This past Sunday we heard the very familiar story from the Gospel of St. John, which is in fact recounted in all four of the Gospels, of Jesus chasing the merchants from the Temple in Jerusalem. One little detail of that story caught my attention: specifically, in verse 15, where St. John tells us that Jesus “made a whip out of cords.” This seemingly insignificant detail leads to several points of reflection.
In the original Greek text, the word we translate as “cords” is actually “scoiniwn”, meaning “a rope made out of rushes or small sticks”. In other words, this was a serious, painful weapon. If you have ever been whipped by a towel during gym class, you know that it can smart, and leave a mark, so you can imagine that being struck by a whip consisting of a bunch of branches tied together would be particularly unpleasant.
Later on in St. John’s Gospel, we are presented with a different incident involving a whip, when Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate. St. John tells us in Chapter 19:1-3:
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly.
A scourge, of course, is an even more painful whip than the sort Jesus would have used in the Temple, as we are all aware from artistic and cinematic depictions of this event. Moreover, the intent of its use is completely different. Whereas Jesus uses the whip He fashions to restore the sanctity of the Temple, Pilate uses the whip to humiliate, and to destroy the Temple of Christ’s Body.
Keep in mind that the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate comes about because only the latter has the power to carry out the sentence of death demanded by the Sanhedrin, who have already judged Jesus and found Him guilty under religious law. Christ condemns Himself, in the eyes of the Chief Priests and the Elders, by declaring the truth: that He is the Son of God. The Sanhedrin simply refuse to accept it. Pilate, on the other hand, once it is his turn to judge Jesus, is not interpreting and applying the Mosaic law, but rather the secular, Roman law, in order to determine whether Jesus has committed a capital offense.
As a result, Jesus is condemned not once, but twice. He is first judged to be deserving of death by His own people, the Jews, under religious law, and then secondly by the Gentiles, i.e. the pagans, under secular law. The interpretation of religious law by the priests, and the interpretation of secular law by Pilate, leads both groups to the same conclusion. Thus, His death is brought about by all mankind, not just one group: all are culpable in their sinfulness.
Yet the condemnation of Jesus by both secular and religious authorities is not the end. After Jesus’ Passion and Death, of course, comes the Resurrection, which is the ultimate proof of His Divine Authority over matters both temporal and eternal. He is not bound by the judgments of men, with respect to either religious or civil law, nor is He bound by Death itself. And in the fullness of time, He has promised that He will return and exercise His right of judgment, with both joy and sorrow to accompany that event.
The cleansing of the Temple is a preview, if you will, of what Jesus can and will do if He chooses, to those who seek to challenge or ignore God’s authority over all things. He takes action to demonstrate His authority over His Father’s house, yes, but also to demonstrate His authority over the affairs of man. He both judges, and carries out the resulting sentence, for those defiling the Temple and scoffing at the Divine Presence. If the peace-loving Jesus of contemporary, milquetoast Christianity is what you seek, I would suggest that you take a closer look at the Christ who drove out sinners from God’s Presence, using a whip which He Himself made for the specific purpose of doing so.
This does not mean that we are to tremble and stay away from Him out of fear. Rather, He wants us to repent and amend our lives, to voluntarily cleanse the temples of our own bodies and our own hearts. He does not us to suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end of deserved punishment for our sins. Yet punishment there will be, for those who do not do some serious house-cleaning in their lives.
We are now at the midway point of Lent, with Palm Sunday only a little over two weeks away. Therefore gentle reader, let us make the remaining time in this season of prayer, penance, fasting, and almsgiving count. When we arrive at Holy Week, let us strive to be among those accompanying Jesus in sorrow on the Way of the Cross, and thereafter rejoicing in His Resurrection, rather than finding ourselves cast out from His Presence.
The Cleansing of The Temple by El Greco (c. 1600)
National Gallery of Art, London