I know very few people who appear to be incapable of rage. Some of them came to my mind as I was preparing this homily early this past week. But most of us, I think, have experienced the frustration of dealing with a person or an incident that just doesn’t yield to rational negotiation. We get “fed up to here”, as the expression has it, with a situation that has become unacceptable. We can, therefore, easily imagine Jesus lashing out, striking in every direction, yelling for all to hear, “Get out of here, all of you! You know as well as I do that this is the house of God, my Father’s house. And you are dishonoring it, using it for your own selfish, sinful gain! Get out of here and stay out!”
We feel Jesus’ righteousness and we cheer him on.
But why did St. John and the other three Gospel writers choose to include this event in their writings about Jesus — especially this early in their manuscripts? (John’s gospel, for example, has 21 chapters, and this incident occurs in only Chapter 2.)
Many reasons have been suggested, but my favorite is that Jesus was saying something about himself and the Jewish religion of his day that was very important to him. What he is saying is that he is not merely trying to purify what already exists in Jewish religion by, for example, driving out from the temple the merchants and their wares; rather, he is declaring that the temple and all its functions and rituals have been replaced by himself! He is the “place” of true worship now! The temple had been built by human labor and through it people sought union with God. But now, God had built the temple — the very person of Jesus — and only by entering him can anyone experience the fullest possible union with the One he called Father.
Analyze the context of the story: Jesus angrily confronts the money-changers. Their business was to take the Gentile money that worshipers brought with them and, for a fee, to exchange it for coins that were acceptable for use at the temple. In attacking this practice, Jesus was abolishing the ban against non-Jews and making it clear that everyone is welcome in the new temple that was himself!
No favorites, no exclusion, no separation — just people making up but one family united in him.
He drives out the cattle and the sheep, the animals that would be sacrificed in the temple worship. Another revolutionary statement not from his mouth but from his mind and his actions: “Animals are no longer necessary at the altar. You can commune with the invisible God with and through me,” he was telling them. His perfectly truthful and loving life would incite hatred and vengeance in evil hearts, and he would soon enough be slaughtered like a lamb — not as a human sacrifice to a presumably offended God, but to satisfy the blood-thirst of those who hated him and wanted him destroyed. His very presence was both a threat and a rebuke to them.
They asked him to justify what he was doing and saying among them — things they had never heard before. Who do you think you are?, they asked. He gave a puzzling answer: “Tear this temple down, and I will rebuild it in three days.” Looking back, we realize that he was referring to his coming death and resurrection. They thought he was a madman, talking that way.
The passage ends disturbingly, not with the “good news” we are accustomed to hearing. Instead we are told that he could not bring himself to trust the people who had come to believe in him. Why? Because he knew what was really in their hearts. Their faith wasn’t deep enough: it was merely amazement at what he was saying and doing — a momentary, fleeting Yes to what he was offering to ease the burden of their shabby lives. It wasn’t the solid commitment, including the possibility of suffering, he was looking for.
There could well be something of them in us, too. We do believe; but in what areas of our lives are we not really sure that Jesus is the way?