Let the Scriptures Speak
Livestock, Whip, and Zeal
Zeal for your house will consume me. (John 2:17; Ps 69:9)
Today's Gospel story is one of those episodes that becomes luminous when you compare it with other evangelists' versions of the same event. Try, for a moment, to tell yourself the story of Jesus' clearing of the Temple as you recall it from memory. Now read how Mark tells it in his eleventh chapter and then how John tells it in the second chapter of his Gospel, and let yourself be astonished by what you find there.
In Mark’s version, Jesus, having taken a cue from the prophet Zechariah and entered the city riding a donkey (Zech 9:9, portraying a peacemaker king, not a warrior), proceeds into the Temple precincts, drives out the buyers and sellers, and cites two of his predecessors, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. Those prophets provide all the commentary we need. The Isaiah passage is an oracle about the Age to Come, when dispersed Israel will be gathered in and the eunuch and the foreigner will be welcome in the very place which they had been forbidden by law to enter. In other words, Jesus' clearing of the Temple was a prophetic action demonstrating that the expected reign of God was being inaugurated and that it will be an age for the inclusion of all, the end of business as usual—in the Temple and everywhere else—for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The quotation of Jeremiah comes from a parallel moment in that prophet's life, some six hundred years before. Standing at the gates of the Temple built by Solomon, shortly before the onslaught of the Babylonian conquest, Jeremiah had issued a strident wake-up call to his fellow Judaites: they were violating every commandment on the tablets—idolatry, stealing, murder, perjury, oppression of the alien— and now they were acting as if their Temple rituals were going to make them right with God without any need to change their behavior. Thus they had turned the Temple into a false haven, a “den of thieves.” So according to Mark's version, Jesus' similar confrontation in the Temple was an acting out of the essential message of his preaching: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
What a surprise now to turn to John's version. Whereas in Mark the incident occurs during the final week, John introduces the episode early, right after the wedding feast at Cana. And John's description is far more dramatic. In this version, Jesus makes a whip out of cords and we hear not simply of doves but of sheep and oxen. We witness a veritable stampede of livestock scarcely suggested in Mark's version. And Jesus utters no quotations from the prophets but a direct command, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Gospel).
We recognize that it is from John that most of us get our picture of the cleansing of the Temple, thanks to Michelangelo's rendering of this scene. But John is being more than pictorial. The point is not drama but symbol. The Fourth Evangelist seems to presume that his readers know the Synoptic tradition. Now he tells the familiar episodes with his own thematic coloring. In this Gospel Jesus replaces, one by one, all of the major Israelite institutions. His life, death, and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts, and Torah. And here John shows Jesus acting out the full Easter meaning of his life: he can drive out the animals of the Temple sacrifice because his own self-offering on the cross will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice.
And instead of Jesus citing Isaiah and Jeremiah, we hear his disciples applying a line from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” We are meant to hear a typical Johannine double-meaning: Jesus’ own zeal for his Father’s house will consume him, and the authorities’ misguided zeal will bring about his death.
Finally there comes an utterance of the kind we hear frequently in his Fourth Gospel: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The authorities misunderstand, but the evangelist hastens to explain that he was speaking of the temple of his body, a meaning that would become evident after Easter. Recall that this is the Gospel that begins with a prologue announcing that the divine Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
If we ask what really happened in that Temple scene, Mark probably brings us closer to the events of history. If we ask what is the deeper meaning of that happening, John’s meditation draws us deeper. The reason John brings this to the head of his Gospel, out of historical order, is also the reason that we read this nearly halfway on the road to Easter. It forecasts the whole paschal mystery.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University