Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jesus and the Temple

It has not been a good week for posting, but I was determined to do so before it finished even if I have left it a bit late!  I am preaching tomorrow.  The readings are on the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which seems a little bizarre given that we have moved in the past few weeks to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry.

Jesus’ relationship with the Temple is ambivalent.  He was presented in it by his parents receiving recognition from Simeon and Anna.  St Luke again records the one incident we have from Jesus’ childhood when he was taken to Jerusalem by his parents and causes them some panic by going missing only to be found by them sitting in the Temple.

The Synoptics only mention one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem: the one leading up to his death.  St John, however, records several and as I have argued previously this seems historically likely.  What St Luke actually tells us about the visit when Jesus was 12 is:

‘Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.’ (Luke 2:41-42)

‘Every year’ they went to Jerusalem and the visit at 12 was ‘as usual’.  This strongly suggests that Jesus was brought up to go to Jerusalem and surely this would not be something that he would stop when he was older.  St John tells us that after his first miracle in Cana and a visit to Capernaum (more of which in subsequent posts!), Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover where he ‘cleansed’ the Temple.

Scholars argue over this.  The Synoptics record this event, but put it at the end of his ministry, not the beginning.  They have to as this is the only time they record Jesus going there as an adult.  Some have argued that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice: once at the beginning and then again at the end of his ministry, but most don’t think this likely.  Most go with the Synoptics and argue that St John has put the event at the beginning for theological reasons.

One reason scholars have for locating this incident at the end of Jesus’ ministry is because of their understanding of what Jesus was doing when he turned over the tables and drove out the money changers.  For them this is a prophetic act pronouncing God’s judgement on the Temple and is a reason for Jesus’ arrest and subsequent crucifixion.  This doesn’t work so well if it happened at the beginning!

However, this doesn’t seem to be how either the Synoptics or John understand the event.  Yes, Jesus did speak of the Temple’s eventual destruction, but here he seems more concerned with its purification:

He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!"  His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."  (John 2:16-17)

If concern for the Temple’s purity is his main concern, and I fail to see why those of us living 2,000 years after the event should have a better understanding of it than those who may even have been present at it, then it could well have occurred at the beginning of his ministry.  Whenever it happened, it shows that Jesus wasn’t anti the Temple as such.  It truly was his Father’s house and should be respected as such.  Jesus’ attitude is best explained by what St John tells us happened next.  After celebrating the Passover, Jesus spent some time in Judea effectively continuing the ministry of John, baptizing people - though as St John tells us, it was Jesus’ disciples who did the baptizing.  St John then makes a somewhat enigmatic statement:

‘Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’ - although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized - he left Judea and started back to Galilee.’ (John 4:1-3)

Quite why the Pharisees learning that Jesus was becoming popular should send him back to Galilee is not immediately clear.  Is it that he doesn’t want to undermine John?  Is it that he wants to avoid possible hostility from them?  Or is it that he realizes the time has come to begin his own distinctive ministry and emerge from the shadow of John?

Whatever, he sets off for Galilee where the Synoptics will pick up the story, but to get there he travels through Samaria.  From Jerusalem, in the south, to Galilee, in the north, would have been about a three day journey.  During it, he meets the Samaritan woman at the well and breaks all social convention by talking to her.  In the course of the conversation, the woman asks him a question over an issue that divided Jews and Samaritans:

‘The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

This is very much what Paul argues in Romans.  The Jews were God’s people.  The Temple was God’s house.  Jerusalem was the Holy City.  But all that is going to change.  As a result of Jesus’ ministry, God will no longer be worshipped in special places, but in spirit and in truth.

This verse is uncomfortable reading for many like myself who minister in Churches that place heavy emphasis on special buildings and sacred spaces.  I don’t think there is any escaping that fact that the New Testament not only rejects Jerusalem and the Temple as being any longer special places of worship, but also rejects the idea of special places altogether.  The Temple is now the people.  We are God’s house not the building we meet in. 

It’s an idea we are all familiar with, but one we find hard to act upon.

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