Trouble in the Temple

The incident in the Temple is troubling (Luke 19:45-48).

Few hymns have been written about it. It doesn’t appear in the lectionary, at least for Sunday worship (It is set down for Tuesday of Holy Week in Year B.)

Nonetheless, Jesus’ actions in the Temple caused the authorities to arrest him. Why pay it so little attention?

The Temple in Jerusalem was an awe-inspiring building, vast in size (the courtyards could accommodate 100,000 people) and magnificent in appearance.

It was a multipurpose institution. Put together, in your mind’s eye, a city cathedral, the Reserve Bank, the Stock Exchange, the ATO, the headquarters of Medicare, the National Library of Australia, and a large corporate entity that employs thousands of people ( over one year, the conduct of Temple worship required 20,000 priests) – all in one institution.

There was much at stake in its continued smooth operation, and in the ability of Caiaphas, the High Priest, to see off trouble.

In considering the significance of Jesus’ actions, we need to put to bed the notion that Jesus was protesting about commerce taking place inside the Temple. Conducting business inside a holy place was normal in the ancient world.

In the Temple in Jerusalem, pilgrims purchased animals from the merchants for their sacrifices. (Presumably, Jesus had made similar purchases.)

It is possible that Jesus was upset that the merchants were overcharging pilgrims. The phrase ‘a den of robbers’ (Luke 19:46) implies this.

However, more was at stake. The expression ‘a den of robbers’ comes from Jeremiah 7: 1-11. In this text, the prophet Jeremiah condemns all who assume they can perpetrate injustice and then come to the Temple seeking God’s blessing.

Religion, as we know, is often used to cover up what is unethical.

Jeremiah and Jesus would not countenance such abuse.

Recently on Radio National, I heard a nun recount how she had been groomed and raped by a priest in Rome. When she fell pregnant, her pregnancy was terminated. (This, of course, is contrary to Catholic teaching). The priest was never charged or held accountable.

It was justified as protecting the good name of the church and God. (It only occurred nine years ago.)

Contrary to the treasured notion of God as always present and always loving, Jesus and Jeremiah declared that God was unavailable to those who perpetrated injustice.

In a way, Jesus was deconstructing holiness.

People often assume that God is focussed in holy places, in fact somewhat bound up by them, such that God disdains unholy places. So this thinking runs…

However, in Jesus’ mind, God was more frequently encountered outside sacred places, in meals with outcasts, for example.

In creating the institution of the church, with its claim to mediate Jesus, Christians have established a terrible conundrum.

The Temple disrupter has been recast as the (new) Temple protector.

No wonder this passage is so challenging.