Lethal Jesus, mad and riled – Friday, 33rd week in ordinary time – Luke 19:45-48
The first act of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke upon the completion of his journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:27) is to enter the temple and take possession of it. Now the Temple is really the temple! The temple was the place for true worship of God; for instruction on the meaning of God’s will and especially the place where God was present. The first act of Jesus, on entering the temple is to cleanse it.
The cleansing of the temple is found in all four Gospels; the Lucan account is the briefest. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus is protesting the lack of prayer in what ought to be the ground zero of prayer. Like the prophets, he speaks on God’s behalf and as God’s own Son. He stands as a counter-witness to all that is against truth, love and justice and as such inevitably incurs the anger and hostility of those who have power.
John W. Everett once said, “Carnal men are content with the ‘act’ of worship; they have no desire for communion with God.” In today’s text we see how true this statement is and can feel the growing tension as Jesus forcefully challenges the way things were done in the holiest place of Judaism. It is so easy to lose sight of the real value of religious actions and rituals, ending up sometimes in shameful compromises.
So, what has got gentile Jesus so riled up?
This was Passover, the holiest and most important Jewish festival which means only one thing; there were pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem in droves. According to Exodus 30:11–16, every Israelite, twenty years and above was required to pay an annual temple tax of a half-shekel into the treasury of the sanctuary. Some scholars say this amount was equivalent to two days of a laborer’s wage.
Due to the enormity of the Roman Empire, many types of currencies were in circulation. Since only special temple coins were acceptable, moneychangers could charge a fee for the necessary exchange. Moneychangers could make handsome profits at the expense of the people. This exchange became a source of extortion for the High Priest’s family who personally controlled it. In reality, it amounted to a public bazaar and was even nick named Annas’ courtyard.
A temple visits also involved a sacrifice. If a man brought his own animal, the temple authorities would inspect it for perfection. To make sure an animal passed inspection, many people bought their animal sacrifices at booths set up in the temple. However, these animal sellers often charged outrageous prices, thus making a high profit for themselves.
The Greek word for temple (hieros) is the general term for the temple grounds as a whole. The vast complex was able to accommodate thousands of worshipers. Within this area, surrounded by an outer wall, were several inner courts, progressively smaller, with the innermost being the Holy of Holies which were designated by a different word for temple (naos).
The outer court was the Court of the Gentiles, so named because Gentiles were forbidden to go any further on pain of death. Inside the Court of the Gentiles was the Court of the Women, which was as far as women were permitted to go. That court was entered by a gate known as the Beautiful Gate, which was a popular place for beggars (Acts 3:10). Men could enter the next court, the Court of the Israelites, through Nicanor’s Gate, made of Corinthian bronze and so massive that it took twenty men to open and close it.
From the Court of the Israelites the assembled worshipers could look through the doorway into the next courtyard, the Court of the Priests. Although they could not enter, they could watch the priests offering incense and sacrificing animals. In the rear of the Court of the Priests was the naos, or sanctuary, itself; that is, the Holy of Holies.
The incident related to today’s Gospel took place in an area called the court of the gentiles. Jesus’ anger was not directed at the temple tax, for he himself paid it willingly – “Lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you” (Matt. 17:24–27). Jesus’ anger was directed at the commercialism within the temple area that took advantage of the poor: “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (John 2:16).
So, what is our takeaway?
We never think of Jesus losing his temper, yet that is what he did when he entered the temple and saw it set up just like a market place. Anger is not a bad thing as some of us might believe; it is what we do with the anger that can cause pain and upset.
Although he saw the contradictions there, Jesus chose the Temple as the place to which he went to teach. Often congregants misplace their sense of anger on the place of worship and abandon worship because of what they see as contradictions. Contradictions abound everywhere, even in our work place; we don’t have the luxury to quit our workplace as easily as we do with the house of God.