In his typically extensive account of the so-called Cleansing of the Temple (John 2.13-22 and synoptic parallels), Professor NT Wright (in Jesus and the Victory of God, 406-428) invites us to think of the Jerusalem Temple as an enormous cross between Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, the seat not simply of pious religious practice but of the nation’s life as a whole.
In fact, says Wright, it was not a cleansing at all: the rot had gone too deep for mere reform; though, to be sure, the Pharisees were recognising that a religious system so heavily reliant on liturgical barbecues would more than probably benefit from a greater emphasis on study of the word. Yet despite this hint of proto-Protestantism, this is no preview of Luther with hammer and nails. We see rather the one who will be crucified performing an ‘enacted parable’ of the Temple’s destruction, a piece of street theatre with the uncompromisingly potent political message that the end was in sight for the phony high priesthood of Herod’s cronies.
And how could he be so sure? Leaving aside the cunning expedient of postponing the writing down of the Gospels until after the Temple had been destroyed (Discuss), there were indications both outside and in that its days were numbered. From without, the Romans, like many empires before them, were keen to bring to heel this irritatingly monotheistic province that would worship neither the classical pantheon nor, even more expediently, the divine emperor. From within, financially-driven corruption gnawed at the integrity of the whole institution, reducing its ethos and purpose to a determination to squeeze yet more income from a sacrificial system no longer affordable to the poorest, so that this ‘House of Prayer for all nations’ became instead a den of thieves.
Only it wasn’t a den of ‘thieves’ in the sense of cheerful burglars and honest swindlers hustling pennies out of old ladies’ handbags. As Professor Wright points out, the word used is lestes or brigands, meaning people like Barabbas, zealots who knifed Roman squaddies by night and kept themselves scarce by day beneath the stalls of the pigeon sellers. Or something like that. Jesus certainly seems to be insisting that anyone who claims loyalty to the Temple and its cult must raise their eyes and broaden their vision far beyond the narrow national interests that did not begin to reflect his conception of the Kingdom of God, which, if it is to be truly that, must make room even for those hostile individuals whom the zealots oppose.
This manifesto commitment is unlikely to impress anyone keen on a career in the anti-terrorist squad. But it nevertheless provides an opportunity to consider the vexed subject of belonging, and to ask ourselves whom we regard (in Mrs Thatcher’s phrase) as ‘one of us’, and whom we relegate far beyond the pale of any dignified membership of our various human communities.
In a world that is so perplexing and sometimes terrifying, it is quite understandable if our default is to keep the shutters of our vision fairly tightly closed. If we cannot see what worries us, or all the people we neither understand nor feel inclined to like, we may just feel calmer and sleep more easily.
But this is not a strategy worthy of any who regard themselves as children of God, or who belong to any of the several constituencies for whom any closed-mindedness should be anathema. And it will not be enough simply to buy sandwiches for beggars or to try to look less disapproving next time we meet someone who writes violin concertos for a living, or who has multiple piercings or purple hair. Or perhaps both.
The distinguishing mark of those whose breadth of vision takes them significantly beyond themselves is surely an ability to see the connection between their own concerns and priorities with the rest of the world, locally and globally. I am, for example, always impressed and delighted when our pupils recognise that, although academic success is important, it only makes complete sense when seen as part of a greater whole. After school, the nurturing and development of a person in university should lead into a productive working life, with continuing attention to a generous hinterland of all the ties and interests that accompany the narrowly professional. Together this wealth of disposition and experience might one day enable them to contribute to an engagement with people with a very different human experience, relating to them in such a way as to reach new levels of mutual understanding and launch virtuous cycles of peaceful abundance.
Now, regaining Paradise is never without cost and danger. It is not surprising that within a short time of staging his protest, Jesus of Nazareth had been tried and crucified. But a vision so narrow as to include only ourselves and those easily mistaken for us will equally obstruct and constrict our lives until, like the Temple itself, we corrode and perish from within. It is clear which of these roads will lead to life. All we need now is the grace to pursue it.
This is a version of a homily preached on 7 March 2018 in Magdalen College School, Oxford