The Radicality of the New Covenant

Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, John 2:13-25.

Today we receive the Word of God in its most accepted and unchallenged form (the Ten Commandments) and then it its most radical and challenging — St. Paul bragging of the humiliation of the Cross and Jesus Himself blowing up the concept of the Jewish temple as a sacred meeting place with God. The scene of Jesus casting out the moneychangers and animals was so serious that the Jews used this as one of the two main charges against Christ in His trial (that He claimed to be God and He wanted to destroy the temple). We need to ask ourselves why Jesus was so radical in today’s gospel and what it tells us about His New Covenant with us.

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (Kristus uddriver kræmmerne af templet), after 1570, from the workshop of Pieter Brueghel the Elder | Wikimedia Commons.

St. John’s account of this scene occurs at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, unlike the three synoptic gospels where it occurs at the end. To me, this is interesting because it is another example of how John’s worldview is so transformed by Christ. Every event and detail overflow with His divinity; Christ is in control and in His power and glory throughout the gospel of John. The first thing that jumped out at me was the whip of cords (a flail or scourge) being used to drive the moneychangers and the animals out of the Temple. Jesus using a scourge on people? A close translation is needed here and unfortunately the Lectionary isn’t exact on this line. The original Greek applies the whip in a sentence only related to the animals. Here is the scholar David Bentley Hart’s translation: “And, having fashioned a stockwhip out of cords, he drove all of both the sheep and the oxen out of the Temple; he also spilled out the coins and overturned the tables of the moneychangers.” So while Jesus undoubtedly uses forceful methods to get the animals and money interests out of the Temple, it is not a depiction of violence against another human. This passage has been used to justify righteous war and violence, not to mention a “muscular” Christianity, and I think these are misunderstandings and poor applications of Jesus’s example.

Christ’s point here is that they should “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” Historically speaking, having animals and moneychangers in the Temple served a very practical purpose. For those who traveled far to reach the Temple at Jerusalem, it was inconvenient and difficult to bring their required animal sacrifice with them. It was much more convenient to be able to buy an animal for sacrifice there. The doves, in particular, were targeted towards the poor and women/widows who couldn’t afford a lamb or ox but who still needed an animal sacrifice. And Jewish law forbade foreign or secular coinage to be used in the Temple, hence the proliferation of money changers. Jerusalem was both a holy city and a crossroads for many cultures — caravan routes from Asia and Africa crossed there, as well as Gallic and Roman people from Europe thanks to the Roman Empire. The livestock and money changers, therefore, served a very useful purpose. But Jesus is clearly incensed that they are operating there in the Temple. I think we must not mistake this for a simple desire for Temple purity. Jesus was not overly concerned with this type of fetishization of purity, as the Pharisees criticized several times (pointing out that his disciples did not fast like they did nor did He and his disciples fastidiously wash before meals like they did). Instead, I think His point is that the Jews were placing the doing of the deeds ahead of the heart-and-soul encounter with God. This is consistent with His critique of the Pharisees and scribes: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Mt 23:4-5a). Yes, the livestock and money changers serve a useful purpose but this purpose is not to deepen the faithful’s experience with God. Instead, it is a marketplace of convenience, serving the needs and desires of humans. What’s more, those who sold the livestock and changed money made their living in this fashion — essentially profiting from a person’s journey to worship God. This self-serving practice is certainly not fit to occupy a position within the Temple. Perhaps the difficulty of bringing animals to the Temple was part of God’s plan to help people prepare their hearts for meeting Him, much like our Lenten sacrifices. Perhaps the prescriptions on Temple coinage also came about purely as part of a bureaucracy of human convenience and desire. 

The Temple Sacrifice (1995), Zely Smekhov | Image from zely-smekhov.com/

In this light, it becomes much more clear why Jesus became so upset as to drive off the livestock and command the money changers to leave. This was no longer a dwelling place for the Lord, a sacred temple unto Him. It was simply a place of ritualized practices developed with convenience and efficiency in mind. The Jews had reduced the temple to spiritual rubble all on their own. All that was left was for Christ to formally show the inadequacy and irrelevance of the Temple as He instituted a new temple in His Body and Blood. This was not understood yet, but what was apparent was the pure shock of Jesus’s actions. Any disruption to Temple workings would be an affront to those in power — the scribes, the elders, the Sanhedrin. They held the authority in this place, and this traveling preacher was a nothing in their book. Such actions were tantamount to terrorism in their eyes. Add to this the fact that He was disrupting commerce and the ability for many people to obtain animals for their ritual sacrifices, and the pure radical nature of this act is apparent.

Yet let’s not get carried away with this image of Jesus’s forcefulness and a promise of temple destruction. That is the same road the Jewish zealots tread with their expectation of the Messiah. God has His own way that does not correspond to human intelligence or intuition; that way is always love and self-sacrifice. We get the first hint of the underlying divine Way and Truth in the midst of this scene when the Evangelist writes, “His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.” This passage comes from Psalm 69, the Prayer for Deliverance from Persecution. Despite what it sounds like — someone being taken over by righteous anger (zeal) and lifted up to a position of power — this scriptural reference is to someone who is greatly persecuted and at the end of their rope, pleading for God’s deliverance. There is a real desperation in Psalm 69, which begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.” It continues: “Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me … It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face … It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” In many ways, St. John’s use of this reference early on in his gospel is a foreshadowing of the Passion and Death of our Savior. It also helps us connect to the final lines in today’s gospel when John tells us that Jesus understood human nature well. His great empathy with us comes from His Incarnation and living a fully human life; He knows life’s temptations and failings. The desperation of Psalm 69 speaks to the common human experience of trying to be faithful to God amid a culture consumed with earthly things. The reference to this psalm underlines the drastic nature of the Temple’s decline in Jesus’s mind as well as a people so committed to their rituals instead of the presence of God in their midst that they will persecute and kill Him. 

As our gospel continues, the Jews, likely angered and put out, demand from Him: “What signs do you show us, since you do these things?” Now, of course Jesus could have healed someone, raised someone from the dead, or performed some other miracle, but we are validating the mindset of the Jews if we think this way. Jesus only does miracles to bring people closer to God, to take away spiritual blindness, to enkindle hope or teach them about spiritual sustenance. The stakes here are not individual journeys of faith but the very locus of faith for the entire human race. The Temple was God’s dwelling place on earth, the most sacred place for humanity. What sign of this magnitude can Jesus give them other than Himself? 

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600), version located in London, El Greco | Wikimedia Commons.

And so He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I shall raise it.” I envision Him saying this with a quiet calm, in contrast to His other forceful actions. As John tells us, “he was speaking about the temple of his body.” What greater sign could there possibly be than the Resurrection? But the import of this exchange between Jesus and the Jews is that this is not just a sign. As we now know, He establishes His Body and Blood as lasting spiritual food, as part of the New Covenant with humanity. The sign of the Resurrection denotes a new reality: the liturgy bursts upon us, divinification is made possible as we walk His Way faithfully, the mystical Church is born, eternal life is made available to humans, and the old Temple is made irrelevant. In some ways, I almost think we can read the first part of Christ’s sentence, “Destroy this temple,” as truly referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, almost like a directive to humanity. Yes, destroy this temple because you will no longer need it and its empty, convenience-driven rituals that have made it no longer fit as a dwelling place for God. And, because He is the dwelling place of God on earth, we can understand the destruction of the Temple and His own death as an equivalency. Thus, He will raise His Body, which is and already has been the only real Temple since the Incarnation.

Imagine the divine responsibility and patience it took for Him to know this reality and to attempt to teach it to the Jews in a way they could start to accept. Not only is it a mystery of faith to understand the starting point of the Incarnation and how it has irrevocably changed the entire Jewish religion, the ongoing work of Jesus in his ministry and acceptance of His own Sacrifice and Death is simply so counter-intuitive to our human conception of power and glory that it needed to be lived out to be believed. Thus, we hear John tell us that while He was in Jerusalem, “Jesus did not entrust himself” to all the people who started flocking to Him; and John notes that He “did not need anyone to testify about human nature for He himself understood it well.” Because He is fully human and fully divine, Jesus knows how human hearts are fickle and how people can quickly twist signs and prophets to their own ends. He desperately wants to love humanity and bring them close to Himself and the Father, but He must operate in the world in a way where His ultimate end as a loving sacrifice for humanity can be accomplished and not thwarted. Again, St. John presents us with a fully in-control Lord who steers Himself and His disciples to the New Covenant with single-minded purpose.

Artist’s illustration of a supernova, iStock

As I reach the end of my reflection, I’m struck by the radicality of the New Covenant that is Jesus Christ. So much is centered on Him, His Body and Spirit. He is the most dense spiritual supernova around which the universe rotates. He is the new Temple, transforming a type of ritual worship centered on a building into a true communion with God centered around spiritual food. No human could imagine such a transformation of the Jewish covenant. It took God to come in person to make this important transformation happen and in the process open up for us the gates of Heaven. I suppose this is why we have such a shocking scene as He upsets the entire Temple economy in today’s gospel. How else can we grapple with the sheer upending of our old way of knowing God?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.