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The temple Jesus purifies is the human heart

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Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple by Rembrandt. IMAGE: Wikimedia commons

We all know the story of Jesus making a whip of cords and knocking over the money changers’ tables in the temple. People do love this passage, and generally imagine themselves as Jesus, wrecking the place when sinners aren’t acting right.

Let’s think about this. It’s not quite the story people think it is. It’s much more frightening, but not in a bad way.

First, what, exactly, was so awful about having money changers there? They were conducting business in what was supposed to be a sacred place, and that was horrific enough. But the other offense was that it was an exploitative business, extracting unlawful interest from people who had a religious obligation to spend their money on pilgrimage.

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The other people Jesus chased out, the dove sellers, were also hurting the poor, in particular, because doves were the animals that the very poor would offer in sacrifice if they couldn’t afford a lamb. So it was a double profanation: Not only making the temple into a place of business when it was supposed to be a place of worship, but doing it in a way that specifically targeted God’s especial beloved, the poor.

Jesus’ anger matches up perfectly with what he tells us about the greatest commandment. When the Pharisees asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

You could express it this way: Our purpose is to worship God, and the way we are to express this worship is by being good to each other. Precisely the opposite of what was happening in the temple: Rather than praying to God, they were doing business—literally crowding worship out, and taking up the space that was meant for prayer, and making it into something else. And they were using that space—and also their heart, soul, and mind—to exploit their neighbours.

So, what about that idea that we are like Jesus, crashing into a scene of profanation and letting our righteous anger blaze as we topple tables and employ the whip on the sinners we find, in defence of the good and holy and pure? Isn’t it sometimes our job to be like Jesus?

Actually, Jesus is like Jesus. That’s always the safest assumption to make, when we’re meditating on the Gospels. Only Jesus is like Jesus. But if you think I’m going to say that we are the money changers and the dove sellers, and we’re about to get our butts whipped and our tables overturned? Maybe. But here is another thought: We are the temple. Our hearts are the temple. Our souls are the temple.

We are the places where worship is supposed to take place. We are made to be a place of prayer. We, our hearts, are where we can stop and step away from the grimy business and aggravation and dishonesty and exploitation of the fallen world, and we can go and meet God.

Jesus is so angry because he knows what we are supposed to be. He sees us in our potential state of wholeness and purity, and it infuriates him to see the profanation that has set up shop in our hearts. That’s why he wants to chase it out. The anger isn’t directed at us; it is on our behalf. It is directed at sin, at addiction, at weakness, at temptation, at anything that crowds out prayer and the right order of what we are made for: The worship of God.

His anger is on our behalf because we are also the poor. We are the ones who have so little to offer, we just have to make do with the very minimum of sacrifices. Jesus is enraged when we sees anything making it harder for us to do what the best part of us wants to do, which is to make a tiny little gesture of love for God. This is what makes him topple tables and fashion a whip.

This isn’t the end of the story. As far as I can recall, there is only one other time that a whip is mentioned in the Gospels, and that is when Jesus is its victim, when he is preparing to die for us. This is why I say the story is frightening, but in a good way.

How does Jesus drive sin out of the temple of our hearts? He both wields the whip, and he feels it. That’s why St Paul says: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” That’s what that means. Jesus didn’t start doing this on Calvary; he did it his whole life.

Jesus sees us, loves us, knows what we were made for. He is angry at how we have been profaned, and he drives that profanation out with a whip. But he also puts himself under the whip, to shield us from every blow. This is how he loves us and purifies us, who are his temple and his beloved poor. Pray that you will let it happen.

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