What kind of image do you have of Jesus? Apart from Jesus on the cross, most people naturally call to mind comforting images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or Jesus of the Sacred Heart. These images invite us to contemplate God’s mercy in Christ that seeks out the lost and comforts our broken world.
Today’s image of Jesus in the Gospel of John, though, gives us a different kind of image. It is a troublesome image. Jesus is portrayed as losing his cool—the Good Shepherd run amok. He is not warm and comforting but confrontational. This action of Jesus cleansing the Temple, though, announces an essential aspect of Jesus’ mission that challenges all of us this Lent. To appreciate the message, it is helpful to compare how this incident is presented in the Gospel of Mark and then how John offers further insight into the reason why Jesus has come into the world.
In Mark’s version of this incident in Jesus’ ministry, he is fulfilling what was announced by two of his prophetic predecessors, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. The Isaiah passage in particular is important since it describes the age to come, when Israel scattered among the nations, will be brought home. Even more importantly those who had been forbidden by law to enter the Temple–the eunuch and the foreigner –will be welcomed: the Temple will become a “house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus’ clearing of the Temple in the Gospel of Mark is described as a prophetic action demonstrating that the expected reign of God was being inaugurated and that it will be an age for the inclusion of all, the end of business as usual—in the Temple and everywhere else.
The version of the cleansing of the temple in the Gospel of John is at the same time more dramatic and theological. John describes Jesus making a whip and using it to drive out sheep and oxen, causing a stampede. But for John, the person of Jesus and his life, death and resurrection is now identified with fulfilling the very meaning of the temple and the Law. And here John shows Jesus acting out the full Easter meaning of his life: he can drive out the animals of the temple sacrifice because his own self-offering on the cross will permanently fulfill the purpose of temple sacrifice.
This Lent, as we look at this challenging image of Jesus Christ in the story of the cleansing of the temple, we are invited to focus on he who has come to reconcile all peoples in himself. Jesus came to break down the walls of prejudice that sometimes exist in our religious structures shutting out those who are on the margins in our society. The Gospel also proposes that just as he opened the channel of God’s mercy and love to all human beings though his suffering, death and resurrection, that we embrace our daily call to take up our cross and follow him through pain and death to the joy of Easter.
Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, graduated from Saint Viator High School in 1971. As a Viatorian, Fr. Francis served 12 years as Superior General of the Clerics of Saint Viator and also served on Saint Viator High School’s board of trustees. As a member of the Provincial Council of the Viatorian Province of Chicago, Fr. Francis continues his connection with Saint Viator High School as a member of the Board of Governors. Fr. Francis’ full-time job is President of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.