Lord, You have the words of everlasting life! This means that when we hear the words of Scripture, God can speak to every one of our hearts. The Spirit wants to speak to us through these words. But we also need to be careful of the counter-movements of the Enemy. There are two counter-movements we need to be very careful about with this powerful Gospel of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem.
First, there is the temptation to be afraid of Jesus, to think that if He walked into our lives right now, the first thing He would do is begin to flip tables and whip us because of our sins. This is not what this Gospel is about. Second, on the other hand, is the temptation to see Jesus merely as a justification of our maybe justifiable, but nonetheless sin-tainted anger. Sometimes we might think that the first answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” is to flip over tables and whip sinners. Again, this is not what this Gospel is about.
It’s important to slow down and realize who Jesus is and what He is actually doing in this moment. Notice, just in the way this story is told in John’s Gospel, they admit to not realizing even until after Jesus had risen from the dead what this prophetic sign even meant—it was pointing to His Resurrection. It took them time of reflection and humility to realize what Jesus was doing in this moment.
So if you’re thinking that you’d like to flip over some tables and whip somebody out of the Church, please first consider what Jesus is doing here, according to John’s Gospel:
The sinless Son of God, the Word made flesh, the icon of the invisible God, through Whom God has created all things, has come into His Father’s house, the Temple where God has desired for a thousand years to dwell among His people. And because He is the Father’s heir, it is His Temple. He walks in during one of the holiest times of the year, Passover, during which in a couple of years He Himself would be offered as the perfect Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of the world, in order to bring all humanity back into true worship and right relationship with the Father, only to find that the animals for sacrifice are being sold within the space that non-Jews would have been using for worship of Israel’s God, if they had so listened to the Lord’s invitation to all nations to worship Him in Jerusalem. So Jesus, in fulfillment of Psalm 69, in the zeal of Israel’s God, drives out the animals (not the humans themselves, take note!) with a whip and commands the cages of doves to be carried out. He turns over tables and throws down coins, so as to end the transactions that are lawful, but happening in the wrong place. And He does all this to “cleanse” the Temple, but also, ultimately, to prepare it for its own desacralization and destruction within the the next generation, about forty years later. So Jesus notes that in His authority as the sinless Son of God, the Word made flesh, the icon of the invisible God, through Whom God has created all things, the heir of this House, the true Temple—the true dwelling of God and place of sacrifice—that will be destroyed and built up again will not be this building, but His body, to be sacrificed on the Cross and risen from the dead.
So, until you are sure that you have that kind of authority to walk into Church and think that some tables need to be turned over and sinners whipped out of the Temple, you should probably consider a gentler approach. You should consider what the Lord hopes to change in you first, to fit you more perfectly into His body, which is the Church built of living stones.
In other words, how is the Lord inviting you to be changed? How is the Lord inviting you to the zeal of Jesus, which seeks not to take the lives of sinners, but to let your own life be given for their sake.
This idea of zeal throughout the Old Testament actually meant violence done to sinners and idolaters. It was done out of love of God, and we can’t be overly and unfairly judgmental of this zeal, which, in its own way at the time, sought this true worship and right relationship with the God of Israel. There are some of the greatest examples of the heroes of Israel, who in their zeal destroyed sinners and idolaters. There is Phinehas in Numbers 25, who killed a fellow Israelite and his foreign bride because of the idolatry they brought into the camp of Israel. There is Elijah, one of the most powerful prophets of greatest renown, who killed four hundred prophets of the false gods after proving Israel’s God to be more powerful than their own. There is one of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, Jehu, who decimated the family line of the idolatrous king who preceded him, then destroyed the temple of the false gods with all their worshippers within. There is Mattathias and his family in the books of the Maccabees, who fought back even on the Sabbath against the Syrians and other paganizing Jews in order to reestablish and reconverted the desecrated Temple, leading to the feast of Hanukkah. Finally, we can even look at St. Paul, who in this long line of distinguished zealous Israelites, sought to imprison and execute Christians, only to let himself be overcome by the zeal of Christ, which sought not to take the lives of others, but to give His own life away for their sake.
For so long, Israel gloried in the violence done to others for the sake of the Glory of the God of Israel. They are not always right in doing so. But Jesus’ zeal for the Father’s house is different—it allows violence to be done to Himself.
How gloriously different is the zeal that consumes Christ and us! How gloriously different are all the saints! So we can consider the words of CS Lewis, who recognized that the saints and their zeal is so gloriously different from the glorious violence of the past and of the authoritarian violence of the present:
“There are no real personalities apart from God. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most 'natural' men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerers have been; how gloriously different are the saints. But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away 'blindly' so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality; but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him...Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” // CS Lewis, “Mere Christianity”
So we will only find ourselves in Christ and in His zeal, by which He did not take lives, but gave His own. May we be consumed by Christ in the Eucharist, and so discover our true selves, so as to give ourselves away for the sanctification of the world as God’s dwelling place.