On its face, there is little wrong with what the people were doing in the Temple courtyard. People came to the temple from countries all over the known world. It is unreasonable to travel long distances with livestock because you would need food for these animals whether large or small. Your journey will take days, weeks, or even longer. And when you finally arrive at the temple, your animal needs to be unblemished. On a long journey, any animal could easily become injured, sick, or even die. So the ability to purchase sacrificial animals on sight is a real needed. There is also a need for travelers to change their foreign currency to money that was acceptable to the temple authority. The temple only accepted a specific type of coin because it was consistent in both purity and weight. Beyond these factors, the lenders also provided other banking services. They received deposits from travelers, allowing them to have a safe place to keep money.[i] None of these transactions happened in sacred spaces. These exchanges were conducted in the outer court which was open to all people including gentiles.
Now in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, there are codes or laws prohibiting usury, the charging interest to fellow Jews. Whether these codes were laws or just philosophical ideals is debatable, but many if not most scholars claim that these were laws and these moneychangers were not following them. They were both giving and charging interest on money. They were selling animals, even to the poorest of poor, for a profit. And this is why I believe Jesus becomes upset.
In Christ’s apparent anger, he clears the temple courtyard. We view this as a cleansing in which he makes the Temple clean a pure again. But in this almost theatrical demonstration, the cleansing is temporary; it lasts for a day if that. By the next day, I am sure the animals were back in their stalls, the doves in their cages, and the money changers were collecting and counting again. Life goes on just as it did before.
Using this imagery of a cleansing, I wonder how different the temple is from are our own temples, our bodies. We have been baptized; which on one level is a cleansing from sin. Over time many of us have recommitted ourselves to the promises we made in our baptism either formally or informally. But much like the Temple in Jerusalem, which becomes cluttered soon after it is cleansed, we continue to sin. Our hearts become filled with all sorts of things, from violence and hatred, to jealousy and dishonesty. There may be times when we are filled with the Holy Spirit but at other times we may be filled with things have entered in taking up space where holiness should be. We become hungry for money, power, and prestige instead of hungering for the Lord and his word. We tend to seek worldly things instead of heavenly.
If we step back and look at the proverbial forest instead of the trees, we can see other imagery; imagery that is clearer in John’s Gospel account than the other three. “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.” We tend to notice that Christ clears the courtyard of the money changers but notice that he also clears out the animals; the sacrificial animals. Jesus becomes the only thing left in the courtyard. In this imagery we see him as the sacrificial lamb, the most spotless and pure, a sacrifice for which no money can be exchanged. There is nothing else because he died once for all.
Today we continue to find ourselves in the midst of a season of change. In this season we have talked about clearing clutter and looking within ourselves. There is no doubt of the importance of these practices but there is something that is even more important, and that is Christ. In the center of our very being stands Christ. He stands in our inner temple, as our sacrificial lamb; just as he was standing in the midst of all the animal smells, and all the chatter and clatter of the money changers. Christ is standing with us in the midst of our sin, regardless of how smelly it is. No matter what we have done, or how often our temple becomes cluttered, he is there waiting for us to turn to him and accept him as our Lord, our Savior, and our Lamb. He is there to cleanse our hearts and make us pure and clean again, and again . . . and again.