Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
This passage strikes a universalist tone, in contradistinction to the Exodus reading, especially in noting that the good news about Jesus transcends and includes the messages sought by both “Jews” and “Greeks.” These terms might be taken here not so much as identifiers of specific ethnic/cultural groups, as indicators of types of religious expectations. “Jews demand signs,” Paul says: they represent a religious orientation that is focused on mighty acts of God, demonstrations of God’s power such as those connected with the Escape from Egypt that stand at the head of the Ten Commandments. “Greeks desire wisdom,” on the other hand, which in the first century included everything from moral philosophy to practical skill to thaumaturgical techniques; to desire wisdom was to desire a means to direct energies and effect ends in the world.
“Signs” and “wisdom” both, therefore, indicate power — and that is why neither “Jews” nor “Greeks” as such are able to accept Paul’s proclamation of “Christ crucified” and the ultimate powerlessness that entails. The lack of power revealed in Jesus’ death on the cross can only be a scandal and a folly to those whose main orientation is to some form of power. But to those who can transcend that orientation, the message of Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God”: set in the larger context of God’s purpose of creative transformation, the powerlessness of crucifixion serves to break the cycle of violence and prepare the possibility of resurrection. Accepting the scandal and folly and failure of death, and bringing forth from that wreckage the potential of a new dimension of life, is the definitive manifestation of God’s way of dealing with evil not by destroying it but by transforming it, as elaborated in the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. This new covenant in Christ is available to all — both Jews and Greeks — who are “called” and are “being saved.” This call is not specified to a single ethnic or cultural group, but is extended to anyone who can set aside their own expectations of power and give their heart to the proclamation of Christ.
The Synoptic gospels place the cleansing of the Temple near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and make it one of the key moments in Jesus’ few days in Jersusalem that particularly angers the Temple authorities and leads them to seek his death. John changes the meaning of this incident drastically, by placing it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, occurring during the first of three trips to Jerusalem Jesus will make, and by explicitly linking it to Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection.
One of the recurring motifs in John’s Gospel is that Jesus includes and transcends key symbols of Jewish faith and practice, re-signifying them as aspects of the abundant life of his own filial relationship to God, and offering them as aspects of abundant life that his followers can come to know through sharing the relationship he himself has with God. That motif is introduced in John’s Gospel for the first time in this passage, when Jesus uses the Temple as a figure of speech for his own body. The Temple is the place where God promises to make the Name to dwell (eg, 1 Kings 8:13); but Jesus is the place where the Word of God becomes flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14); and this new personal dwelling-place for the Name of God both reinforces and changes the meaning of the Temple building.
It is changed because the Temple now points beyond itself to a living dwelling-place, but it is reinforced in that the Temple serves as an enduring reminder of God’s intention and desire to be incarnate among the people. It is because of the enduring significance of God’s desire to be present in the people that Jesus cannot accept the business-as-usual behavior of the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers within the Temple precincts. They are on holy ground, and they are themselves called to be holy people, and of this the Temple is meant to be an enduring reminder, but they treat the Temple as nothing more than a place to pursue their trades and make their profits; they lack the “zeal for God’s house” that is in Jesus, and that ought to be in every Jew, and for this reason Jesus drives them out.
Only zeal for God’s presence, at first focused on the Temple and then focused even more on Jesus, can motivate the keeping of the human side of the covenant, and its call for co-creative transformation of life, that comes through Moses and Abraham and Noah. For the contemporary interpreter, the call of the gospel reading is to be mindful of God’s presence in churches and temples and places of business and, most especially, in the lives of human beings, so as to move beyond business-as-usual motivations in our dealings, and to act instead with the compassion and generosity and abundant life that can transform the world.
God of the covenant,
in the glory of the cross
your Son embraced the power of death
and broke its hold over your people.
In this time of repentance,
draw all people to yourself,
that we who confess Jesus as Lord
may put aside the deeds of death
and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.
God of the living,
through baptism we pass from the shadow of death
to the light of the resurrection.
Remain with us and give us hope
that, rejoicing in the gift of the Spirit
who gives life to our mortal flesh,
we may be clothed with the garment of immortality,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.