The violent act by which Jesus cleansed the Temple in today’s Gospel has long been a subject of debate. Was Jesus speaking out against market forces; attacking the religious cult of his time; or trying to reassert the true purpose of a sacred space?
For the Israelites the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple, was a place like no other. It was the place God was encountered in a unique way. When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans just a few decades after the crucifixion the Jewish leaders of the time argued that now the home, and the table where the Sabbath meal was shared, had become the ‘small sanctuary’ for a faithful people scattered across the world.
For Christians that place of meeting with God is even more personal than where a meal is shared in the home. God comes among us and within us. Charles Wesley uses that idea in the hymn I Thou Who Camest from Above when he wrote: ‘kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart’. In his poem Love George Herbert similarly portrays the encounter with God as intimate and direct: “’You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ So I did sit down and eat”.
Beliefs shape us and influence the course of our lives. It seems to me that the outrage of Jesus about the market place invading the Temple was about the creeping tendency of trade to fashion our relations not only with one another but with God. It may be that the free market is the least harmful of various alternatives, but when left to operate without restriction it poses major threats to human wellbeing. It is about more than just buying and selling. Writing about the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers William Kenan argues that:
“capitalism constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer.”
Human beings have always traded and probably always will. But when that trade defines our relationships in religion we lose the place to reflect on the very purpose of that trade. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The Temple was somewhere that put the rest of life into perspective. The value of those who went there shouldn’t have been defined by the wealth of what they could buy to sacrifice. As Jesus made clear in the parable of the widow’s mite, the market cannot evaluate the true cost of giving or the depth of someone’s relationship with God.
In 2 Corinthians 6:16 Paul writes that “we are the temple of the living God”. Like the Jewish homes with their ‘small sanctuary’, the Christian has a place set aside where true values are treasured and acted upon. It is both within us and shared in the company of the Church. When we meet together in worship our value isn’t defined by wealth but by love: and we are invited to see the value of the world in the same way.
Lead Chaplain at Leeds NHS Trust Hospital