Sunday reflection: John 2:13-22

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 2:13–22:

Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.

At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his Body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

Today is the feast day of the dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. Not too many people know that this church, and not St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, is the official cathedral seat for the Bishop of Rome and therefore the Pope. Its original construction in 324 AD followed shortly after the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, and the basilica became known as the “mother church” after the pontiff chose it for his official location. The current St. John Lateran is a magnificent structure, rebuilt in the 16th century after the decline of the Avignon period and two 14th-century fires made Lateran unusable when the papacy returned to Rome and moved to the Vatican for practical reasons. Still, Lateran remains the “mother church” and the ceremonial seat for the Pope in Rome in his role as bishop.

Like other churches in Rome, seeing Lateran is as easy as walking into the church. As opposed to some of the other basilicas in the city, the interior of Lateran gets a significant amount of natural light in its nave and altar areas, by design and later modification. The 18th-century sculptures of the apostles almost spring from the sides as one walks toward the altar. It’s an amazing experience, and it’s entirely free, unless one wishes for an audio tour — and that is provided for a free-will donation of whatever one can afford or wishes to give. Every other church in Rome allows free access to pilgrims and tourists as well, including St. Peter’s Basilica.

I mention this because the feast day and today’s Gospel reading tie together in my mind, perhaps since it’s only been a month since I toured Lateran myself.  The scene we have with Jesus takes a very different character, not just from Lateran but from the rest of Jesus’ ministry, too. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus teaches, advises, heals, consoles, and often rebukes – not just Pharisees and Sadducees, but His own disciples as well. These rebukes, however, were always verbal.

In the temple, though, Jesus physically strikes those who have turned temple worship into a business. He doesn’t just slap people in the cheek, either; he whips them, destroys their property, and chases them out in defense of His Father’s house. This seems so out of character with the rest of His ministry that it almost begs for explanation. It seems to conflict with Jesus’ own teaching about turning the other cheek and the need to love neighbor and enemy. What prompts this scene, and why did Jesus physically expel the temple trade?

Consider the situation in Jerusalem at the time, where the temple had become a prize for the leadership in the city. The trade in the temple gave that leadership tremendous political power, as the people of Israel had only the one location in which to worship and a religious duty to do so. Jesus’ mission was in part to provide salvation to all by becoming the new temple, the dwelling place of God in this world and to eliminate the need for temple worship. It was this power structure that would be destroyed in the end, and this power structure that would attempt to destroy Jesus to prevent it.

That leadership had in effect usurped God’s authority for their own purposes. But Jesus did not just want to open the temple to the poor; He knew that destruction would come soon for the temple and for Jerusalem after rejecting Him. He intended to end temple worship and replace it with a personal relationship with Himself through the Holy Spirit. The new temple was Jesus, and His Passion would end the corruption of worship and allow all to come to His salvation. That Passion was set in motion by this challenge to the heart of authority in Jerusalem, with the clear message that Jesus didn’t intend to just overturn a few tables in the temple area but the entire power structure — and that meant that the Pharisees and Sadducees had to end the threat. To do that, they had to usurp God Himself and doom themselves to destruction.

Jesus raised the temple of His body in three days. Thirty-seven years afterward, the temple got destroyed and never rose again.

This is mostly just history, of course. One recurring theme in the Gospels is the struggle between corrupted temporal authority and God’s actual plan of salvation, so all but the most casual reader would know these nuances of what transpired at the temple in John’s telling. Paul adds another dimension in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 3:9-17; although perhaps not intentionally linked by Paul to this Gospel reading, it connects to and amplifies Jesus’ challenge to the temple authorities.

“Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Paul writes to a group of people that may well have been perplexed by this statement. At the time Corinth received this missive, the temple in Jerusalem was still very much in operation and would be for another decade. Jewish Christians especially might have assumed that the spirit of God still remained there. Paul contradicts this, telling the, “You are God’s building,” and that each person who builds on a foundation of Jesus Christ is therefore “holy.”

The context of this argument is doubly interesting. In 1 Corinthians 3, just before this reading, Paul tries to stop factions from forming in the Corinthian church. Much of this epistle is in fact a rebuke to the Church, and this is one of the main problems Paul addresses. The community has begun to split and form allegiances to specific authorities — Paul himself and Apollos, a missionary working with the Apostles. The Corinthian church has missed the point of Jesus’ challenge to those who usurped God’s authority for their own aggrandizement, and are now trying to create their own rather than build themselves on Jesus Christ. Paul tells them in no uncertain terms that they are heading in the wrong direction. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth,” Paul writes. “Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth.”

The message is clear in both readings. The human heart, where will and intellect meet, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, not a building or a leader of the church. Even the magnificent buildings of Rome, such as St. John Lateran, are useful only to the extent that it brings the community together and lifts them up so that their hearts can truly house the Holy Spirit. The destruction of Lateran (on several occasions) did not destroy the church, because the “church” is the community, not a building. “You are God’s building,” Paul writes, and the Christian church is the Body of Christ on Earth in space and time.

So when in Rome, make sure to carve out some time to walk through these marvelous churches, from Lateran and the other major basilicas to some of the more humble churches, such as Santu Spiritu in Sassia and many others. Marvel at the beauty and history of these works of dedication. Better yet, go to Mass in them, because all of them are still working churches serving their communities. But look for the Holy Spirit within yourself and open your heart to Jesus Christ, because you are the temple of God, and He wants to help you build it every day on the foundation of Christ.

The front page image is the altar of St. John Lateran in Rome, from my personal collection.