This week’s Gospel lesson, the cleansing of the temple, tells one of the few stories that are found in all four gospels. Given the uniqueness of John’s gospel it is not surprising that it is presented with a Johannine twist. Rather than located near the end of Jesus’ life, where it is found in the Synoptic Gospels, John places it early in his public ministry. There also is another variation in the story, the rationale Jesus uses for the cleansing of the temple. Though the difference between John and the Synoptics is nuanced, it is important.
According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, as Jesus is turning over tables and chasing out animals, he states that “His father’s house has become a den of thieves.” Taken at face value, it would appear that the issue is one of fair trade. The vendors selling sacrifices and changing money were scalping the pilgrims in need of their wares. However, in John, Jesus states that the problem is that the temple precincts have become a “market place.”
A narrative ploy in the Gospel of John is the use of level of meaning. There is the plain or literal meaning, but also a deeper symbolic meaning. For instance, Jesus telling Nicodemus he must be born again. Nicodemus assumes a second passage through the birth canal. Jesus means a birth from God above. If it isn’t pushing the text too much, the issue of the temple being a “market place” could refer to the buying and selling of sacrificial gifts. That, in and of itself is problematic. However, it also could refer to a transactional view of worship. In other words, the selling of sacrifices contributed to a view of worship in which pilgrims saw pious acts of worship as the capital through which they could obtain grace.
Remember this episode follows the miracle at the wedding of Cana. Most commentators see in this account a transformation of constant ceremonial cleansing symbolized in the purification jars to a new source of atonement through the wine as a Eucharistic foreshadowing. Following the cleansing of the temple, Jesus encounters Nicodemus and draws an analogy between his crucifixion and the bronze serpent that brought healing to the Israelites. After that comes the encounter with a Samaritan woman and the question of true worship. All this suggests that Jesus reveals a new access to God and a deeper understanding on how God relates to human beings.
In this reflective season of Lent, it seems as if this text calls us to ask about our motivations for worship and faithful practices. Are our actions and disciplines attempts to purchase God’s favor or are they joyful responses to God’s prior gift of grace? Are we seeking to earn divine approval or do we act in faithful ways because we are inspired by God’s mercy? Granted, rarely would we state it so crassly. However, there is a significant difference in worshiping so that God will be pleased and worshiping because of God’s pleasure in us.
The same can be said about our service. We do not do the tasks of ministry in order to receive God’s love and approval. Rather, they flow from God’s prior announcement, “You are my daughter/son, with whom I am well pleased.” We already are loved and already accepted. God already delights in us. It is because of this that we are called, gifted and sent.
I pray that in this Lenten season, you will claim and live into the truth of God’s absolute love for you. You do not need to earn that love or purchase that love. Rather, live out of that love and be free to do your best and know that is sufficient.
If you would like to view past editions of Moments with Mike, follow this link: https://corridordistrictnc.org/category/from-the-ds/