Third Sunday in Lent | John 2:13-22
We explain too much. That’s one of the best ways to ruin a good story.
Maybe that is why so many people turn away from faith. They’re sick of the explanations, the admonitions, the rules of religion. Who can blame them?
They want a story that helps them imagine their world. They are looking for something true, something that is meaningful as only a story can be.
The four gospels do not offer much explanation. Instead, they tell stories about this man Jesus. Even the teaching passages are held as a narrative, and much of what Jesus says is itself in story form, parables throwing the truth alongside the audience.
We are hardwired for story. So long as there have been humans, we have told stories. There have also always been folk who tried to turn the stories into rules, but it was the stories that lasted.
Storytellers are more powerful than rule makers.
With that in mind, I don’t wish to try to explain the story of Jesus clearing the animals, merchants, and the coin exchangers from the temple. The story is important. That much is clear from the way the Gospels place the event at such differing but important points in the narrative—Mark, Matthew and Luke place the clearing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ career, showing how it contributes to his arrest and crucifixion, while John places the event close to the beginning of Jesus’ public life, as a pivotal point of departure for his career. Despite such ambivalence among the four as to the significance of what Jesus does—step into a new prophetic role or trigger his own death—all four gospels tell the story at length. All four gospels point out Jesus’ passion, intensity, and anger. Not one of them offers much explanation.
Taking their lead, let’s trust in the power of story. Sometimes, simply hearing a thing told in a different way is enough to help us find something new. That being said, here is a retelling of this story from the Gospel—an excerpt from my novel I,John, narrated by John himself. I hope you enjoy it.
The Temple was magnificent. It was huge to my eyes, with enormous walls and smooth paved courtyards. So many stones, so much space. Then there were the uniforms of the guards, the robes of the priests, the movement of people and of animals. Our synagogue was one thing, but this was a dwelling place of the almighty God, and I had carried a sense of awe about the Temple ever since I was a small child.
I was a fisherman’s son, and entering the Temple made me feel a little light headed, with that odd sensation of watching one’s self from above one’s own body. It was unsettling, but we were with Jesus after all. What better way to visit the Temple?
Jesus was too quiet this time. After we walked inside the walls to the first great court, Jesus stopped and stood still for what seemed to be hours. He was looking at the tables for the doves, the stands with the livestock for sacrifices, tables where people exchanged foreign coins for proper ones. I remember as a child hearing my father and others say to one another that there was more money made in the court of the Temple than a fisherman would see in a lifetime. Peter was standing beside Jesus, that great hairy head turning from side to side as though he, too, were taking stock. The difference was that Peter was smiling. He still believed that we were simply here as part of our observance of Passover. I, on the other hand, had already seen enough of Jesus’ face to know that we were in for something different.
Jesus walked nearer the animals and picked up a length of rope that was left near a stall. He began looping it back and forth, making a whip. Peter was walking with him, nodding his enormous head at people and holding up a hand in greeting, as though these people had some interest in talking to any of us. Then Jesus just walked over to the first stall of livestock and threw down the wooden bar closing in the sheep. Seeing it, I couldn’t move. Peter looked around at the sound of the wood on the stone floor and took a step toward Jesus.
“Here, master, let me get that,” he said. He didn’t know Jesus had thrown it down purposefully.
Jesus didn’t say a word, just headed to the next stall full of oxen. When the stall keeper tried to stop him, Jesus began beating the man with the cords, driving him out of the way. The man fell back to the stones, astonished, but no more so than we. Jesus again threw the wooden beam aside that held back the animals and began driving them toward the gate.
The next few minutes were filled with shouting, animals bleating and lowing, dust rising up from the paving stones, pandemonium. Then Jesus walked straight to a table where moneychangers sat with their piles and bags of coins. I still had not moved from where I stood, horrified at the disturbance Jesus was causing, unable to believe what he was doing. The disturbing light-headedness was growing stronger, so that I stood still in the middle of the swirl of animals and men, the sounds of language that should not be heard in the temple, Jesus flailing with the rope and beating anyone who approached him. I was sure I would faint, and I may have blacked out for a moment, for suddenly there was the sound of coins striking the stones, a great cacophony of coins, curses shouted by the merchants, priests yelling for calm. I looked across the open way to see the Roman soldiers in a watchtower from which they could look down over the temple walls at the commotion.
Angry priests, angry merchants, Jesus beating people with the rope, and the Romans were watching. It was a scene difficult to improve upon, though the terrified animals dashing through the crowds managed as they found open gateways and made their escape into the streets around the Temple grounds. I could hear people shouting from beyond the Temple walls now. Looking behind us at the gate, I considered leaving quietly, unnoticed, but I could not leave Jesus, my brother, the others. James was standing with his mouth open, as unmoving as I except for the twitching of his hands and his eyes following Jesus’ movements.
That’s when I heard Jesus yelling about his father’s house and thieves. I had never seen him angry before this, and it was impressive. The priests were yielding, some even looked embarrassed, though most of them were angry, outraged. Meanwhile, the merchants were either chasing the livestock down the adjoining streets or on their knees gathering coins, all too busy to enter a dialogue with Jesus about his motives.
I thought they would kill us all. They would arrest us, beat us, and maybe even crucify us for all I knew. What was the punishment for disrupting the temple? I did not know. The last man who had done it had used an army, had destroyed the city before hauling slaves away into Babylon. We had no army. The Temple had guards, though, and there were the Romans who did not enjoy disturbances. At the least they would throw us into prison. I thought of my father, of word reaching him that his sons were in a Roman prison.
No one tried to arrest us. I kept watching the faces around us, waiting to see who would think of it. Surely the idea would occur to someone very soon.
Finally, Jesus threw the rope back into the empty oxen stall and walked out of the temple grounds. I was glad to follow. As we walked, Jesus a few steps ahead of the rest of us, we kept looking back to see whether we were being chased by the merchants and ahead to see if the Romans were coming to arrest us. Neither happened.
It was a miracle.