Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple.

The cleansing of the temple, as the reading from John’s Gospel is commonly known, shows us a Jesus we don’t get to see very often: A Jesus who has had it up to here, who is “mad as you-know-what and is not going to take it any more.”

Over the centuries, this dramatic story has caught the imagination of artists and iconographers. The image has been vividly memorialized in paintings, stained glass, manuscript illuminations, murals, collages.

No matter what the medium, common themes emerge: A scene of chaos, of order disrupted. There are no symmetrical straight lines, only awkward angles. Bodies are in motion. The upraised hand, the overturned tables, the expressions of fear, shock and horror on the faces of those being driven out; the flaming anger in Jesus’ eyes.

It may be tempting to think that was then and this is now. To believe that since Jesus took care of this particular piece of business then, we can turn our attention to other matters now. But can we?

I am no artist, but if I were, I would draw Jesus hands as he gathers together cords to make a whip, knotting and tying, pulling tight and testing. In these motions is both deliberation and immediacy. There is a stark physicality: according to John, the sequence of events is the creation of the whip, the driving out of the temple, and the commandment, “Take these things out of here!”

Jesus enters into a well-established set-up: faithful pilgrims travel to Jerusalem, unable to bring the animals required for sacrifice with them on the long journey. Naturally, the travelers carry the coins of their own regions. But special coins are required in the Temple. This presents an economic opportunity. Money-changers exchange foreign coins for Temple coinage – for a fee, of course. And the vendors of animals have anything you might need for the required sacrifice, from sheep and cattle to doves. It’s a convenient, if expensive, arrangement for the pilgrims, and a lucrative one for the merchants.

Take these things out of here!

What needs to be removed from our temple during this Lenten season and beyond? Is it arrogance in worship, or self-assurance in personal piety? Are we comfortably set in our ways of living and giving – of tithing, of charity, of caring for our neighbor? Whatever it is we need to “take out of here,” it is not an exercise in simplification for the sake of simplification, or sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. It is to open our eyes, our hearts, our lives to make more room for God. It is to take away those things that distract us, or make us numb to our own emotions, or insensitive to the feelings and conditions of those around us. It is to “dissociate ourselves from the structure of privilege and wealth.”[1]

Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!

Salvation cannot be bought. We cannot bargain with God; cannot make a deal on our terms. The terms were well-established long ago and will endure long after we are gone. They were written on tablets of stone; they were nailed to the wood of the tree.

On our pilgrimages, we each carry our own coinage. For some, intellectual ability; for some, wit; for some, shyness. For some, a sense of being victor in the social, cultural, or economic systems; for some, the conviction of being a victim of the same systems. How often has God seen these coins presented as favors are requested, bargains are offered, deals are proposed.

These coins must, like the coins on the money-changers tables, be thrown to the ground. In casting away this familiar coinage, we encounter a fundamental lesson of Lent: Our disciplines drive us out of the familiar places where we might feel comfortable in our devotional practices; content with our relationship with God, in our relationships with each other; confident in our acts of charity. The role, the goal, of Lenten disciplines is to place us in a stark desert where our typical insulation from the voices of temptation – and the voice of God – is stripped away. In that stark desert we encounter Christ in his isolation, and with him, we hear the clarion call of the Tempter.

At the very beginning of creation, we were driven from the Garden. Our time there was too short, and we cannot return. Now, we are driven from the Temple, a temple destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt, and again destroyed. The Temple will rise again not as a building, but as a body. That body is Christ’s body; that body is our body. We have fallen, but we will rise.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes:

“…Our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of being securely oriented, being painfully disoriented, and being surprisingly reoriented.”

He continues, “This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues….Each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.”[2]

For our entire lives, we are sent out and called back, until that final day when each one of us will be called to the place prepared for us. And the entry to that place is through the gates of repentance, gates at which we stand not only at the beginning of Lent and throughout that season, but, if we have eyes to see, if we have ears to hear, for our entire lives.

Alexander Schmemann writes: “The Lenten season begins … by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision. It is, therefore, rooted in humility, and humility-- the divine and beautiful humility-- is its fruit and end…. We are at the gates of repentance.” [3]

Return now to the Temple scene. Jesus has scourged the temple; soon, the temple of his body will be scourged.

He has overturned the existing system – a system that started first as convenience, then fell into complacency, and finally became corrupt. Who could argue with his wrath?

You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves.

But what of the pilgrims? What of their disorientation, disappointment, even despair? They dutifully travel from afar to make their obligatory sacrifice, but are stymied but chaos that greets them after their long journey. What are they to do?

This may well be the central dilemma of our times, as well. Many of our economic and social systems have become anomalies at best, amoral at worst. The temple of our bodies has become defiled by impure air, by fish pulled from polluted oceans, by chemically or genetically enhanced fruit and vegetables; milk and meat. Only a quarter of the 82,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. have ever been tested for toxicity.[4] But it’s not just “the system.” Our bodies are defiled also by our own choices about what we put into them, how we care for them.

The purses of the moneychangers – those who profit from others’ undeniable needs; those who profit from convincing us of needs we never knew we had -- are overflowing. Yet in the United States, 10 million households are food insecure – meaning they often do not know where their next meal is coming from.[5] This, in the richest country in the world.[6]  Why?

The covenant between God and God’s creatures has been broken again and again by war, jealousy, greed, and intolerance. As we stand at the gates of repentance, the litany of injustice and oppression is a steady background noise, like traffic on a highway, like waves on the shore. But above this, if we listen, we hear another rhythm, regular as a heartbeat, loud as a drumbeat, emanating from the Creator: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.[7] Repent, and believe the good news. [8]

[1] Rule of the Society of St John the Evangelist, “Engaging with Poverty,” page 17

[2] Praying the Psalms, p 14

[3] Great Lent




[7] Micah 6.8

[8] Mk 1:15b