1 Corinthians 1:18-25
All four gospel writers describe the day that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. He was like a whirlwind roaring through, overturning tables and scattering coins everywhere, driving out animals and people in his fury. When we remember that Jesus truly is God in the person of the Son, we know where this fury came from. It takes us back to the wilderness trek of Israel, when God first explained to them what he expected of them. The wilderness is the place where we can put the cleansing of the temple in its right perspective.
In the wilderness, God told the people what sort of sacrifice he expected. Any animal or any fruits of harvest given over to God as a sacrifice was to be the best of all. Over and over he emphasized that gifts to God should be unblemished, perfect in every way. In the temple of Jesus’ day, vendors sold blind, lame, pathetic animals that were the rejects they could not sell elsewhere. Moneylenders who were there to serve people of all nationalities and convert their many different forms of money to coins acceptable for shopping in the temple routinely gouged their customers in the rates and fees for money exchange. As a consequence, every worshiper who did not arrive with his own perfect animal ready for sacrifice was subjected to the untender mercies of vendors and moneylenders who cheated the customers and cheated God. It is said by some commentators that temple inspectors collaborated in the whole scheme by ruling that perfect animals brought from home had defects and must be replaced by animals bought within the temple grounds. The offerings were lies to God as a result of the people lying to themselves. The temple had become a place to celebrate big lies and scorn for both God and people.
Jesus, God incarnate, took action to show what a fraud the whole operation was. His action, taking place shortly before he himself became the only perfect sacrifice for the sins of humankind, highlights what a complete lie the whole worship experience had become. Every worshiper had become part of a scene that honored neither God nor man. Jesus’ action said with great clarity that God hates lies and he hates fraud and he hates the behaviors that sustain such attitudes.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was preparing it for the day when the curtain that hid the Holy of Holies would be ripped from top to bottom, the day Jesus himself was sacrificed on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and on the day of the cleansing, he acted as purifying truth to cleanse the temple and ready it for the one true sacrifice that would wipe away the sin of all humankind.
This is the truth celebrated in today’s psalm. This is the truth revealed in God’s law. The psalmist knew about that truth. He wrote that God’s law is the revealed truth that the heavens wordlessly sing about day and night. God’s law, which is often viewed as restrictive and oppressive, is revealed by the psalmist and by Jesus’ work of cleansing the temple to be liberating and fulfilling.
Some people have great difficulty “finding” any money to give to God as an offering when they worship. The lesson of the temple cleansing, pointing back to the lessons of Israel’s wilderness days, is that our gifts to God come first. They are the most special gifts we give to anyone for any reason. Our gifts to God must be our first fruits, our most perfect, our free gifts of love and gratefulness. We deny the blessing and mercy of God in our lives when we begrudge him our best.
This is the reason that we must give in gratefulness and love, not out of any sense of obligation. There were, no doubt, individuals who were sickened by the deceitful marketplace the temple had become in Jesus’ day, but their anguish was completely overwhelmed by the power of those who thought of worship as an opportunity to enrich themselves. They had no respect for God, and they caused even faithful worshipers to sink beneath their bad attitudes. There were almost certainly faithful believers who refused to have anything to do with the temple because of this problem.
We can be thankful that this story is in the gospel. It is a reminder first that Christ supplanted all the sacrifices ever burned in that temple by being the perfect sacrifice no animal ever could be. Beyond that, it is also a reminder that we never fool God when we give him less than our best, when we give him only our leftovers. Jesus is the way God tells us that we are so important to him that he gave his best for us. This gift demands that we give only our best to him.