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.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:13-25 – NRSV)
There are similar accounts in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:11 & 15-17 and Luke 19:45-46. The synoptic accounts are shorter and they come towards the end of their Gospels, just prior to the passion narrative. It seems particularly significant that each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus cleansing the temple. However, scholars are split on whether or not the event occurred at the beginning or towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Of course, it is possible that there were two cleansings.
John is meticulous in linking Jesus’ ministry with the major feasts of Judaism: “In addition to other feasts, he mentions three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 11:55), possibly a fourth (5:1). This one probably takes place in AD 28. 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.)
“The festival of Passover was celebrated on the 14th day of the lunar month Nisan (full moon at the end of March or beginning of April). It commemorated the night when the angel of death ‘passed over’ the homes daubed with blood in the prescribed manner, killing the firstborn in all other homes. In the consternation and revulsion that followed, the Jews escaped from Egypt (Ex. 12). Passover was immediately followed by the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread (15–22 Nisan). Cf. notes on 18:28.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 176.)
cattle, sheep, and doves: Animals used for sacrifices in the temple. People who travelled a long distance would appreciate being able to buy the animal when they arrived rather than bringing one with them.
the money changers: People traveling from all over the Empire would bring various currencies. Carson writes: “(T)he temple tax, to be paid by every conscientious Jewish male of twenty years of age or over, had to be deposited in Tyrian coinage (because of the high purity of its silver). This annual half-shekel (to use the language of the Old Testament) was equal to half a Tyrian stater or tetradrachm, and so two Jews often joined together to pay the tax in one coin (cf. Mt. 17:27; NBD, p. 792). The money-changers converted money to the approved currency, charging a percentage for their service. The tables of the money-changers were not set up all year round, but only around the time when the temple tax was collected. In Jerusalem, this was from 25 Adar on (the lunar month before Nisan; cf. Mishnah Shekalim 1:1, 3). (D A Carson, op cit, 178.)
He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables: Jesus was serious! There is no evidence – in John or the synoptics – that he actually hit or hurt anybody. Carson writes: “Jesus’ physical action was forceful, but not cruel; one does not easily drive out cattle and sheep without a whip of cords. Still, his action could not have generated a riotous uproar, or there would have been swift reprisals from the Roman troops in the fortress of Antonia overlooking part of the temple complex.” (D A Carson, op cit, 179.)
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”: Raymond E Brown notes, in reference to the naming of the temple as “my Father’s house”, that “the Temple is frequently described in the OT as “the house of God”; so also Mark 2:26. In Luke 2:49 we have the same idea as in John.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 115.) Jesus’ focus is clear. He is not concerned that the money changes and sellers are engaged in unethical business practices. He is concerned that they are in the temple conducting their business! The sense of this being a sacred place and the reverence engendered by prayerful silence is completely undercut by the busyness and noise entirely appropriate to the market place but out of place here. Implicit in this is a condemnation of a religion that has lost its focus. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.” The reference here is Psalm 69:9.
the Jews then said to him: John uses the word “Jews” where the synoptics would normally use scribes, Pharisees and lawyers: “This is a good example of Johannine use, for the Synoptic parallel (Mark 11:27 and par.) speaks of chief priests, scribes, and the elders of the people.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 115.)
forty-six years: Raymond Brown writes: “Josephus, Ant. XV.XI.1;#380, says that the Temple reconstruction was begun in the 18th year of Herod the Great (20/19 B.C.—this date is more reliable than the 15th year of Herod given in War I.XXI.1;#401). Reckoning from this we reach a date of A.D. 27/28, or more exactly, the Passover of 28. The hazards of establishing an exact chronology for the ministry of Jesus are well known, but this date agrees with that of Luke 3:1, which fixes the ministry of John the Baptist in the 15th year of Tiberius (October 27 to 28, according to the Syrian calendar with antedating). The number in John obviously refers to the Temple; however, because John says that the temple is Jesus’ body and because of 8:57 (“You’re not even fifty years old”), Loisy and others accept 46 as the age of Jesus, suggesting that he died at the Jubilee age of 50. The fact that the Greek letters in the name of Adam have the value of 46 was the basis of the interpretation of many Fathers, especially Augustine, who saw this number as a reference to Jesus’ human nature; see Vogels. While we do not regard “forty-six years” as a reference to Jesus’ age, we by no means exclude the possibility that Jesus was considerably older than Luke’s approximation of “about thirty years of age” (3:23) might indicate.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 115-116.))
The Gospel today – John 2:13-25 – tells of the time Jesus made “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”. It is perhaps euphemistically referred to as the cleansing of the temple. This is one of the most confronting events in the ministry of Jesus. He was angry! It must have been an extraordinary sight to see him with the knotted cord, overturning tables, spilling money all over the floor, upsetting an accepted religious routine that had been in place for many generations. Each of the four Gospels gives an account of this remarkable moment in the ministry of Jesus. It is easy – and wrong – to think there is no longer need for such “cleansing”.
In the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium) we read: “The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. The Church, ‘like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26). But by the power of the risen Lord she is given strength to overcome, in patience and in love, her sorrows and her difficulties, both those that are from within and those that are from without, so that she may reveal in the world, faithfully, however darkly, the mystery of her Lord until, in the consummation, it shall be manifested in full light” (#8).
Pope Paul VI reminds us: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She …. needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the “mighty works of God” which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel. …. the Church which is evangelized by constant conversion and renewal, in order to evangelize the world with credibility.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), #15.)
Perhaps we had forgotten this in recent generations? The Royal Commission may be compared to Jesus “cleansing” the temple. The horrible crimes of sexual abuse and the cover ups are not the only issues we must face. Those crimes are symptoms of a much deeper malaise and there are no simple answers. However, we might begin by reflecting on the implications of Jesus’ phrase, “my Father’s house”. What does that mean?