Icon: The cleansing of the Temple
All too often this story has been used to justify violence. The argument goes, “Jesus used violence to drive the traders from the temple. Therefore there are situations where violence is warranted. Therefore this situation requires violence.”
The problem with this is not so much the fragility of the argument, as the distraction that it has become.
The emphasis should fall on the words of Jesus, “This is a house of prayer”. (A quote from Isaiah 56:7) Silence and prayer in the place of worship is paramount. Mark includes a second phrase from the Isaiah quote – “For all nations”. On one hand, the action of Jesus is an attack on the sacrificial system, for he drives out those who provide the animals for sacrifice, replacing those rituals with prayer. On the other hand, he also attacks the exclusiveness of temple worship, by overturning the tables where Roman money was exchanged for a special temple coinage.
All four Gospels refer to the cleansing of the temple, but there are differences, first in detail and secondly in placement.
In the synoptic gospels, this incident upsets the priests and it becomes the occasion for their determination to kill Jesus. For them it is an attack on the whole legalistic, sacrificial system, which Jesus wants to replace with a life based on grace that is available to all. Thus Matthew, Mark and Luke place the cleansing at the beginning of Holy Week. In John, the motive for the plot to kill Jesus is provided by the raising of Lazarus, and the subsequent popularity of Jesus.
John couples the cleansing of the temple with the wedding at Cana, where water is turned into wine. Both narratives contribute to the theme that Jesus takes something old and turns it into something new. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days”. The new temple is the temple of his body, a place of prayer. Christian worship is to differ in kind from that of the Jerusalem temple. As Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman at the well, two chapters later, the physical location of worship, whether in Jerusalem on the Samaritans’ holy mountain, is not important. True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)
The icon depicts the essentials of the narrative:
Jesus has a whip, though a tiny one,
One small table is overturned,
Coins are scattered,
A money changer flees with an empty box,
The cattle are two sheep and one goat,
The temple in the background is a series of courts.
But there is more in the icon than the narrative. One person with a small rope is not sufficient against so many. Some other power than the so called violence of Jesus is driving the merchants out.
Consider the architecture. Three arches dominate. Many Russian churches have this form, and it is always a symbol of the Trinity. Thus the temple is changed into something new. The icon adds a traditional device. A curtain indicates the difference between the seen and the unseen worlds. Above the curtain is the realm of the spirit, below the material realm where things can be seen and touched. This “temple” rises from the world below, pierces the curtain and provides a way into the presence of God. It is a place of prayer for all nations.
As I contemplate this icon, I feel I belong in the new temple of Christ’s body, and find peace and silence before God. Yet sometimes I wonder if there is still a bit more cleansing to be done within me, and within the church.
Lord Jesus Christ, the temple of your body is a living reality, clean and pure.
Your body is my temple too.
Let me not stumble at the cleansing of my temple. Always there is need for me to grow, to leave something behind, something new for me to find.
The church is your body, your temple, and there is room for cleansing here too.
Come, cleanser of the temple.
Come to your church, as it is today,
Come to all nations and peoples, as they are today,
Come to me, as I am today,
Come and create a house of prayer, and blessed silence, a hope for the world.
May worship in spirit and in truth prevail, and provide a foretaste of the world to come.