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.