Monday, 10 April 2006

in the Temple

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus visits the Temple.

His reaction is one of anger and violence. In the first three gospels, he upsets the tables of the money-changers and those selling doves. In John’s gospel (where this event is strategically positioned at the very start of Jesus’s ministry) he expels those selling cattle, sheep and doves, together with their animals.

It is hard to say if this is a minor skirmish or a major disturbance, but what is clear is that Jesus had issues with the way that the Temple was being run.

The Temple cult, with its associated priests and other officials, was the religious establishment of his day. The sacrifice of cattle, sheep and doves was at the heart of the covenant relationship between God and his people, the Jews. A Jew handed over one of his own animals for sacrifice as a sin-offering, or as a thank-offering for blessings received. In making a sacrifice of his own goods, the faithful and repentant Jew was freed from his sins.

Animals brought for sacrifice had themselves to be pure, free from any defect. Many people in an urban and agrarian setting were unable to provide such animals, and so they could buy them in the Temple forecourt. The purchaser laid their hands on the animal, symbolically taking ownership, before the animal was led away behind the scenes to be sacrificed by the priests.

The buyer thus had little contact with the beast or the sacrifice, despite the requirements of the covenant and the Law.

Jesus saw the relationship with God as being centred around the things that are important to us, everyday meals and deeds and friendships, frequently with the ritually impure. As the psalmist had sung ‘You have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not despise’ (Psalm 51.16, 17).

Jesus’s challenge to the establishment is clear, and that challenge echoes down to us too. Established opinion can be comfortable, and cosy, and we can justify to ourselves the decisions we make as being in line with the received view — whether that is the received view of society or the received view of our fellow believers.

Jesus’s action in the Temple makes a dramatic break with the past. We can see it as symbolic of the ending of the covenant, the covenant to which the Temple cult with its animal sacrifices bore witness. The old establishment, with its comfortable certainties, is no more. Its time is past, and a new covenant between God and all humanity will soon take its place — even the outward form of sacrifice will barely endure for another generation before its destruction by the fire of the Roman invaders. We shall see, later in the week, what Jesus puts in its place.

Posted by Simon Kershaw on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 8:00am BST | TrackBack
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> Jesus’s challenge to the establishment is clear, and that challenge echoes down to us too

Absolutely. Seconded and then some.

I'm very conscious that when Jesus was annoyed, most often it was the establishment (in the form of Pharisees and their crowd, or in this case the way the Temple was operating) - but notably, not just because it was "the establishment", but because they had messed-up the Covenant, heaping over-interpretation and dogma on top of rules and laws supposed to be for their good, making them a burden.

Posted by: Tim on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 10:16am BST

(1) Is all this is true? It is worth noting that the earliest "Christian" Jews, presumably including the family of Jesus and those closest to him who continued to go to worship at the Temple and presumably did so until the Fall of Jerusalem.
(2) The Pharisees get a bad press in the Gospels but they were not involved at all in the crucifixion of Jesus (by a Pontius Pilate renowned for his barbarous cruelty, with the involvement of Caiphas &x). Of all the Jewish groups, some would argue that Jesus was closest to the Pharisees. (Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish scholar, takes the extreme position that Jesus was in fact a Pharisee.) It is in Holy Week and on Good Friday that we should be especially aware of "anti-semitic" elements in the four (fairly late 1st century)canonical Gospels, some of which have had horrific effects upon the Jewish people, not least upon Good Fridays.

Posted by: John Bunyan on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 1:57pm BST

Jesus was obviously annoyed with the multitude in the Temple whose hearts were far from the Temple. The money changers etc, might justify that they were there to assist, (help) the less privileged but Jesus knows that gain was the ulterior motive. Their masters were left alone here but the ones that got thrown out were the operators who carried on with their trade without regard for the sanctity of God's Temple. This challenge to respect God’s word rather than honour human desires surely echoes.

Posted by: Tunde on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 8:16pm BST

I've no particularly strong view about this, but I remember a speaker many years ago who was seriously offended by the idea of Jesus being angry. (The term in another preacher's discourse to which he took exception was, I think, "Jesus lost his temper".) He felt it was completely wrong to ascribe to Jesus the deadly sin of anger. What do people think? (Yeah, I suppose he looks angry to me...)

Posted by: Alan Harrison on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 12:37am BST

Anger on Jesus's part in the Gospels has often been censored in translations, while many extra angers and even anger-condemnations have been added elsewhere, for example to Romans 2...

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 8:40am BST

John B: my point is that by his actions Jesus symbolically overthrew the Temple cult, that is the Temple as a centre of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. In historical fact, of course, sacrifice did not end there until the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD70 (and finally in 132). But Jesus's action presaged this, and was remembered, when the time came for theological reflection on the events. As for the Pharisees, they too were critical of the Temple management (and an earlier draft discussed this but was removed in the interest of brevity). I don't think it is anti-semitic to see Jesus as casting down the Temple regime, the High Priest, the Sadducees, and so on -- he did this from his own position as a Jew.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 9:56am BST

Tunde: Yes, the challenge is to respect God's word -- the difficulty for all of us is to discern the difference between God's word and human desires. Jesus's actions were a challenge to the religious establishment, who were (under the Romans) part of the political establishment too.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 10:12am BST
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