“And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.” John 2:13-21
Last week we concentrated entirely upon the literal, historical level of the events that we call miracles and I did so because I want to avoid rushing to discover what they mean before we discover first of all whether they were or not. These two questions aways loom over any human experience: The first question is, “an sit,” “Is it?” Is this real, does this exist? The second question is, “What is it?” “What am I to make of what is?” Last week I spent the whole sermon to say simply that in fact, literally, historically Jesus worked miracles in the presence of other people. That Jesus worked miracles is undisputed from within the New Testament narrative and even people who were hostile toward him did not accuse Jesus of being a magician, but — and here is an important point to remember — their knowledge that Jesus literally worked miracles did not convert them to Jesus. Isn’t that surprising? It continues to be surprising to me, but it is the case. For example, when we get to the death and raising of Lazarus in John 11 we are told that a crowd had already gathered in Bethany where Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, lived. Once Jesus arrived, we are informed that Lazarus had died and that he has been in the tomb for four days. Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb and everyone followed him and he ordered some of the men to remove the stone that sealed the entrance. And then Jesus cried with a loud voice:
“Lazarus, come forth.”
Lazarus came forth very much alive, but still bound in grave cloths, head, hand and foot. Jesus ordered the men who were there to loose Lazarus and set him free. I suppose that most of us think that if we had been there that day and saw that with our own eyes that we would have forsaken everything in the world to follow Jesus. Some people who witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead did just that; they devoted their whole life from then on to Jesus. But other eye-witnesses — now get this, eye-witnesses! — departed from Bethany and went straight to the Pharisees in Jerusalem and laid before them that Jesus, before their very eyes, raised Lazarus from the dead. And how did the big shots in Jerusalem respond? The Pharisees called an emergency meeting of the chief priests and other Pharisees and their agenda was clear: “What can we do? This man works miracles.” After a debate on Jesus’ fate the text declares the consensus of the Jews:
“Then from that day forth they took counsel together to put him to death.”
The point that I am making is that it is not true that if only you could have been there and witnessed Jesus’ miracles you would have devoted you whole life to him. I for one would have thought differently. I would have thought to myself: “Self, if you saw and smelled a dead man and then this other man came along and said to the dead man, ‘Get up and come with me.’ and that dead man stood up and he was absolutely alive and absolutely not smelling dead — if you had seen that you would have said, We are going to follow that man where ever he goes and we are going to do whatever he wants us to do because he must be God.” But I would be wrong. That is not what happened then, and it would not happened that way today. Miracles do not automatically, of necessity compel a person to follow Jesus Christ. That is the first point I wish to make this morning.
The second point is a theme that we will see constantly popping up in the Gospel of John: the people in John’s narrative world are prisoners of the literal, historical level of things. And because they are captives to the literal, historical they are always missing what Thomas Aquinas and other doctors and Fathers of the Church called the “mystical” meaning of the event. The mystical meaning is not obscure and hidden, but it is frequently overlooked by those who think the only real meaning is the literal, historical event. So for example, when the Jews ask for a sign certifying that Jesus has been authorized by God to throw people out of the temple, Jesus says:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19
The Jews show how stuck they are on the literal level of things when they say that it took many people working for forty-six years to build the Temple, but Jesus says he can do it in three days. How ridiculous is that? How ridiculous indeed! One has entirely missed the point. But it wasn’t the literal Temple they were standing in that Jesus meant anyway; it was the Temple of his Body which they would kill but which he would raise from the dead in three days. Something else I want you to see:
“And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” John 2:15-16
Imagine that scene in your mind’s eye: The sheep and oxen were being herded, along with their owners, to the place of sacrifice where the priests would cut their throats and pour their blood on the altar for the purification of the own who brought them to the altar.
Jesus made a little cord out of rushes, a plant similar to cat’s tail that grows along river banks and water marshes. Do not confuse a scourge of small rushes with a scourge of leather that has bone and metal woven into it. The scourge that Jesus made could not have lasted long and it would have inflicted little pain. For whatever reason Jesus used a whip of grass and he began driving out the merchants and swindlers; but he also stampeded the sheep and oxen and other animals that were meant for the altar. The texts tells us that much: “he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen…” Sheep and oxen and other animals do not leave a place in an orderly fashion when they are driven out — they panic and bolt. If we enter into the narrative world of the text simply permit it to unfold what we have is a scene of chaos and disorder with people ducking for cover, and the animals bellowing and running out of the Temple.
Jesus says here that they had turned his Father’s House into a house of merchandise, shopping mall; but it would be a mistake to think that Jesus’ action is all about economic exploitation. That is only part of the scene, what writers today might call the setting or motivation. But to think that the meaning of Jesus’ action is economic is remain on the literal, historical level. One is still bound in Lazarus’ constricting grave cloths. You must permit the friends of Jesus, the Apostles & bishops, to free you from the tyranny of the empirical.
What is the mystical meaning of Jesus’ action? Remember Jesus’ miracle of turning the water into wine? Also remember that it was not just any wine, the very best wine; and it was not just any water, but specifically water that was meant for ritual cleansing, the ceremonial ablution of the faithful Jew. The spiritual sense, the mystical meaning of Jesus’ action for the Church hangs on what has been taken away and what has replaced what has been taken away. In the case of the wedding feast the water meant for purification is taken away, and it was replaced by the gift of wine from Heaven.
Imagine the Temple scene once more: The upshot is that Jesus’ action has brought a halt to the animal sacrifices that were taking place. What are you to do if your sacrifice has run off? You pursue you costly sacrifice down the street until you catch it. The purpose of The temple was to sacrifice sheep, oxen and other animals for the purification of the people of Israel. The Jews that came to Christ and demanded a sign seemed to grasp the implications of bringing chaos into the Temple and halting the sacrifices if only for a short while — which is all it takes for sign:
“Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?”
There are two signs. The miracle at Cana was a sign as well as a miracle and the meaning of that sign is that Jesus has effected and declared an end to ritual purification. The Cleansing of the Temple was not a miracle, but it was a sign, and it is a sign that was authenticated by the miracle of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. The meaning of the sign of the Cleansing of the Temple is that the whole sacrificial system of Israel, exemplified here in animal sacrifice, is finished, perfected, and sublated into the life of Christ. This is a prime example of what Fr. Aidan Nichols, calls the “ordering principle” of Catholic theology: God does not discard his creation, he appropriates it, he assumes it into a higher reality, thus perfecting it. Or as E. L. Mascall never tired of saying: “Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature.” What is true of nature is true of God’s special revelation and promises to Abraham and his family — Israel. The revelation and promises made to Israel are not abolished, but rather they are assumed into the Person and Work of Jesus the Messiah, who is, body and all, the perfection, the recapitulation of Israel. What it means is that animal sacrifices are over and done with and therefore the Temple in Jerusalem is over and done with as well. This is the message of the author of the book we call the Epistle to the Hebrews when he writes:
“Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
“He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will not be found in the Temple of Jerusalem, nor in the rituals and ceremonials of Israel any longer, but rather he abides in the temple of Jesus Christ himself, body and all. You know very well, because you know me very well, that I am not one bit maligning rituals and ceremonial actions. Our Lord Jesus Christ handed over to his Church rituals and ceremonials that are the finality, the telos, the completion of Israel’s ceremonials. The now defunct rituals of Israel have been assumed and perfected in the higher reality of the sacramental life of the Church. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob abides in the Temple of Christ’s body and his very real interior life. This is the mystical meaning of our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple. But the validating sign that Jesus’ action was blessed by his Father had to wait till those Jewish leaders already mentioned conspired and succeeded in destroying the temple of his body. Then came the validating miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The House of God is the place where God abides and he abides in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, body and all, which is to say that he abides in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar; and he abides in the Catholic Church, the Bride & Body of Christ.
“Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19