3rd Sunday of Lent - Cleansing the Spirit

Depending on our situation at different times in our lives, we can find comfort and be encouraged by one or more of the many artistic interpretations that we have of Jesus.  We always look for the image that speaks to us in our needs.  But I wonder if there ever would be a time in our lives that we would search out an image of Jesus running through the temple with a whip of cords in his hand driving out the merchants and money changers?  Not the most approachable image of Jesus, is it?  Well, at least not at first glance.

John paints many versions of Jesus throughout his gospel; mostly they show Jesus in control of the situation he is in; even when he is hanging on the cross.  Today’s may be the most unsettling for a lot of us who prefer a picture of Jesus who is more compassionate,  more predictable and easier to take.  In this temple scene Jesus seems to be out of control as he swings a whip, drives out the money changers, sheep and oxen, spills the coins, overthrows the tables and tells those who sold the doves to get out.  For those of us who like an orderly and predictable religious experience, this gospel reading makes us squirm. 

In fact, Jesus isn’t out of control; it is zeal that fires his action and words.  Maybe it is his zeal that so unsettles us.  Will he expect us, his followers to be equally zealous?  These days of religious zealots turned terrorists, any religious enthusiasm makes us cautious of being too narrowly focused on our own interpretation of who God is and what God wants of us.  But looking to the scriptures might help us in interpreting what is happening in this scene and how it may be speaking to us.

Unlike the synoptic gospels, John places this event of the temple cleansing at the beginning of his gospel.  So, the story helps set the stage for what is to come in John’s narrative and also helps interpret Jesus’ identity and mission.  The long-awaited messiah has arrived and he is burning with zeal for God. Jesus’ fierce dedication is to the God reflected in our first reading from Exodus, the very familiar “Decalogue” or “Ten Words.”  This is not a God who wants to delight in the obedience of the people just because God likes subservience.

The commandments begin with three “words” that stress our relationship to God.  Despite the multitude of gods worshiped by their neighbors, Israel has one God.  This is the God who has chosen, protected and formed them into a people.  These commands  begin with a reminder of what God has already done for them.  “I the Lord, am your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”  They will observe these commands to show their reverence for God and express their thanks for God’s gifts to them.  Their observance will keep them in strong relationship to God and hold them together as a people.  Keeping the commandments are the people’s  response to God’s goodness towards us.”  This is the God of Jesus, the One for whom his zeal burns.  

At first glance the presence of money changers and merchants selling oxen, sheep and doves seems crass.  It reminds us of modern pilgrims of religious sites throughout the world surrounded by vendors hawking religious keepsakes.  But in the light of the temple rituals and practices, these merchants were important.  Judaism would not allow human or divine images on its coins, so the Roman coins with Caesar’s likeness on them would have to be exchanged for the proper temple coinage.  Pilgrims, coming from afar, would want to offer sacrifice in the temple and so needed to purchase the proper animals for the ritual.  There was even an assigned place within the temple confines for these exchanges. 

Jesus’ actions are prophetic; they announce that a new time has come.  Jesus is about to cleanse the people’s spirits and fulfill God’s long-awaited promises.  Now Jesus’ body is the sacred place of encounter with God and when this temple is destroyed, it will be raised in three days. In this new temple sacrificial offering will be made to God; no animals, no money changers needed. God is going to accomplish in Jesus a pure worship, a cleansing act that will do what the temple was meant to do: praise God in loving worship and be a place of encounter between God and humans. 

Lent is a time to wake up to Jesus’ desire to enter our temple, to enter into our lives. He wants to sweep out what is crass, unnecessary and formalistic in our community.  His Spirit wants to sweep through our very being, firing our spirits with a new enthusiasm for God and God’s ways. 

We cannot make ourselves new - our zeal is not enough.  But by fully living through this Holy Season of Lent we can express our desire for God’s breath to reinvigorate our all too-accustomed spirits.