Commentary on John 2:13-25
I was hoping to stop in to a new café that had opened in Baltimore, near our church. But when I got to its plate glass doors, I found that one of them had been shattered.
Lights were on inside. A man sat at the counter, working at a computer. Two people came up behind me, apparently also intending to visit the shop. We tried to see if the store was open, in spite of the broken glass. We finally caught the eye of the person sitting at the counter, who, it turned out, was the owner. He informed us through the shattered glass that the store had been broken into early that morning and they had stolen the cash register.
The reaction of the two people behind me was astonishment: “They stole the cash register!”
I thought to myself, “What else would you steal? The coffee beans?”
However, as I reflected on it, their astonishment made sense. Somehow this symbol, so central in a culture of commerce, was something that could not be touched. Their reaction was in response to the sense that a center of commerce had been so dramatically upset.
I felt for the owner. It’s not easy to cope with economic loss as well as the feeling of exposure to potential violence, very common in our city. Still, it seemed to shine a light on how we can become so accustomed to a financial system, its familiarity taken as its normalcy, that it masks a deeper and more troubling dysfunction.
That is, we were astonished by the theft of a cash register; but we feel very little, or nothing, about the brazen presence of poverty and inequity in our communities.
John’s story of Jesus cleansing the temple brought this experience to mind. Whereas we tend to get used to what Gail R. O’Day calls “embedded” realities in church and society, Jesus proclaims a radical vision of temple and society.1
In John, proclamation corresponds to or emerges from incarnation and this text’s account of incarnation may startle us. This pericope follows on the heels of Jesus changing water into wine. In that text, Jesus’ actions are unseen. We don’t see the water turned into wine. We only hear Jesus’ command to the servants to fill the jars with water. Everything occurs on the down low, so that only the servants recognize the miracle. Everyone else simply marvels that the host has saved the best wine until last.
By contrast, in this text, Jesus acts with bold, kinetic, and unmistakable gestures. In the Greek, the narrator depicts Jesus’ actions in the temple in one long sentence, extending from verse 14-16. According to O’Day, this is John’s way of underscoring Jesus’ intensity.2 It could also reflect the way a witness recounts an accident or a robbery in the middle of public area. They tell the story in a rush, as if the thing itself were still shocking to the senses. But in these retellings, often a single feature remains in the memory of the witness, something said (or not said) or something done (or not done).
Obviously, a lot happened in several short bursts of christological energy: Jesus came upon (or “found” (New International Version) those who were selling sacrificial animals, “seated at their tables” (established, part of the landscape, so to speak) (John 2:14); took a whip of cords (15a); drove the animals out (like an alarmed shepherd might drive its flock away from a poisonous well, perhaps); emptied coins and turned over tables (15b).
In the span of two verses, Jesus has radically upended the firmly embedded!
All this Jesus did in one nearly seamless rush of holy zeal — but our witness singles out Jesus’ words to those who sold doves: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (John 2:16b). It puts me in mind of Luke, who records that Jesus’ family brought two doves to the temple, to satisfy the prescribed offering for the birth of a son (Luke 2:24). Since they were poor, offering a lamb for a sacrifice was out of the question. Perhaps, though, there was “price gouging” even in the temple — but it was so ordinary, so much a part of the warp and weft of temple life, that it wasn’t something noted by anyone. Maybe it was as much a part of Roman life as it was a part of religious life.
Given the level of upset, we can understand why the people in the temple might have wanted an explanation for Jesus’ actions. The narrator’s use of the term “the Jews” (John 2:18a) needs to be addressed critically by the interpreter, both in light of John’s narrative purpose and in a post-Holocaust world. According to O’Day, John’s “the Jews” represents “those who question Jesus and do not know him” (544). This is a much broader, more inclusive category than “the Jews” — and perhaps that is helpful.
In any event, Jesus’ answer reflects the Johannine penchant for misunderstandings and double-meanings, something that we will encounter again in the story of Nicodemus in John 3:1-16, among others. Now, however, it focuses on the double meaning of temple and being raised. Jesus’ opponents believe that he is speaking of the bricks and mortar of the temple but he is speaking of the temple of his body (see also 1 Corinthians 16:19-20).
The wordplay is, I think, instructive but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to spiritualize this text. Jesus’ actions in the temple may “parable” the much deeper and more profound completion of his life through resurrection, but it does not thereby negate the way in which Jesus upends the embedded powers and attitudes that can become so firmly entrenched in our worldviews.
Our devotion to property values even at the expense of affordable housing options seems to speak to this concern. The so-called “tiny-house” movement seems to hold promise as a means of providing affordable housing for the insufficiently housed and the unhoused. However, the initiative is getting push-back from established communities. One owner objected to a tiny-house initiative in her community saying, “I think tiny homes are great and people can enjoy them if they like, but please don’t put them in our neighborhood. My home is my sanctuary and it’s going to be destroyed by different thinking.”3
She is right. Her version of sanctuary will be “destroyed” by different thinking. She worries that existing home values could drop by $100,000 if the tiny-house initiative goes through — not an insignificant sum of money. But could this be analogous to the anxieties of those who did not know Jesus? They were afraid of losing something that took forty-six years to build. Something will be lost, of course. Jesus dies on the cross. Calvary delivers an enormous hit on heaven’s property value. But the resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggest that this is only the beginning of the formation of much larger, more expansive community.
1. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel According to John” in New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 545.
2. O’Day, 543.
3. Scott McFetridge, “Tiny-House Villages Face Big Opposition” in The Portland Press Herald (14 November 2017), accessed at http://www.pressherald.com/2017/11/14/tiny-house-villages-face-big-opposition/ on 20 November 2017.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Your son, Jesus, expressed anger at abuses and injustice. Help us to show concern, not apathy, for injustice in our world, and teach us to make right all that may be wrong. Amen.
My song shall be alway, Gerald Near