“In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.” (1 Kings 6:1)), around the middle of the 10th century BCE.

   d. It was probably constructed on the site that became the site of the Second Temple, on what is now known as The Temple Mount – perhaps where the Dome of the Rock is. Any knowledge of the architecture of the Temple is based on 1 Kings 6:3-22.

   e. Sir Charles Warren, (1840 – 1927) was an officer in the British Royal Engineers and one of the earliest European archaeologists of the Holy Land. He did some archaeological work on The Temple Mount – 1867-70 – but discovered no details of Solomon’s Temple. For obvious reasons, there have been no further archaeological digs there.

   f. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed after standing for about four centuries. The Temple was plundered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem during the brief reign of Jehoiachin at the beginning of the 6th century BCE (see 2 Kings 24:13).Ten years later Nebuchadnezzar returned and after 30 months siege finally breached the city walls in 587 BCE, subsequently burning the Temple, along with most of the city (2 Kings 25). This marked the beginning of the so-called Babylonian Captivity.

  g. The Edict of Cyrus in 538 BCE ended the Babylonian Captivity (The Exile), enabling the Jews to return and re-establish themselves. According to the Book of Ezra, the foundations of the Second Temple were laid in 537 BCE.

   h. The Second Temple lasted more than five centuries. Three distinct periods can be distinguished:

      i. The Persian period began with the return from the Babylonian Captivity until the conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

      ii. Alexander’s conquest began the Hellenistic period which lasted until the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BCE.

      iii. The Maccabean Revolt began the Hasmonean period which lasted until the reign of King Herod – 37 – 4 BCE.

      iv. Herod was a builder and expanded the Temple to about double its previous size. This is the Temple Jesus would have known.

      v. Soon after the death of Herod, Judea was made into a Roman province called Judaea in 6 CE.

      vi. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

   i. The intensely complex symbolism of the Temple in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people must not be lost in any discussion of the material and historical details:

      i. The Patriarchs did not have a temple;

      ii. Sinai, where Moses encountered YHWH, is a scared place (see Exodus 3:1-15);

      iii. During the Exodus Event “the tabernacle” emerges (see Exodus 26-27); the idealized description here, so reminiscent of the Temple, almost certainly reflects a later period; however, “the tabernacle” is a place of encounter with YHWH (see for example Numbers 1:1; 7:89 etc.) As one scholars puts it: “God dwells there among the cherubim, above the mercy seat which covers the ark of the covenant. There He gives His oracles, whence the name “Tent of Witness” was given to the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:22; 26:33 etc). His presence there is at once sensible and hidden: behind the cloud (exodus 33:7-11; 40:36ff) His luminous glory hides
itself (Numbers 14:10; 16:19). Thus the recollection of the Sinaitic covenant is maintained in a central sanctuary for the whole of the Israelite confederation.” (Xavier Léon-Dufour, editor, translated under the direction of
P Joseph Cahill, Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 522.)

      iv. Later the Temple is to fill this role – though not without challenge and controversy:

         1. The Temple “draws people from every land to look on the face of God” (Psalm 42:3) and the Psalmist cries out “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalms 84:1); yet the prophet Jeremiah also cries out, “Temple of Yahweh! Temple of Yahweh!” taunting those who presume God will protect the Temple, come what may.

         2. Indeed, the prophets as a group have something of “a reserved attitude” to the Temple (Xavier Léon-Dufour, op cit, 523). It is the superficial character of the worship that troubles the prophets rather than the Temple as such: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11. See also Jeremiah 6:20 and 7:9ff).

         3. The prophets envisage the destruction of the Temple in punishment for the sin of a nation – see Jeremiah 7:12-15 and Ezekiel 9 – 10.

      v. The prophetic warnings, the actually destruction of the Temple and finally the Exile help the people to see that the Temple is about more than stones and mortar and gilded ornaments, more indeed then the sacrifices and rituals that are enacted there. It is, above all a visible symbol of the Covenant, a place of encounter with the living God, the Lord who brought them up out of Egypt.

      vi. The first disciples of Jesus take this one step further, clearly stated in the final words of today’s text: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’. The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

         1. The Gospels cast Jesus in the role of the prophet. He is not disrespectful of the Temple or Torah or worship or dismissive of institutions as such, he is angry at those who are disrespectful of what the Temple symbolizes and their apparent disregard for why it exists.

         2. Luke 2:22-39 tells of Jesus being presented in the Temple in accord with Torah; Jesus goes as a young boy with his parents to the Temple (see Luke 2:41-50); he clearly approves of liturgical practices and the encounter with God that it evokes and enables.

         3. It is in this context we must read Jesus’ recalling of the prophet Isaiah and his anger, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, at the misrepresentation of Torah which he finds in the Temple: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” (56:6-8)


Scholars tells us that a number of the Psalms are quite specifically about the Temple or at least include sentiments focused on the Temple. For example,

   · Psalm 84:2 & 10: “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. …. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” (NRSV)

   · Psalm 65:4: “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.” (NRSV)

   · Psalm 116:18-19: “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!” (NRSV)

More than anything else, the Temple is the symbol of God’s presence. The Temple is a physical reminder to the people of the promise “I shall be with you!” (see Exodus 3:12). It is the intersection of time and eternity.

The Psalms are ancient poetry. A modern poet conjures for us something of what the poets conjured then:

“Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present. ….

At the still point of the turning world.”

(From T S Eliot, “Burnt Norton” I & II.)

Part of the outer wall – the wall of the courtyard – of the Second Temple still exists in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is called the Western Wall or Wailing Wall in the Jewish Quarter, a very sacred place for the Jews.[1]
The Jews of today carry the memories of their ancestors, reflected in the Psalms.

The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, was therefore a devastating experience for the Jewish people. And for Jesus, a devout Jew, the misuse of the Temple was devastating.