Gospel Jn 2: 13-25. He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body
John puts the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ brief career while the other gospels put it at the end and suggest it as an immediate reason for his untimely and tragic end. John leaves us in no doubt that Jesus confronted institutional corruption from the beginning as openly as he exposed the sinfulness of individuals. He was not a ‘spiritualiser’; and unlike most religious people he did not operate on double standards.
In Jesus of Montreal, the great Quebecois contemporary film allegory of the gospel, this scene is evoked as Jesus, leader of an amateur theatre group, coolly wrecks the cameras and set of a TV commercial sexualising beer and degrading the actress (Mary Magdalene). It is striking for showing intense anger being expressed itself with a measure of violence but controlled by a deeper, peaceful passion for justice. In John’s version he makes a whip and casts the dishonest traders and their wares out of the sacred precincts.
At one of the countless levels on which we can understand Jesus, he was a religious reformer a purifier of corruption and duplicity. Driven by anger at injustice stronger than the fear of confronting the power on which social institutions rest, he paid the price many have suffered before and since. However it may use cosmetics to look better, corrupted power shows its ruthless and vindictive side the more it feels exposed by the prophets of the time, the journalists or the victims. It may begin by destroying the reputation of those who tell truth to power but, left unchecked, it does not hesitate to end their lives as well.
One of the effects of the pandemic has been to expose corruption and the lies by which it smoke-screens itself, together with buried institutionalised injustices in national and global economic systems. What this pivotal scene of the life of Jesus shows about him is the link he saw between individual and social sin. This is why it is so disturbing and dangerous. Institutionalised Christianity defended itself against it by interpreting the church as a perfect, incorruptible society. Its leaders were trained to cover up any evidence to the contrary. Until modern times the ‘perfidious Jews’, (as they continued to be called in the Roman missal until ended by John XXIII in 1962), were scapegoats easily used to maintain the facade of Christianity’s impeccability.
We know how to justify ourselves and avoid taking the blame for our mistakes. It is a reflex to whatever threatens our place in the power system of our private worlds. Times in the desert - like the daily Lent of our meditation – are needed to teach us how to face the truth about ourselves. The mantra serves, more gently but just as effectively, the purpose of the whip. We know it is working when we can thank the Spirit for casting out these false traders from the temple of God that each of us is.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2021