Arguably, this could be another sermon for Palm Sunday, since the events it reflects upon take place at the end of that day. Nonetheless, since it plays such a decisive role in the death of Jesus, the Cleansing of the Temple is the first of the events that we might typically think about about during Holy Week.
Jesus Makes a Space for Worship
In any reformation, or revolution for that matter, the easy bit is knowing what is wrong with the current system. The hard part is knowing what to put in its place after it has been overthrown. When we hear the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, our attention almost always seems to fall on that first part. What was wrong. And Jesus overturning it. What often falls from our attention is what Jesus creates afterwards.
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus goes directly to the Temple. What he finds there doesn’t please him. He passes judgement on how the Temple is operating:
“It is written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’
We don’t need the scene describing to us directly, Matthew doesn’t offer us that. From Jesus’ words of condemnation we are quite capable of picturing what was wrong for ourselves. The Temple was crowded. Especially so during this most important festival, Passover. But it was crowded in a way that made its intended purpose almost impossible. The Temple was so busy and so noisy that it was almost impossible to think, let alone pray. And much of the space was taken up by activities that, to us, don’t seem to belong. The pens that held animals for sacrifice. The tables of the money changers, who exchanged profane, pagan denarii, for the acceptable silver shekels. And the crates of pigeons, available to those too poor to buy lambs to sacrifice. It resembled most of all a market, probably one busier than the pilgrims were used to seeing take place in their own village squares. And it was a market rife with exploitation and corruption. It had a monopoly, so it could afford to inflate its prices beyond those charged in the village squares. And no doubt the Priests who, in theory, were in control of that space, profited handsomely from the permission they might give or withhold from the traders who operated there. It is easy to see what needed to be changed, what had to be got rid of.
It has never been the case, that the Church, or any church, was perfect The neat Latin phrase for the state of the Church is: semper reformenda: “Always in need of reform.” That is just as true of the church we are part of as it is of every other church that has ever existed. Everyone who has ever been a member of a church has had a list of the things they thought needed to be different. Sometimes that sensation has become so powerful and so widespread that a reformer, or a group of reformers have stepped forward and tried to bring an end to the abuses they were so keenly aware of in the life of the Church. The pattern of divided denominations that we see the Church existing as today is the residue of that. And every one of those denominations is in as much need of reform as all the rest. But as we said at the beginning, seeing that there is a problem, and even recognising what that problem is, is the easy part.
Jesus empties the Temple court of the animals and their sellers and of the money changers. In so doing he takes control of that space. He makes this his base of operations for his time in Jerusalem. It is here that he teaches and ministers during this last week of his earthly life, and he uses it to create a new community for the praise of God. What we so often overlook in this story, because we focus on what Jesus’ righteous indignation and what that says about him, what we overlook is what Jesus does next. He clears a space, but then Jesus does the difficult thing, he fills it with something else. He brings together people who would normally be excluded from the Temple so that they can worship God.
The poor are often excluded from organised religion because organised religion is expensive. The Temple was a magnificent building, truly a glory to God. But it costs money to run something like that. That money was the Temple Tax. That was why the money changers were there. So right away those who cannot pay the tax are excluded. Likewise the practice of religion itself was costly. The price of a lamb for sacrifice was beyond the means of the poor to pay for. Allowance was made for that, which is why there were pigeons for sale as well. But as so often happens, the accommodation that as been made for the poor becomes merely an opportunity to exploit and control them. Jesus emptied the Temple, so that worship of God could be free. Free in the sense of being open to all. But free also in the sense of the poor not having to bear its cost, or that cost being used to exclude them.
Above all the Church exists for the poor. But in subtle ways the Church still often excludes them. The social pressure to wear one’s “Sunday best” in order to attend church is much reduced. But there is still a sense – whether it is real or not – that one needs to be respectable to attend church. The way we look as we go into church week by week sends a subtle message about the kind of people who attend church, and those who shouldn’t. We have also made our churches shockingly expensive exercises. We are painfully aware of just how much it costs, in terms of money, but also in terms of effort and skills, to keep our churches running. It is worth observing that almost the only churches which seem to thrive are suburban ones. The ones in relatively comfortable, affluent communities. Without putting too fine a point on it; we have a church which requires middle class incomes and middle class skills to run. The contrast with what Jesus does in the Temple should worry us. Jesus creates a space in the Temple for the poor to worship God.
One group who had always explicitly been excluded from the Temple’s worship were the disabled. The Temple regulations in the book of Leviticus state:
No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. [Lev. 21:16-24]
The regulations go on to list who it means cannot offer sacrifice. This includes the blind and the lame. But among others also includes those with a mutilated face, a limb too long, and hunchbacks. King David likewise excluded the blind and the lame from his house – the immediate predecessor of the Temple – he said:
The blind and the lame shall not come into the house. [2 Sam. 5:8]
The very first group who join Jesus in the emptied Temple are the blind and the lame:
The blind and the lame came to him in the Temple and he cured them.
In the last generation great strides have been made to make all public spaces accessible to everyone regardless of their physical or other abilities. But it often took secular anti-discrimination legislation to make churches respond as fully as they should. Our buildings were often difficult to access. There were four or five steps up to the front door, and then numerous steps up and down inside. Things are for the most part better now, level access into and throughout the building through wider doors. Though not always! The physical obstacles have been removed. But perhaps the issue is not so much ability as difference. It was difference as much a ability that kept the disabled out of sight and excluded in the past. The community that gathers around Jesus for worship in the Temple is diverse. Its diversity is highlighted by the presence of the disabled, but it is not limited to them. Something that our churches often lack is diversity. Not just the absence of people whose abilities may be limited. For the most part our churches are filled with people who are just like ourselves. Few of our congregations could be called diverse. Which means we seldom have the opportunity to see the power of Jesus to heal and reconcile. Again the contrast with what Jesus does in the Temple should worry us.
Jesus creates a space in the Temple for a diverse community to gather and to have its differences reconciled by his healing presence.
The other group who had always been excluded from the Temple were children. They too are suddenly present and included in the space which Jesus has created. Children were effectively non-persons, and were excluded from everything in public life. The disciples themselves had attempted to keep children away from Jesus. In so doing they merely reflected the attitudes of their society. Children though, were irresistibly drawn to Jesus. They grasp what Jesus is about more readily than do the adults. Jesus could see this. Children were always a focus of his ministry. And he pointed to children to show what being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven should look like. Now the voices of children are praising God, in the Temple:
“Hosanna to the Son of David”
They sang. Of all the things that could have made the Priests angry; disrupting the business of the temple, bringing the lame and the blind into the temple, contrary to what was written. It was the voices of children singing that prompted the Priests’ fury! Showing conclusively that they were incapable of entering the kingdom Jesus is establishing. Since they can neither receive the kingdom as children do, nor welcome children as Jesus does.
Overall we would like to think that our society has a more positive attitude to children. We devote a great deal of resources to the care and development of children. The safety and well-being of children is probably the number one priority in church and quite possibly in society at large. Safeguarding has made us more willing to listen to the voices of children. And we tell ourselves that we long more than anything else to have more children in church. But every parent who has ever taken their children into church still knows the sharp looks and tutting they receive when their children aren’t silent and practically invisible. And even when it is not that blatant, we often sense that children being children in church would disrupt the way we want to worship. And we welcome them only on the basis that we won’t have to change anything to accommodate them. So that, often whilst we want children in church, we don’t want them in church with us. When we do have children we separate them off into activities of their own. Once more the contrast with what Jesus does in the Temple should worry us. Jesus creates a space in the Temple where it is the voices of children who take the lead in guiding the worship of the people of God.
Knowing what needs to change is the easy bit. Sweeping away everything that we don’t like might be relatively easy to accomplish. Putting the right thing in its place is much more difficult. Not only does Jesus clear the Temple, but he restores and reforms its worship by what he puts into the place he has cleared. Jesus intends to establish a community for the praise of God. A community that is fully inclusive. Inclusive of the poor, since they are the chief focus of God’s concern. Inclusive of the disabled, and of diversity more widely, since in that diversity is revealed God’s power to heal and to reconcile. Inclusive of children, since it is their response which shows us all how to worship God. In emptying the temple or in reforming us and our church, Jesus want to create the space for that community and that worship.
Jesus makes a space for worship by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.