Jesus: Both Temple and Sacrifice

Painting by Caravaggio, 1610.

A sermon given by Dr. Deborah Wilson on March 4, 2018…

Today’s gospel describes one of the more dramatic scenes in the life of Christ. As I recall, this passage warranted an illustration in the Children’s Bible: Jesus with a whip and an angry face charging through people and animals, toppling over tables, with coins falling everywhere as he drives all before him out of the Temple in aggressive, righteous fury. He’s not just standing or sitting around telling parables, or making miraculous things happen by simply speaking a few words; he is using his body this time, apparently as and with a weapon.  However, after the “cleansing of the temple,” as this act is often called, he does speak. First, he tells them, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!”  Much has been made of the fact that stalls were set up to make a profit from exchanging money from other realms into Hebrew money that could be used in the Jerusalem temple.  But this was a necessary trade that allowed people from elsewhere to buy animal sacrifices in the Temple, which required the changing of foreign currency to Hebrew coins.  This was a longstanding practice that Jesus would have known about, and is unlikely to be the cause of this “cleansing” of the temple.

In the other three gospels’ versions of this scene, there is the accusation of cheating by the moneychangers.  However, a number of historical sources insist that, not only was there little profit for the moneychangers, but also little profit for the priestly aristocracy in this whole business establishment. Furthermore, Jesus casts out both the moneychangers and their customers, not to mention the animals involved in this monetary exchange, who clearly had no expected profit involved. Some Biblical scholars argue that the problem Jesus was responding to was that these stalls were set up in the only place within the Temple where Gentiles could worship. That would make his act an insistence on inclusivity.  But when Jesus finally speaks, these are not the issues he makes central to his justification.

If we set aside the issue of whether or not there are TWO such events (John places this at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, whereas the other gospels place it just before his death), we still have to read this as a revolutionary challenge to the political status quo, in which Jesus asserts his status as THE Son of God by calling the Temple “MY father’s house.”  If this scene occurs, as it does in the other gospels, at the end of his ministry, he is dead within a week of this pronouncement. He appears to be intentionally provoking those that will execute him. The statement he makes at this moment is about the Temple in which he currently stands, and therefore ensures his conviction and execution.  Not only does he call it MY father’s house, signifying his status as THE SON of GOD, but he also declares the apparently imminent destruction of the Temple (a politically revolutionary challenge): “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Those who took this statement as justification of his trial, condemnation, and execution, missed the true meaning of his words. They could not hear what the narrator in the passage states: “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” It is only after his death and resurrection that his disciples remember his words and understand them.

What he tells them is that the stone temple they are still rebuilding will no longer be required, that HIS BODY, He Himself will, from now on, be the temple. And what complicates that beyond their comprehension is that his body is a HUMAN body that is, at the same time, the divine body of the Son of God. Even after his death and resurrection, his body seems to remain flesh. The stone temple is now replaced by divine and yet human flesh, which is a paradox they cannot understand. The things Jesus physically overturns in this scenario are things that will soon be unnecessary: the paraphanalia of physical sacrifice for sin. In researching the temple, I read a reminder of what those physical sacrifices really were: On the “great altar of burnt offering, about eighteen feet square and fifteen feet high, perpetual fire burned and animal sacrifices were consumed in the daily ritual. Just north of the altar was a space for slaughtering the victims and preparing them for sacrifice. Only the priests could remain within the court of the priests, except for those who brought animals to be offered as sacrifices, since they had to lay their hands on the victim before it was slaughtered” (Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, Revised, 1985). The blood sacrifice, the slaughter of innocent lives—bullocks, young lambs, and doves–was a daily ritual.  There was no end to the deaths required as expiation for sin.  This was the primary function of the temple and its altar. Death. The endless, graphic death of innocent flesh. And notice that there was no means of distancing oneself from the materiality of those deaths.  You could not buy the sacrificial lamb and walk away without taking responsibility for its death, without laying your own hand on that body and standing there watching its death on your behalf, and smelling its body consumed by the fire.

Jesus was telling the people who heard his words on that day that these animals he herded out of the temple, as well as the moneychangers and clients who enabled, even required, their deaths, that is, the ancient, cultural and theological system by which innocent bloodletting paid the penalty for the guilt of sin, was all about to end, because HIS innocent body would replace all future bullocks and lambs and doves for all sinners for all time.  It is significant that the language of redemption is often monetary, the language of debt and cost and value and recompense in kind.  I remember a song we used to sing in my church years ago: “I owed a debt I could not pay. He paid a debt he did not owe.” Our redemption by Christ’s death does not represent the values of the marketplace. There is a relevant short story by the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an escaped convicted serial killer, The Misfit, speaks a stunning truth to a woman he is about to murder. He makes clear that Jesus dismantled the entire system of equitable debt and payment: “Jesus thown everything off balance. He hadn’t committed any crime.  He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.” For the Misfit, that enjoyment is the pleasure of meanness.

But there’s another dimension of the temple I want to address, one that O’Connor also wrote about in a story entitled “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”  In this story a 12-year-old girl endures the weekend visit of two 14-year-old second cousins currently attending boarding school at Mount St. Scholastica convent. The convent girls explain why they call each other Temple One and Temple Two: “Sister Perpetua had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should ‘behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.’ Sister Perpetua said they were to say, ‘Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!’ and that would put an end to it.” The convent girls’ laughter makes it nearly impossible for them to tell their story, but the younger girl is baffled by their laughter, since, to her, being the Temple of the Holy Ghost “made her feel as if somebody had given her a present.” In I Corinthians 3:16-17, we are told, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” These verses no doubt lie behind Sister Perpetua’s theology, which is all about maintaining the purity of the bodily temple (I remember these verses used for all manner of bodily destruction beyond illicit sex: smoking, drinking, etc.). Later in I Corinthians, in a warning against fornication as a sin against the body, we are again reminded, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).

These passages seem to be warnings against sinning through and with the body. But I want to stress a different dimension of our bodies as temples. Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, the one Jesus prophesied would be destroyed, was indeed destroyed in 70 A.D. and was never rebuilt. The temple of His body was resurrected in three days, as He prophesied. The living body of Christ supplanted the need for any other temple. His sacrifice negated the requirements for all other blood sacrifices for sin. He is both the temple and the sacrifice.  And through the indwelling of the same spirit that dwelt in him bodily, we, too, are temples. What we must guard against is not so much the substitution of other earthly sacrifices instead of accepting the eternal efficacy of his, but rather the belief that we can merely observe rituals and liturgies that allow us distance from the physical sacrifice he made for us on the cross. Within our human selves, daily, we should be the temples of God, sacred places in which we experience true encounters with the divine. In O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the young girl, whose prayers, though ritually performed, are often perfunctory, in spite of her attempts “to think of Christ on the long journey to Calvary, crushed three times on the rough cross,” has a different experience at the end of the story when she partakes of the eucharist at the convent. “She began to realize that she was in the presence of God . . . when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it.”  And that presence persists on the ride home as she stares out the car window and sees the setting sun as “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood.” That image, startling as it is, drags us back from our liturgical distance to the altar in that ancient temple where we had to place our hands on the sacrifice and be a witness to our undeserved redemption.

And I close with these words from the Book of Common Prayer, the Holy Eucharist, Rite One:

“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his ONE oblation of himself ONCE offered, a FULL, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Amen.