Commentary to the 3rd Sunday of Lent
A good Sunday for everyone.
The Gospel passage of this third Sunday of Lent confronts us with a rather embarrassing scene, especially for the most devout people who are used to imagine Jesus always tender, sweet, affectionate, and today instead they find him angry, with a whip in his hand that drives away the sellers and buyers from the temple. And then he throws down the tables of the money changers. It is, therefore, a rather unpleasant scene for pious people.
But on the other hand, it is a scene that pleases the secular world who want to remind Christians that Jesus has to act today to help intervene in the world with the whip to heal certain not very evangelical situations of the ecclesial institution, including a certain uneasiness between faith and money. The Christians, in turn, respond that Jesus must enter with the whip in their secular temples where the money god is worshiped, enter into the banks, the financial temples of the day where the cruel laws of the market that starve the people are dictated.
These are controversial positionsthat arise from a reductive interpretation or rather from the incomprehension of the deepest meaning that Jesus wanted to give to this gesture. A gesture so important that it is referred to by the four evangelists, with one difference. The Evangelist John places it at the beginning of the public life of Jesus, while the other evangelists at the end; who is right? I think, it’s John.
This episode must have taken place at the beginning, at the first of the three Passover feasts Jesus spent in Jerusalem. Only the evangelist John speaks of three Passover feasts that Jesus spent during his public life. And it is from this detail that we can conclude that the public life of Jesus lasted three years. The other evangelists speak only of one Passover feast that Jesus spent in Jerusalem and it is the last one, the one that led to Jesus' condemnation to death. Since the synoptic evangelists speak of only one Passover, they clearly place this episode at the end.
What meaning did John want to give to this presentation of Jesus' gesture at the beginning of his gospel? He wanted to say that in this gesture is present the program of the whole mission that Jesus will develop. It will be to demonstrate that a certain relationship with God has come to an end and now he has come to establish a new relationship with God,
a completely new relationship with the heavenly Father. The synoptic gospels presenting this gesture of Jesus at the end, a gesture that will be the one that will make the cup overflow and then lead to Jesus' death sentence, they present it to tell us that Jesus has fulfilled his mission, that his mission has upset the Jewish religion defended by the spiritual guides who were naturally unwilling to step back and welcome the novelty brought by Jesus.
It will be precisely this mission that Jesus has made that will lead to Jesus' condemnation to death. We are going to try to make a precise analysis of this text and we will try to understand the deep meaning I was talking about before and then, of course, to get a message for our spiritual life today.
Let's listen to what has happened:
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
The gesture made by Jesus is introduced by the evangelist with an indication of time; these were the days in which Jerusalem was preparing for the feast of the Passover. Imagine the swarm of pilgrims in the city. Jerusalem normally had about 40,000 inhabitants, but for the Passover it reached 120,000 because pilgrims came not only from Israel but from all over the world. Every Israelite had to go to the temple of the Lord at least once in their life and then these Jews that lived in some city of the Roman empire used to come to Jerusalem precisely for the Passover.
I want to mention at this point the money that circulated in the city during the Passover. Josephus Flavius, the historian who was also a temple priest and therefore knew the environment very well,says that between 18 and 20 thousand lambs were slaughtered, which of course increased in price on the occasion of the Passover. Let us imagine the profit that those who had the license to sell these lambs had. And then there are the offerings in the temple; in the court of the women, which I will show shortly, there were 13 coffers in which everyone was invited to place offerings, and at the time of Passover these free offerings were abundant.
And then the money changers' profits: because whoever wanted to make these offerings could not bring into the temple the coins that circulated in the markets of the city because these coins had the effigy of Tiberius and of his mother Libya, so they could not be introduced in the temple. These coins had to be exchanged with 'perutot'—which were the coins that were allowed to be used in the temple for the offering and later the temple could exchange “perutot” with the coins with which they could buy products in the city. It is clear that the money changers had the commission for their work; their advantage is that they could not only set up a table freely to be able to exchange the coins, NO, they had to have a license to do this work and let's say up front: all these licenses depended on the family of Annas and Caiaphas. They were the ones who managed all this money flow.
Then, for the Passover, the contributions were brought to Jerusalem, those coins that all Israelite had to pay for the temple, for the service that was done in the temple. Everybody had to pay half a shekel = two denarius = wages of two days’ work. They were collected in all the cities of the Roman empire where Jews lived and for the Passover it was taken to Jerusalem. At that time, the temple was considered the largest bank in the entire Ancient Middle East.
The second book of Maccabees, in chapter three, says that the treasury of Jerusalem had immense wealth, so much so that the sum of its amount was incalculable. This is the occasion when Jesus made his gesture. Let's see now the place and the temple. You can see it behind me. When we say the 'temple’ we have to make a clarification: temple means all that esplanade, 'ierós' in Greek. The evangelists are very careful in the use of terms. That esplanade is enormous.
One does not get the idea of how big it was, but calculations say that it corresponds to the extension of 22 regulation soccer fields. In this esplanade anyone could circulate, even pagans could enter. I invite you to observe that construction that is seen in the south of the temple. The temple was oriented towards the east, where the sun rises and what you see is important, it is the royal portico, the place where Jesus made his gesture.
What was this royal portico? It was the place where the most profitable activity was carried out because there you could buy the best lambs, the pigeons. We are going to see in a moment that the market that was circulating around the temple was very large and very extensive but the center where they bought the best material for the worship was in the royal portico. In the center of the temple, therefore, of this esplanade was the sanctuary.
Let us distinguish well the temple from the sanctuary because in this way we will understand better the sense of what Jesus has done. I show you now in the background this sanctuary. Notice that the whole temple was a succession of barriers because the people had to be selected until only the elite, the purest people were left, the only ones who could have access to the sanctuary where the glory of the Lord was.
Note this sanctuary in the center, separated and isolated by a wall which is indicated. It was five feet high and bore 13 inscriptions in Greek. These inscriptions read: "From here, only Israelites may enter, if any pagan crosses this barrier he will be subject to death." Israelites could enter, both men and women. This was the first barrier. The unclean had to stay outside, they could not approach the sanctuary. Then they enter into the court of the women (it is indicated) and the women had to stop there, they could go no further. It was there, in this women's court, where those alms chests were that I mentioned before.
Then you see that it is indicated a little staircase, very pretty, that led to the door of Nicanor. It was the most beautiful of the temple, it was golden. It is said that the gold over that door was as thick as a coin. Only men could cross it to enter the place by the sanctuary. Now we come into the sanctuary and before the sanctuary, was the altar for the offerings, for the sacrifices of the burnt offering to be burnt... so imagine the smoke that went up there.
The sanctuary was formed by that central part and it was composed of three parts. There was an atrium, then the 'holy' and finally the 'holy of holies' where only the high priest could enter. In the holy the other priests could also enter, but only once a year could the high priest enter into the holy of holies where the glory of God resided. Now I'm going to show you also the other places where this market was. In the background you see represented a reconstruction of this temple, you can see the whole esplanade.
Notice again the actual portico where Jesus made his gesture. From this royal portico comes out a majestic staircase through the Coponius gate that was the most beautiful one and in the western part of this esplanade of the temple a street is indicated, a Herodian street; it was eight and a half meters wide and on both sides were the stores where all the objects were sold, the animals necessary for the worship of the temple. That street was all business.
The evangelist John says that Jesus drove out of the temple the sheep, the oxen and then went to those who sold doves. The oxen were not in the royal portico. Of the 8 gates, I don't know which ones could be wide enough to get the oxen through. The evangelist John says that Jesus condemned this cult that wanted to give something to God with animals. Actually, oxen were sold in a market place, as it was called, which was on the hillside of the Mount of Olives, and the oxen were also sold by the brook Kidron.
This brook Kidron you can locate it because it is on the Mount of Olives, on the eastern wall of the temple's esplanade where Solomon's porch was. During the feast of Passover, this was the marketplace around the temple of the Lord, because it was these gifts that they wanted to offer to God. Now the question is: Does God want any of this? Jesus came to say enough to this way of relating with the Lord, because now there is a new relationship that he came to establish with the heavenly Father.
I am going to show you in the background a reconstruction of what must have been the construction of the royal portico. It was 185 meters long and occupied the entire south side of the esplanade. There were four rows of columns, each ten meters tall, plus a capital of one meter and eighty meters, a marvelous Corinthian capital. Four rows of columns of 40 columns in each row, therefore, 160 marvelous columns that supported this construction of the royal portico. It is in that place that Jesus made that gesture, but the oxen were not there (this as a parenthesis).
Let us now see what Jesus did. He made a whip of cords. Only the evangelist John speaks of this whip of cords. No sticks or weapons could be carried in the temple and Jesus must have used those ropes that were used to keep the animals still. What did he do? What he did was to drive out of the temple the sheep, the oxen, and then he overturned the tables of the money changers.
Let us try to grasp the meaning of this gesture. The most immediate and evident fact is clearly the condemnation of the mixture of religion and money, and it is a message that remains ever topical even for the Church. We know the dark pages that have been written in the history of the Church concerning this very mixture of money and worship.
But this is not the most important message, the most disturbing message is another one. Let us see what Jesus did. He has driven away all the animals that were used for sacrifices, because God does not want to know more of this religion. What does it mean that he did not like animals? We know that all the peoples of the antiquity offered these cults to their gods. They offered the animals because they thought that by giving something to God, they would later compensate their sacrifices with blessings and favors. Israel behaved like all other peoples, offering those animals to their God.
What did Jesus mean by his gesture? He simply said that God did not want animal sacrifices, nor any sacrifice. That is the point. God does not want sacrifices, because his favors cannot be bought. We cannot give anything to God, because his gifts are completely free. To offer something to God to obtain his blessings is a buying and selling that God does not support. It is a commercial relationship that goes against his own nature. He gives his love freely and when we welcome it, we are happy. We have nothing to give to God.
So let's think about a certain spirituality that has been instilled in us that we had to make sacrifices because our sacrifices could achieve perhaps the salvation of sinners and many other things. Jesus never spoke of sacrifices to be offered to God. When he spoke of it he said 'I want works of love, not sacrifices.' Our liturgies: we think that with our songs, with our devotions we give something to God who then will have a benevolent look towards us. Enough! Our liturgies, our songs are a manifestation of our joy of being with Him, of our gratitude for the love He showed towards us, but they give nothing to God. Even our good deeds: we think that by offering them to God he will treasure them, he will store up a treasure for us with the merits we have acquired.
Sometimes we have heard it said that in this way God loves you, blesses you... NO. God blesses you and loves you always. You will be happy if you let yourself be wrapped in this love, and if you let yourself be involved in this dynamic of free love. He has given you his very life; and it is this life that takes you to do good, to love, to give yourself freely, it must manifest itself in your life and when this love manifests itself in your life, you are happy because you will look like the heavenly Father. It's not because you give him something; the works of love that we do are the manifestation of the divine life that we have received and therefore the works of love transform us into good people, they make the similarity with the heavenly Father shine on our face. Let us stop thinking that we can give anything to God. We have to abandon this concept of a religion of sacrifices to be offered to God because Jesus cancelled all the offerings that were made.
There is a third aspect. Who does he drive out with that whip? He does not cast out only the animals; he casts out the sellers and even the buyers. John says that he casts out all, but the evangelist Matthew and also Mark specify that he has cast out the sellers and also the buyers because they also adhered to this religious form. Jesus casts out these people who, although are the good, but are relating with God by means of sacrifices. NO, enough.
Let us keep in mind who are those who are cast out of the temple. At the 8 gates of the temple esplanade, at the entrance were the Levites, the sacristans of that time. What were they doing? They were watching that the unclean people should not enter, because the book of Leviticus says that the blind and the lame could not enter, the deformed, the hunchbacked, the lame... therefore, the paralytics, the lepers were to remain outside the temple. Sinners were to be out of the temple. They cast out these people who had nothing to offer to God except their own misery, weakness, and their own frailty... all these were cast out of the temple. Jesus does not cast them out.
In fact, the evangelist Matthew, after having narrated the episode, concludes saying that the blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple. He welcomed these, but instead he cast out those who were pure, those who offered sacrifices to God. Then the evangelist concludes by saying that he turns to the sellers of doves and says to them: "Take that out of here and do not turn my Father's house into a marketplace." He is not just condemning the fact that money was circulating, yes, this was scandalous, this mixture, but it is the market in relation to God what he cannot bear.
The thought of acquiring merit before God by offering him something; this is a market that has no place, it cannot be in his Father's house. The Father is not an employer who gives work. He is a father with whom one relates freely, out of love. And the pigeon sellers are also those who take advantage of religion to exploit the poor because the doves were the sacrifice offered by the poor. Even Joseph and Mary offered two doves because at that time they had not imagined that one day Jesus would put an end to this manifestation of religiosity with which even the family of Nazareth had been educated.
And at this point the disciples remember the verse of Psalm 69 in which it is said that this psalmist because of his love for the house of the Lord has been misunderstood and this passion for the house of the Lord has devoured him; he has become a stranger, even to his brethren. And they apply this verse of the psalm to what Jesus is doing and they say that this gesture of his, the position that he has taken for the love of the temple of the Lord, for the purity of the relationship with God will devour him, that is, it will lead him to be taken out of the way by the custodians of this religion that God no longer wants, but it is the religion that gives power and money those who run it.
Now we come to the central message of the passage: Jesus invites to make the sanctuary disappear, not the temple; the sanctuary where God was found, must be destroyed because he will raise a new one.
Let us listen:
"The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
The gesture made by Jesus could not but be considered sacrilegious by the religious authority, and, in fact, the evangelist points out that the Jews stared at Jesus and said to him: 'perform a miracle to make it clear that God wants to justify what you did.’ Who are these Jews? They are not the Israelites... all the people of Israel. In John's gospel, this term appears 71 times and represents not all the Jews, but the enemies and adversaries of Jesus, those who reject his gospel. These are the chief of the people, the leaders of the people, the scribes, the elders, those who in the end will be responsible for his condemnation to death.
What does Jesus answer? Undo this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up. It is a very enigmatic answer: undo this sanctuary. The Greek word, the verb Λ?σατε = Lyzate does not mean to tear it down but make it disappear; this sanctuary has no more sense because in three days I will present a new, authentic one. What did Jesus mean by that, perhaps a criticism like the one the prophets made, a denunciation for the corruption of the abuses of the temple?
We remember the critique that Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah... Already in the first chapter God says: "Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove your evil deeds from my sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” What Jesus says is not just a criticism like those of the prophets. He says: dissolve it, finish it, undo this sanctuary. What was the sanctuary? We were saying not to confuse it with the temple, which included the whole esplanade. The Sanctuary was the central part of the building where the Israelites believed that the Lord was; whoever wanted to meet him should go to this sanctuary. The pilgrims who went to Jerusalem went to meet the Lord and to behold his face. We remember how many times in the psalms it is said: "I seek your face Lord." Psalm 84 is beautiful, it is the pilgrim who reached the top of the Mount of Olives and contemplates the esplanade with the sanctuary in the center, where his beloved Lord dwells and says: "How pleasant are your dwellings, O Lord." It is like the lover who, when she sees the house of her beloved, says: How wonderful is your house... my soul longs for the courts of the Lord... I want to arrive as soon as possible at the lower part of this Mount of Olives so that I can then enter the temple and meet the Lord in his sanctuary! This was the Israelites' conception of the sanctuary.
What Jesus says is not a criticism of the corruption of the sanctuary, of the temple, of the abuses... No, it is that this sanctuary no longer makes sense, it is no longer useful. Its function is finished. Dismantle this temple, do away with it. Why? Because Jesus is now the sanctuary where God manifests himself; where God shows his face is not in this material temple, but in his person. It is in Jesus where we see the face of God, in Jesus where we meet his heavenly Father. The Jews answer him, for they have not understood the words of Jesus: "It had taken Forty-six years to build this sanctuary, and you are going to erect it in three days?" the evangelist notes: He was speaking of the sanctuary of his person.
This historical notation is precious because we know that the temple in Jerusalem was begun to be built in 19 B.C. Let's remember that king Herod had called for 10 thousand workers and then he had chosen one thousand priests to learn the art of masonry because these thousand priests would have had to build the sanctuary; no profane hand would have had to touch those stones of the building that was to become the dwelling of the Lord. If we start from 19 and add those 46 years spoken of by the Jews we arrive at the Passover of the year 28 when Jesus is 35 years old and a few months before began his public life. Only John has left us with this precious historical annotation.
Jesus is, therefore, speaking now of this new temple which is his person and it is in this temple that we now meet the Lord. There is an annotation of the evangelist that says that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said; they understood it after the Passover, this truth of the new temple which is the person of Jesus.
Let's go now to see what does the New Testament tell us about their understanding of the temple of the Lord, a temple which is certainly the person of Jesus, but united to his person there is also the whole community of those who have given him their adhesion, of those who have accepted the gift of his spirit, his own life that is present in all of them form the temple that has the risen Christ as its cornerstone.
nd this truth is first of all remembered by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians who faces a divided and quarrelsome community with many problems. What does Paul do? He remembers this very truth, he says 'Do you not know, you quarrelsome people, that you forget that you are the sanctuary of God? You forget that the Spirit of God dwells in you, that the same divine life circulates in you, that you are the sanctuary of God that is in the risen Christ; you are with him in the new sanctuary and you forget that the temple of God is holy and you are the temple.’
The awareness of a whole community convinced that it is the temple of the Lord, the sanctuary. And then another truth that they understood: that while in the temple of Jerusalem there were barriers that stopped persons who might be the least bit unclean and could not go to meet the Lord because only the high priest entered into the holy of holies, they knew that since Easter the veil of the temple had been torn and therefore all the divisions had been eliminated in the new temple; there was no longer the distinction among the Greeks, Jews, pagans... no, all who now receive the Spirit of Christ are part of this one sanctuary.
And it is also very beautiful that the letter to the Ephesians says in the second chapter: "Christ has broken down all walls of partition and has founded everything on the foundation of the apostles and prophets; having Christ Jesus as its cornerstone, and upon this stone the whole building grows up as a holy sanctuary in the Lord." Finally, what you understood now
about the offerings that were made in the temple: What happens now in the new temple? In the first letter of Peter, in chapter two, it says: "Drawing near to him, to Christ, the living stone, rejected by people, but precious in the sight of God, you are now living stones." The building is not made of material stones; it is the people who are the living stones that build the building, this spiritual sanctuary for a holy priesthood, to offer offerings which are only the love which manifests this divine life that Christ has communicated to us. Thus, the smell of incense which God is not interested in, is set aside, but the smell of the spikenard which is the symbol of the love given, which is that of Christ, absolutely gratuitous love that comes to love and to give one's life even for the one who does evil to you, for the enemy. Let's listen now how John concludes this episode:
“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.”
Perhaps the conclusion of this episode is a bit surprising. We wonder how it is that Jesus does not welcome with joy these people who wanted to give him their adhesion, they seem to be well disposed towards him. Let's reflect, we are at the beginning of the public life of Jesus and let's ask ourselves what these people could have understood about the proposal of a new world that Jesus was making, what they could have understood about the new relationship with God that he was beginning to propose.
This is the danger: to give him the adhesion without having fully understood what this implies. The gospel passage says that Jesus knows the heart of the people and must have read in their eyes that they are sincere people but that it is too soon to welcome them, so that they already consider themselves disciples and therefore run the risk of deceiving themselves,
that they are already in the new world, in the kingdom of God.
He sees them still very much attached in their hearts to the old religion, that religion that people like so much; after all, that religion that makes you feel better than the others because through this religion, you can offer sacrifices to God through good deeds; and also gives you hope for a reward from God because you have earned it by obeying his commands. Jesus said enough to this religion that must be demolished; but perhaps it is a religion that we continue to cultivate today and that's why Jesus doesn't reject these people and he doesn't reject us either, but he invites us to reflect on what we have really understood of his proposal in order, not to let ourselves be carried away by fragile enthusiasms.
Then Jesus seems to want to say to them and also to us: 'go deep, little by little, in my proposal of a new world and of a new relationship with the heavenly Father and become aware of what it means for you to belong to the new sanctuary which is my person.' I wish you all a good Sunday, a good week and a good journey in this time of Lent.