Just as Isaiah’s nakedness doesn’t make him a flasher; Jesus’ destructive act doesn’t make him a violent person.
“Lord, you have the words of everlasting life” is the response to the Psalm reading for this Sunday. The Psalm passages are quoted from Psalm 19 – my favorite psalm.
Psalm 19 begins with a beautiful, high-spirited exaltation, paying tribute to God’s magnificent creation that speaks. Speaks? Yes, God’s creations – the sun and the moon, the sunrise and the sunset, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the valleys – speak; using a language that “proclaims its builder’s craft”; communicating a message that imparts knowledge and wisdom; uttering a sound that cannot be heard and yet resonates loud and clear “to the ends of the world” (cf. Ps. 19:2-4)! What the psalmist is extolling is the word of God; a word that is “perfect”, “true” and “just” (Ps. 19:8-10).
Earlier in the first reading, the same word, pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany as part of His covenant with the holy people on Mount Sinai, is solemnly promulgated: delivered through Moses, the intercessor between God and His people; given to Israel, who promises with one voice to “do everything that the Lord has told us” (Ex 24:3); and decreed in the Decalogue, which means literally the “ten words” or the Ten Commandments (CCC 2059-2060). Written on two separate tablets – three on one and seven on the other – these are words of love: “the first three concern love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor” (CCC 2067).
I always remember what my professor taught me when I was taking a course on the Old Testament at the St. Augustine Seminary of Toronto. He said the Greeks lived in a world of numbers, but the Israelites lived in a world of word, dynamic and prophetic. Word to them is electricity to us – a force that makes things happen and is indispensable. At this point, every reader who is human and breathing would probably ask, having gone this far in reading the Bible, “Who is this word”?
John began his gospel by tackling this question head on: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The Word is further identified as Christ incarnate, who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). But if Jesus, the Word of God, is “perfect”, “true” and “just”, as the Psalm reading tells us he is; and if the Decalogue - the 10 words of love - also finds its origin in him; how are we supposed to understand the act of violence committed by the same Word of God in this Sunday’s gospel? What Jesus did was unambiguously violent: “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (John 2:15).
Let’s be very clear. It will be ignorance to the extreme for anyone to suggest that the temple cleansing story is meant to justify the use of force. Let’s face it; it would take a radically different direction for Jesus, whose ministry and message throughout the gospel are all about love, peace, and humility, to suddenly promote violence. Those who read the Johannine narrative in context can’t possibly miss its culminating theme, namely, that the temple is a sign of Christ’s body, which will be destroyed and raised up in three days – an allusion to the Cross and the Resurrection (Note 1). This is how Jesus explains his action: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
Still, why is it necessary for him to resort to a violent act to communicate his theological message? To truly understand Jesus’ action, we must keep in mind his prophetic ministry and how it works. If I were to pick 10 OT promises that any scriptural reader must remember at all times, this one, revealed by Moses, would be one of them: "A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen” (Dt. 18:15). Turned out, the promised prophet is Jesus – the Prophet of all prophets.
The OT prophets came from, shall we say, a very special species. They were mostly shunned by the very people they were summoned to enlighten: kings, political leaders, and religious authorities. Sometimes they had to do very unusual things in order to drive home their messages. Hosea married a harlot in order to show Israel God’s displeasure with its infidelity. Ezekiel was asked to eat bread baked on cow’s dung in order to forewarn the Israelites of the abomination of having to eat unclean food while in exile (Eze 4:12-15). God’s instruction to Isaiah was even more bizarre: He was asked to walk naked and barefoot through Jerusalem for 3 years! The prophet followed God’s order to a tee, not because he enjoyed exposing himself – God forbid! - but because he needed to convince the Judeans of their futile attempt to court the Egyptians and Ethiopians. These nations were bound to be defeated by the Assyrians and taken away as captives in their nakedness (Is. 20:3-6).
Given Jesus’ prophetic ministry and the way it works, it’s fair to conclude that there’s a deeper significance to Jesus’ destructive act in the cleansing of the temple. Just as Isaiah’s nakedness doesn’t make him a flasher; Jesus’ destructive act doesn’t make him a violent person. Both acts are prophetic, meant to communicate a prophetic message. In Jesus’ case, the message is to warn the Jews of the violent destruction of the temple (which happened in 70 A.D.). The temple is his body. The destruction of a temple made by human hands is the beginning of the new Temple in heaven. It’s a sign pointing to the Cross and the Resurrection. He himself is the new Temple, the Body of Christ, the Church. Through Christ, a new way of worshipping God is about to begin, when all peoples are gathered and united in the sacrament of his body and blood, worshipping God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23, note 2).
Note 1: See Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on John 2:19.
Note 2: See Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, pp. 21-22.