Around the Elephant

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19)

Today’s gospel confronts us with the proverbial elephant in the living room – an obvious problem that just gets bigger the more it’s ignored.

It looks like the Son of God commits an act of impetuous vandalism. One spin on this story is that the people Jesus was harassing were doing bad things, and so deserved to be harassed. Yet the activities themselves were quite necessary to the purpose of the temple. People needed to be able to buy the appropriate animal to offer in sacrifice, so there was a need for livestock vendors. Jewish law prohibited the use of Roman coins in these transactions, so there was a need for money changers.

A passage like this could leave us a bit cynical and doubtful about the Christian claim that Jesus is himself the sinless, spotless, Passover lamb, offered in sacrifice for us. So maybe this is one time when to focus entirely on the literal elements of a biblical account will prevent us from understanding its true meaning. Let’s not allow the presence of the “elephant ” to keep us from looking carefully around the room and seeing what else is there. Our invitation is to get behind the literal details and see some profound symbolism.

What does the temple represent? It is the physical icon of the whole legal and social and religious infrastructure of the Jewish people. Indeed, it is a symbol of the entire economy under which all human beings transact their business with God. In a sense then, Jesus is now “taking possession ” of the temple and declaring it to be obsolete.

The rules are about to change. There’s a new regime taking office. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple announces the inbreaking rule of grace – a God who is “with us,” a God whose true temple is his own body. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Look at me. This temple is so ‘yesterday.’ I’m what’s happening. Keep your eyes on me.”

There is no entirely clean and satisfying explanation for the scandal of Jesus’ anger. The elephant, apparently, isn’t going anywhere. Yet, we can decorate around it. We can look past the bare facts of this gospel narrative and see that in his action, Jesus announces the demise of a system under which God’s default mood is anger and our default attitude toward him is fear – and the replacement of that system with a one under which God’s default mood is compassion, and our default attitude in one of gratitude.

Elephant? What elephant?

Look it Up

This is only one of several gospel passages that say, in effect, “Jesus replaces the temple.” See also Luke 2:21-38, Luke 2:41:51, Mark 13:1-2, Mark 13:37-38.

Think About It

The feeling of anger is morally neutral (and unavoidable!). Yet, anger is listed as one of the “seven deadly sins.” What conditions turn simple anger into anger that is spiritually deadly?


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