The truth is, a story as big as Jesus cleansing the Temple demands an explanation. Otherwise it feels just as random and disturbing as my encounter with that disturbed person on Hancock Street. Because this story about a whip-wielding Jesus is hard to recognize as the same Jesus who said, “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5). It’s hard to reconcile with the same Jesus who told that parable of the Good Samaritan, who taught the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek and the merciful...” Whether this violent Jesus looks familiar or not, it’s a story we have to own. The cleansing of the Temple isn’t just a story we can sweep under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. It’s deep in our tradition. In fact, it’s one of the few stories that actually appears in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Despite their different styles, and their selection of different materials, none of them imagined they could tell a story about Jesus without including a whip and a whirling rampage through the Temple. None of them described Jesus without including this kind of raw force.
It’s not a question about whether Jesus used physical power. It’s a question about what it meant. That’s always the question with power: what does it mean? To quote St. Paul: foolishness, or wisdom (1Cor. 1.18-25)? And for most people in the Temple that day, that young man - Jesus - would have looked just as foolish and just as inappropriate as the young man with whirling fists on Hancock Street. For most people in the Temple, Jesus would’ve looked just as disturbed and deranged.
“What sign can you show for doing this?” Explain yourself. Are you being foolish or wise? Jesus tells a riddle. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And it’s not just that he’s trying to be obscure. Because if those people in the courtyard, including the priests, had really been there to do business with God, they would have known that God’s image isn’t contained in a building; God’s image is contained and reflected in human life. That’s the wisdom of God. That’s the true Temple.
And Jesus, as God’s only-begotten, the Son of the Father, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world; Jesus shows up in the Temple to say, “Let me give you some help to put this house in order.” That’s our invitation too.
On this third Sunday of Lent, the midpoint of our Lenten journey, we’re invited to put our house in order. Yes, that includes our collective house of worship, but most of all it includes God’s Temple - our lives. And here’s where this Gospel story really comes home. Because notice that Jesus didn’t start a renewal campaign at the Temple. He didn’t schedule a meeting with Temple elders, he didn’t give them 12 steps to improve their lives. He just ran through that courtyard and cleaned house. He did it forcefully, and he showed them how it was supposed to be.
Our prayer during Lent isn’t simply that we might learn a series of spiritual steps or better management techniques (helpful as those may be). Our prayer during Lent is for this Jesus to enter our lives and to clean house just as forcefully as he cleansed the Temple that day. It’s not about learning to become “better people”. It’s about letting the force of Jesus rush through our hearts and minds, our souls and bodies, with all the whirling, fist-waving, heart-pounding power that he used to put God’s house in order on that day. It’s not about us learning to work harder. It’s about letting Jesus do his powerful work in us.
Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is a good reminder. At the very least, it’s a reminder that we need to be aware of our surroundings. It’s a reminder that we need to do business with the sometimes disturbing Jesus of the Gospels before we invite this powerful, forceful person to help us put our lives in order and do business with God. And if we’re ready, if we’re really serious about inviting this Jesus to come whirling into our lives, then with all of our courage and with all of our hope we pray, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Jesus, our strength and redeemer” (cf. Psa. 19.14). Amen.