There are two main differences between John’s version of this event and the other gospels.
While the other gospels have the Cleansing of the Temple take place in week before the crucifixion, John has it take place at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, just after the wedding at Cana and just before his midnight conversation with Nicodemus.
- For the other gospel writers, this event is an element in the growing conflict between Jesus and the establishment.
- For John, the Cleansing of the Temple is an event that sets the tone for Jesus’ public life. Perhaps, if we were using current management jargon, we’d say the Cleansing of the Temple was part of Jesus’ “mission statement”.
And I believe there were two reasons why:
- One reason was because of Jesus did not see animal sacrifice as an appropriate way to worship God.
- The second reason was because Jesus did not want to stop the poor from worshipping God.
On the one hand, Jesus did not see animal sacrifice as an appropriate way to worship God.
Like many places of worship in the ancient world, the worship at the Temple in Jerusalem was centered on animal sacrifice. This wasn’t just a Jewish thing. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, all did the same thing. When they worshipped their gods, they all sacrificed animals as a major part of the worship.
Interestingly, we hear strong criticisms of the practice of animal sacrifice by many of the Old Testament prophets, centuries before the time of Jesus. For example, we hear in one passage from Micah:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? …
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Centuries later, by the time of Jesus, this debate was still actively going on among the Jews. The question was: “Should religion focus on sacrifice, or should it focus on prayer, study, and ethical living?” The two main factions of Pharisees and Saduccees took opposing views in this question. The Saduccees advocated sacrfices, while the Pharisees promoted a religion of prayer, study, and ethical living.
The question was pretty much settled after the Romans destroyed the Temple a few decades after the time of Jesus. While the Jews lamented the destruction of the Temple itself (and still do), the end of the actual sacrifices occasioned very little regret. They were ready to move on from a religion focused on sacrifice to one focused on prayer, study, and ethical living.
And there’s no prizes for guessing which side of this debate Jesus was on. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated the overflowing compassion of God, and the slaughter of animals as part of an act of worship would have clearly disgusted him. And so he chased the animals out of the Temple. At least these animals would not have their lives wasted.
Jesus and the poor
And also, on the other hand, Jesus did not want to stop the poor from worshipping God.
Buying the animals for the sacrifices was expensive. Many poor people could not afford to buy the sacrificial animals. Even without the cruelty involved in animal sacrifice, Jesus would have been offended by the injustice of any attitude that implied that any person’s standing before God was based on their ability to pay.
Jesus expressed his concern that poor should have the same access to God as the wealthy in another incident in the Temple, told both by Mark and by Luke, the story of the “Widow’s Mite”. People – mostly wealthy people - were queueing up to give cash offerings to the Temple. A poor widow put two little copper coins into the offering box. Jesus then said:
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus saw this as a good thing, that the widow gave all she had to the offering box. There was no “Go and do likewise” or anything like that. I believe that Jesus spoke these words with a profound sadness, a sadness that the widow felt the need to give her week’s food money to the Temple:
“ … she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Those were sad-sounding words. They weren’t words that said “OK, people, everyone should imitate that. Go and do likewise.”
The sadness in Jesus’ words also implied a strong criticism of anyone who encouraged any poor person to think she needed to give so excessively. I like to think that Jesus also sent one of the disciples to follow her and give her some money with the instructions “That’s not for the Temple. That’s so you can eat.”
Perhaps the sombre sadness that Jesus seems to have felt when confronted by the Widow’s Mite was also expressed by much more turbulent emotions on that day when Jesus’ concern for the poor and his revulsion over animal sacrifice collided. On that day, the day of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus got really annoyed and caused a cattle stampede in the midst of a place of public worship.
May we be enabled to share his compassion for all God’s creatures, his commitment to social justice for all people, and his conviction that no one shall be made to feel “second-class” in God’s presence.