The Cleansing of the Temple

The day after he got to Jerusalem, Jesus ‘cleansed the temple’ — which is a somewhat too delicate way of saying he took a whip to the guys doing business deals in God’s house and sent them running. It’s a day for reckoning with some of Christ’s more extreme gestures. Whatever he’s saying here, he’s not kidding around about it.

I gave a sermon about this story recently, so I’ll link to that again below. But I’ll also add one thing. John, who puts this episode at a slightly different point in the narrative than the other evangelists, says that when Jesus’ friends saw him upending tables and taking names they thought about a line from Psalm 69. ‘Zeal for your house has consumed me,’ is one pretty standard translation (John 2:17; Psalm 69:10).

‘Zeal’ sounds a little decorous and churchy these days, but it reproduces the Greek ζῆλος (zēlos), which in turn renders a Hebrew noun from the verbal root קָנָא (qānā’). Now qānā’ is not the kind of plucky enthusiasm you would expect from your local Jehovah’s Witness. It’s fierce desire and burning envy, the fury of a jilted lover or the bitter resentment of a sibling rivalry (e.g. Numbers 5:12-31; Genesis 30:1). When the Israelites learn that their God is 'a jealous God' who will bring a world of hurt if they run off after some worthless idol (like money, or Zeus), that’s qānā’ (e.g. Exodus 34:14).

C.S. Lewis’s Miracles is not my favourite of his books, but it does have some great passages. Here’s one:

‘An “Impersonal God” — well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads — better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap — best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter.’

The point here is not so much that God’s mad, or violent, or jealous, or some other scary thing. It’s that he’s a real person with passions and relationships and desires. And apparently he wants our love so bad, is so furious at the idea that we might exalt some meaningless pleasure over the excellence and truth he has to offer, that he’s willing to make an intolerable nuisance of himself and come crashing tangibly into our lives.

The day after tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus died. He spent that night having Passover dinner with his best friends. And ‘he said to them: “with all my heart I’ve wanted to eat this Passover with you before my Passion”’ (Luke 22:15). ’Επιθυμίᾳ ἐπεθύμησα (epithumia epethumēsa) — something like, ‘with my heart’s longing, my heart has longed.’ This jealous, human God refuses — infuriatingly, endearingly, shockingly — to let us go. Will smack some sense into us if he has to. Will open a vein and pour out his blood if that’s what it takes because simply, sincerely, he wants to be with us. For whatever time he has left, and for eternity after that, he wants us around.

Here’s my translation of the relevant passage from Psalm 69.

Psalm 69:1-19

For the music director: a song of David sung with horns.

Save me, God: the waters have risen right up to my soul.

I’ve sunk to the dregs of the slop, and there’s no way to stand.
I’ve reached the depths of the waters, submerged in their currents.

I’m exhausted from calling out — throat parched, eyes spent, holding out, waiting for my God.

More people hate me without provocation than there are hairs on my head. My causeless enemies — they can annihilate me if they want to, and they want to.
I never stole a thing, but I still had to give it back.

God, you know what a fool I’ve been. There’s no hiding my guilt from you.

Don’t let me bring disgrace on everyone who hopes so desperately for you — you my Master, God of Legions.
Don’t let the ones who look for you be put to shame, you who are Israel’s God.

It was for you that I had to bear their disgust; ignominy covered my face.

I’ve become a stranger to my own brothers; a foreigner to my mother’s sons.

All because fierce desire for your house has swallowed me whole; when you disgust them, their disgust falls on me.

And I sobbed, as my very soul was denying itself: that was disgust for me.

I put on burlap for clothing; I'm just a cliché to them.

They sit around at the city gates and chat about me; I’m the drinking song the drunks sing.

But I . . . my prayer is yours, God, when the moment of acceptance comes. God, in all the vastness of your mercy — answer me! — In the steadfast truth of your salvation.

Rescue me from this filthy slop; don’t let me drown. Let me be yanked out of this hostile crowd, out of the depths of the waters.

Don’t let the waters’ currents submerge me; don’t let the depths consume me; don’t let the mouth of the abyss close over me.

Answer me! God: your mercy is good — with all that space in your gracious heart, turn towards me!

Don’t hide your face from the one who serves you — I’m under pressure, quick, answer me!

Come close to my soul, and defend it; ransom me on account of my enemies.