HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
Most biblical scholars place the writing of the Gospel of John towards the end of the first century, that is to say fifty to seventy years after the death of Jesus. Some place it in the first half of the second century. It is the last of the Gospels to be written, and the furthest removed from the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a visit to Jerusalem just before Passover and during this visit expels sellers of animals and money changers from the Temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” he tells them. In John’s narrative Jesus makes more than one Passover visits to Jerusalem. This one is set at the outset of his ministry, and there will be two further visits to Jerusalem at Passover.
In the Synoptic Gospels the cleansing of the Temple takes place after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem we remember as Palm Sunday, a few days before Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Mark Chapter 11, Matthew Chapter 21 and Luke Chapter 19 describe the events in a similar fashion. The disruption by Jesus of the selling and money-changing businesses becomes the last straw for the religious authorities, because the sale of animals for sacrifice and the changing of pagan coins for temple coins (coins bearing no human effigy, or graven image) for temple tax purposes were part of the financial system that enabled the priests to make their living. Now comes this rabble rouser Jesus and disrupts all of the money-raising arrangements that the priests have made.
What is motivating Jesus? In today’s Gospel reading from John we hear Jesus say: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”. If we look at Jesus as a reformer of Judaism, he is objecting to the commercialization of what should be a house of worship and adoration “Zeal for your house will consume me”, which is from Psalm 69, verse 9 is what comes to the minds of the Disciples. It is not that Jesus necessarily disapproves of the sale of animals for sacrifice, or of the changing of money. What is at issue is that these activities are taking place within the temple precinct itself, albeit in the outermost area. They are therefore disrespectful of God, if not sacrilegious. They are a misuse of the temple grounds. Interestingly, these activities are taking place in the court of the gentiles, which is where non-Jews are meant to come to worship the God of the Hebrews. If the area is taken up with commercial activities, can the gentiles properly do this? These activities are hindrances to the development of the universality of Judaism. That is a theme that is not much noticed, but I think it is important to the Gospel we have read.
The charges Jesus lays against the temple authorities in Mark, Matthew and Luke are not that the temple has been made into a marketplace. Rather the objection is stronger: that the temple has been made a den of thieves. ‘My’ house will be called a house of prayer for all nations but you have made it ‘a den of robbers. ‘My’ Here also is the charge that the temple is meant to be a house of prayer for all nations and yet the commercial activities are impeding this. Jesus’ disruption of the commercial aspect of the temple is what makes the temple authorities determined to kill him. They personally are profiting from changing money and permitting the sale of animals for sacrifice. He is challenging them on the grounds that they are not fulfilling the universal mission of the temple as laid out in Isaiah of the temple as a house of prayer for all nations. Any way you look at it, Jesus is a threat to the established order.
Judea in Jesus’ time was a tinderbox, ready to explode in revolt against Rome. Indeed, thirty some years after Jesus’ death, Judea did rise up and drive out the Romans for a while. The Jewish revolt began in 67 of the Common Era. The last part of the rebellion was snuffed out with the fall of the fortress of Masada in 73 or 74 C.E. In 70 C.E., the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the starving city was taken by Roman troops. The Second Temple was destroyed. Despite the large loss of life, within 60 years of the fall of Masada, a new rebellion got underway, the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 C.E. When this revolt was put down, Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and Jews forbidden to live there. A half million Jews are said to have been killed in that revolt.
Two elements in today’s reading point strongly to a late composition date for this Gospel. The first of these is the dichotomy between believers and “the Jews”. Whenever someone in this Gospel questions Jesus or does not believe him, he is described as a Jew. Now you and I know that with the exception of Pontius Pilate and his Roman garrison and a few others, everyone in this Gospel is a Jew-Jesus, his mother, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, all of them are Jews. Yet the author proceeds with the narration as though Jesus and his followers were not Jews. One can believe that the dislike of Roman authorities for rebellious Jews led the author to try to differentiate Jesus and his followers from “the Jews”. It also points to a time when it is not acceptable to be Jewish. On the contrary, Jews must be portrayed as enemies of the Good News. That denial of the Jewish roots of Christianity later will contribute to the terrible history of Christian persecution of Jews which culminated in the last century with the final solution envisioned by the demented Adolf Hitler and his cohort.
The second element that points to a late composition date is Jesus’ statement “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. Early Christian theology saw the risen Christ’s body as the new temple. The Second Temple had been destroyed, but this was not lamented by Christians, since the risen Christ took its place. Obviously when this statement was made, the temple had already been destroyed. Were it not so, the statement by Jesus that the temple can be rebuilt in three days would not be memorable.
I think that it is in Gospel passages such as this morning’s that we can perceive the contribution of the Gospel of John to our understanding of Jesus as God. The Gospel is a theological treatise on the subject of the Son as God, rather than a narration of Jesus’ life. Think how much poorer our understanding of Jesus would be if this Gospel had not been written.
God Bless you!
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission, Antigua, Guatemala
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission, Antigua, Guatemala