Reading 1 Ez 47:1-2, 8-9, 12
Responsorial Psalm Ps 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9
Reading 2 1 Cor 3:9c-11, 16-17
Gospel Jn 2:13-22
Why do we have a special celebration of the dedication of a basilica? St. John Lateran is the oldest and ranks first among the four great “patriarchal” basilicas of Rome. The palace of the family of the Laterani in ancient times occupied the site.
Through the years, the palace came eventually into the hands of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Constantine must have given it to the Church, and a council against the Donatists was held there as early as 313. From that time onwards it was always the center of Christian life within the city, the residence of popes and the cathedral of Rome.
In the Gospel reading, we find a very unusual Jesus. The Gospel usually describes Jesus as a gentle, loving, compassionate, and forgiving person. All of a sudden we see his violent angry outburst in the Gospel reading today. What triggers this violent outburst of anger?
The scripture scholars, William Barclay explains that the Passover was the greatest of all Jewish feasts. And the law prescribed that all adult male Jew who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem are bound to attend it. And at the time of Jesus, the Jews were scattered all over the world, but they never forget their ancestral faith and their ancestral land. And it was the dream and aspiration of every Jew, no matter where they live, to celebrate at least one Passover in Jerusalem. For this reason, thousands, perhaps millions of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem for the Passover.
There was a Temple tax that every Jew over nineteen years of age must pay. The tax was equivalent to two days’ wages. For all normal purposes in Palestine, all kinds of currency were valid. But the Temple tax had to be paid either in Galilean shekels or in the shekels of the sanctuary. These were Jewish coins, and so could be used as a gift to the Temple. The other currencies were foreign and therefore unclean.
Pilgrims arrived from all over the world with all kinds of coins. So in the Temple courts there sat the moneychangers. If their trade had been honest and just, they would have been fulfilling an honest and necessary service. But they manipulated and charged excessive exchange
rates, taking advantage and victimizing the pilgrims. It was a rampant and shameless social injustice – and what was worse, it was being done in the name of religion, in the name of serving God
Aside from the moneychangers there were also the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves. Frequently a visit to the Temple meant a sacrifice. Many a pilgrim would wish to make a thanksgiving offering for a favorable journey to the Holy City; and most acts and events in life had their appropriate sacrifice. It might therefore seem to be natural and helpful thing that the animals for the sacrifice could be bought in the Temple court. It might well have been so. But the law was that any animal offered in sacrifice must be perfect and unblemished. The Temple authorities had appointed inspectors to examine the animals, which were to be offered. And for this there was a fee for inspection.
If a worshipper bought an animal outside the Temple, it would most likely be rejected after examination. Again that might not have mattered much, but a pair of doves, for example, inside the Temple court could cost about 200 times more than those sold outside. Here again a open extortion at the expense of poor and humble pilgrims, who were practically blackmailed into buying their victims from the Temple booths if they wished to sacrifice at all – once more a glaring social injustice aggravated by the fact that it was perpetrated in the name of pure religion.
It was the exploitation of the pilgrims by conscienceless men connected with people in authority in the Temple that moved Jesus to such anger and violence. Because Jesus loved God, as he loved God’s children, and it was impossible for him to stand passively by while the worshippers of Jerusalem were being victimized that way.
But there was an even deeper reason behind the cleansing of the Temple. Matthew’s account says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt. 21:13). Mark puts it, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17). Luke has it, “My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46). John has it: “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16).
Jesus acted as he did because God’s house was being desecrated. In the Temple there was worship without reverence. Reverence is an instinctive thing. Worship without reverence is a terrible thing. It may be worship, which is formalized and pushed through in any way; the most dignified prayers on earth can be read like a passage from an auctioneer’s catalogue. It may be worship, which does not realize the holiness of God. Jesus acted to show that no sacrifice of any animal could ever put a man right with God.
The Temple authorities and the Jewish traders were making the Court of the Gentiles into noisy market place, where no man could pray. The noise from the sheep and oxen, the cooing of the doves, the shouts of vendors, the jingle of coins from the vendors – all these combined to
make the Court of the Gentiles a place where no man could pray and worship. The conduct of the Temple court shut out the Gentiles from seeking the presence of God. It may be this that was uppermost in the mind of Jesus. Jesus was moved to the depth of his heart, because devout men were being shut out from the presence of God.
Is there in our Church life today – a snobbishness, superiority complex, an exclusiveness, a coldness, a lack of welcome, a tendency to make the congregation into a closed club, an arrogance, a rigidity- which keeps the searching stranger out? Let us remember the wrath of Jesus against those who made it difficult and even impossible for the searching stranger to make contact with God.