When we celebrate an event like the anniversary of the consecration of the Abbey church, we are brought up short by the many negative things scripture says about temples and church buildings. Solomon humbly notes that not “even Heaven or the highest Heaven” can contain God, let alone a dinky temple in a backwater of civilization. Many of the prophets expressed discomfort or worse over the idea. David had wanted to build a temple but Nathan said God nixed it because David had fought too many battles that had made him impure for the task. A big part of the problem was that God wanted more elbow room than a temple would give. One of the more dramatic denunciations was Jeremiah’s admonition not to put any trust in stammering: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Fast forward to Jesus and we have him throwing the money changers and animals out of the temple.
What’s wrong with having a temple or a church building? Although Christians can and have worshiped in private houses, there are many practical reasons for having a building dedicated to worship, among them the problem of a host and hostess or their servants having to clean house before and after the service. Mircea Eliade famously pointed out humanity’s need of sacred space to draw attention to the Divine. St. Benedict affirmed the importance of the oratory in the monastery when he said that nothing else should be done there and nothing should be stored there so that there would be no mistaking this being the place for prayer and nothing but prayer. In throwing out the money changers, Jesus said that temple should not be a marketplace but a place of prayer.
There is an interesting detail in Matthew’s account of the cleansing of the temple that helps us understand Jesus’ actions in the temple. Jesus healed the blind and the lame who came to him there. We easily skip over this detail because Jesus was healing the blind and the lame all the time so yet another healing session doesn’t seem worthy of note. An obscure verse in Second Samuel sheds some light on this. When David brought his troops into Jerusalem, the Jebusites insulted David by saying that even the lame and the blind would turn him back. David reacts to the insult by heaping scorn on all lame and blind persons and barring them from the “house,” presumably once it was built. This was hardly fair to handicapped persons.
Jesus, by healing the lame and the blind was giving a strong signal that maybe he was the Messiah but if so, he was not a Davidic Messiah who would conquer by military might. More important, Jesus is giving us a positive teaching rather than simply denouncing the sacrificial cult. In short, Jesus was demonstrating, in action, the word of Hosea that God prefers mercy rather than sacrifice, a verse Jesus quoted more than once. In his first Epistle, Peter says we should rid ourselves of malice and all guile, insincerity, all slander and envy” so that we can become “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” We are the ones who are called to be the temple of God, the Church grounded in Jesus who is the true temple. Being living stones that prefer mercy to sacrifice is how we do it. If we so allow ourselves by the grace of God to become such living stones, then having a place dedicated to precisely that is more than just fine.
The story of Jesus knocking over the tables in the temple and driving out the animals shakes us up but then we wonder what we should be all shook up about. Jesus’ act can be seen as the climax of repeated protests of the Hebrew prophets against the sacrificial cult in the temple. Jeremiah mocked his listeners who jabbered: “This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” (Jer. 7:4). Then there is God’s mocking question from Psalm 50 and repeated elsewhere: “Do you think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?” Amos proclaims God’s hatred of festivals. Most telling are the words of Hosea that Jesus quoted: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6.) There is much debate as to whether the prophets wanted the abolition of the sacrificial cult or a reformation that would bring it in line with moral values. In driving out not only the money changers but also the animals about to be sacrificed, I think Jesus is doing a bit of guerrilla theater to prophecy the end of the temple cult, a prophecy fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the combined violence of militant Jew and the imperialistic Romans resulted in its destruction.
When asked to explain his actions, Jesus said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) This literalist interpretation is promptly debunked by the evangelist when he says that Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2: 21). So much for biblical literalism. The implication that Jesus is replacing the temple with his risen body is a strong indication that he intended to abolish the sacrificial cult. What was wrong with the sacrificial cult? The quote from Psalm 69 “zeal for your house will consume me” shows us the problem if we note the context. Psalm 69 begins with “Save me O God for the waters have risen up to my neck.” The psalmist tells God that he is suffering the same reproach people level against God: “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” This psalm is referred to as one of the “passion psalms” and has been interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. However, I don’t think the psalmist was gazing into a crystal ball and seeing Christ’s Passion; I think the psalmist was complaining about collective violence that was happening to him at the time. The number of persecution psalms and the fate of many prophets, suggests that the Gospels are revealing the human tendency to solve social conflicts by uniting against a victim which is precisely the outcome Jesus predicts when he explains his actions at the temple. T
he prophets consistently denounced the sacrifices made on the “high places,” pagan sacrifices to deities like Moloch who even required the sacrifice of their children. The sacrifice in the temple was more humane in that it was restricted to animals, but the practice derived from the notion that “god” was angry and would be appeased only by sacrifices. The prophets’ denunciations of the temple cult were consistently coupled with denunciations of social violence and injustice where the poor were sold for a pair of sandals as Amos complained. Although it is argued that the prophets thought the temple sacrifices were acceptable, maybe even laudable, if accompanied with righteous actions in the social sphere, but they seem to have a sneaky suspicion that the practice of sacrifice tends to encourage social injustice. The temple setup was, after all, a terrible financial burden on the poor. (I think Jesus was not edified but outraged over the widow who gave the last two coins she had to live on.) The logic of sacrifice was that some living being was always dispensable precisely as the victims of collective violence at the times of social crises were dispensable and their deaths “necessary.” Caiaphas stated the sacrificial logic baldly when he said that it was better “to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50) In modern times this sacrificial logic is expressed by the regretful term “collateral damage.” These considerations suggest that the prophets were convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with sacrificial rites.
Jesus, on the other hand, has a totally different, opposite logic; a logic that Paul says is foolishness to the rest of the world. In John 6, Jesus says that everybody the Father gives him will come to him and nobody who comes to him will be driven away. The parable of the lost sheep makes the same point that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that even one of his “little ones” should be lost. Jesus believed this so strongly that he would accept death on the cross to make the point and, more important, return as the forgiving victim to gather all who will come to him so that none of us should be lost. The pagan deities wanted sacrifices made to them. The prophets kept trying to get it across to everybody that God pours out sacrificial love to all of us through creation and redemption and that God wants the mercy God gives us in return, not sacrifices . Caiaphas was willing to sacrifice Jesus and anyone else who put a spoke in the wheel of the sacrificial logic. Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself rather than sacrifice any of us. That is why we do not slaughter bulls on this altar but pass around the bread and wine through which Jesus gives His very self to each one of us.