In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus angrily drives out those who are selling things, telling them, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
It may be difficult for us to get a feel for the temple during the time of Christ. But to understand what Jesus is trying to convey by his act of driving the traders and moneychangers from the temple, we need to understand the difference between going to temple during the time of Jesus and our going to worship in church today. We dress up nicely and get in our cars and drive to church, arriving all neat and clean and we make our offerings by putting a check or some money in an envelope into the collection basket.
In Jesus’ time, people traveled for long periods, sometimes days, over miles of rough road, walking or riding donkeys, to get to the temple. Important to their worship was offering animal sacrifices in the temple. The animals sacrificed had to be unblemished in order to be fit for God – something impossible if the animals were driven or carried for days over miles of rough road. That meant that, as a practical matter, in order to make the necessary sacrifices of unblemished animals, people had to buy their sacrificial animals from people selling at the temple.
This is a reality that Jesus was well aware of, meaning he couldn’t have simply meant, when he drove everyone out of the temple and criticized them for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves, that people should stop doing what they were doing but also to continue to worship as usual. Worship as usual would have been impossible without the buying and selling that took place at the temple.
So Jesus is not calling for a change in how business as usual is conducted. Instead, Jesus is proposing something much more radical here. In driving out the traders and moneylenders, Jesus reveals that salvation is no longer to be found in offering animal sacrifices at the old temple. There is a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the temple as God’s dwelling. And, unlike the temple building – a temporal structure that can be destroyed, Jesus will die but will be raised up and live forever. No power on earth can destroy this temple.
What does it mean to call Jesus a temple? It means that Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the place where we encounter God and where we enjoy communion with God. Once we have Jesus, he is the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved. And he is not a passive temple, like the building in which animal sacrifices are made. Rather, he shows us the way.