By Austin Jacobs
With a supernatural act of compassion, Jesus symbolically re-purposes the waterpots at a wedding in Cana, inviting those who have been excluded from the temple purification system to drink new wine.
Immediately following this account, John emphasizes Jesus’ frustration with the financial exploitation occurring in the Jerusalem temple:
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
In this passage, John invites his readers to see Jesus’ contentious relationship with those who insist on turning the temple into a marketplace. In so doing, John leaves no questions regarding Jesus’ attitude toward systems designed to exclude the poor and marginalized from worshiping God in the temple.
As a place designed for encountering the sacred, the temple occupied an important place in the lives first-century Jews, and even for Jesus himself. Jesus’ presence in the temple for Passover, then, suggests that he is there to worship God as a loyal Jew. His larger vocation, however, and the one to which this episode in John 2 points, involves a radical redefinition of who has access to God. N.T. Wright offers a helpful characterization of Jesus’ vocation in relationship to the temple:
“Jesus throughout his ministry was embodying a radical alternative to the temple, which he believes was his vocation to do. So it was Christ and it was the temple, and the question was who was representing the will of God and the kingdom of God.”
In view of Jesus’ larger project, the fact that this episode occurs around the time of the Passover celebration gains new significance. Just as God performed a sign to deliver the Israelites from oppression in Egypt (Exodus 11-12), so Jesus would deliver the oppressed as the one acting on the Father’s behalf.
Expressing Jesus’ vocation as an extension of God’s saving work, Wright adds, “As a part of [Jesus’] human vocation tested in confrontation and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only God could do and be.”
In response to Jesus’ outrage, the temple insiders respond with a challenge, which Jesus readily accepts:
18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
The temple insiders miss the metaphor that, as John informs us, a new group of insiders will later grasp. Commenting on this irony, New Testament scholar Jerome Neyrey says, “[Jesus’] opponents misunderstand him to mean the physical temple, thus proving themselves to be outsiders who take his words literally.”
Again, Jesus’ action brings good news for those on the outside. Neyrey remarks, “The audience learns that the ‘body’ of the risen Jesus is its new temple, which is not located in Jerusalem or any other fixed geographical place.” Using symbolic language, Jesus announces that his vocation involves the breaking down of boundaries. Through his coming death and resurrection, the benefits traditionally reserved for the financially secure in close proximity to a fixed, sacred space are now available to everyone, everywhere.
Through the risen Christ, the experience of the sacred that occurs in the temple is not rendered irrelevant, but it is radically defined, thrown open, and newly embodied.