I think today’s Gospel story is very strange to many of us. It presents Jesus in a light that we don’t often see – kind of a violent light, in fact. I’ve often heard this story explained as a kind of justification for anger: that Jesus in his humanity was exhibiting the very human emotion of anger. And that would be comforting, I think, for all of us who struggle with anger, if that was what the story was about – but it’s not.
In fact, nowhere in today’s Gospel does it say that Jesus was angry. We guess that from his behavior, but that’s not what was going on. The disciples figured it out – most likely after his resurrection – by remembering the words of Scripture, zeal for your house will consume me. He was demonstrating zeal, not anger, and that’s a whole different package of emotions.
So what was really going on here? First, we should note that these merchants were not conducting their business inside the temple, as we tend to think of it. No, they were making their transactions in the outer parts of the temple, where commerce related to the Temple was permitted. Second, we have to understand that they were providing a needed service. People would come to make their pilgrimage to the Temple, and that pilgrimage required them to do two things: to offer an animal sacrifice, and to pay the Temple Tax. Some of them would travel quite a distance to get to Jerusalem, and for them it would be impractical to bring along the animals for the sacrifice, if they even owned those animals to begin with. So it made sense for them to purchase the animals outside the Temple, then go in to offer the sacrifice. Also, the coins that were in general use bore the image and inscription of Caesar, which was considered idolatrous – those coins would have been inappropriate currency with which to pay the Temple Tax. So they needed to exchange the coins outside the Temple. Given all this, the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves, and the moneychangers, were all providing a needed and legitimate service. So what was the problem?
Zeal for your house will consume me. That’s what the disciples remembered afterwards. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand. That Kingdom required a worship that went beyond mere legalism, beyond being able to make a pilgrimage, buy an animal for sacrifice, pay the Temple Tax, and be done for the year. Worship and sacrifice in the Kingdom of God needed to take the form of a specific way of life, a way of life that Christ modeled for us on the Cross, the kind of sacrifice that comes from laying down our lives for others. So the days of needing people to sell sacrificial animals and exchange currency outside the temple were over: instead, people needed to reform their lives.Which brings us to the matter of the Ten Commandments in today’s first reading. For us, it can be easy to just tick them off and feel like we’ve done our duty. We went to Church this week, we didn’t kill anyone, we didn’t rob any banks and didn’t lie in any court proceedings. So we must be okay. But to that kind of thinking, Jesus fashions a whip out of cords, cracks it to get our attention, and says, ‘not so fast’’
Because worship in the Kingdom of God requires much more than that. Those Ten Commandments aren’t cancelled, but they are raised to a higher standard. They look completely different. That standard means that not having any other gods looks like putting God first in every situation, that success and security and comfort aren’t the be-all and end-all of our existence. It means that not taking the Lord’s name in vain looks not just like avoiding blasphemy, but also that we honor God in all our speech, that we not curse one another in the parking lot after Mass. It means that keeping holy the Lord’s day is not just coming to Mass and leaving God behind when we walk out of here, but of truly taking the day for rest and worship, to renew our relationship with God and prepare for the week ahead. It means that the kids’ soccer game or baseball game does not take the place of Sunday worship.
The standard that Christ sets means that honoring one’s father and mother is not just a commandment for the children: it means respecting authority in all its forms whether it be one’s aging parents, or the Church, or one’s boss or any other lawful authority. Thou shall not kill means that we don’t murder or procure an abortion, but also that we respect every single person’s life. It means we avoid racism and don’t bear grudges, because doing those things is like already murdering a person in our hearts. Thou shall not commit adultery is now a commandment not just for married folks, but for all of us, and calls us to live chastity no matter what our state in life, no matter what our sexuality. Not stealing is easy if it means just not robbing a bank, which most of us don’t do. But Jesus’ standard means that we don’t take anything that isn’t ours; that we put in an honest day’s work for a day’s pay, or if we are employers, that we give our employees a salary and benefits that allow them to care for their families, because to do anything less is to steal the food off their tables.
Jesus’ way of living the Ten Commandments means that not bearing false witness requires us to take a stand for the truth in every situation. It means that not coveting our neighbor’s spouse means that we live lives immersed in purity and avoid pornography, lewd talk and anything that leads us to impure thought and action. It means not coveting our neighbor’s goods will see us rejecting ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and instead to use the gifts with which we’ve been blessed to take care of our own real needs, and also the real needs of others, particularly the poor. You see, zeal for God’s house must consume us also.
It’s a high standard that Jesus calls us to live, and if you’re like me, it can be real frustrating when we fall short time and time again. But today’s Liturgy tells us that we can call on our God whose perfect law refreshes our soul and gives joy to our hearts. God longs to show us the way to live and worship in the Kingdom of God, and makes it possible for us to leave our brokenness and failure at the foot of the Cross, and to be nourished with the bread of life. God longs to transform our worship and our sacrifice and our lives so that we can have eternal life in the Kingdom of God that is at hand, here and now.