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.