In the other three Gospels this account is part of the final visit of Jesus to Jerusalem, but with John it occurs very early in His ministry just prior to the first Passover after His encounter with the Holy Spirit in baptism at the Jordan river.
Part of the answer is in the traditional preparations for the Passover. In the preparation time all of the yeast and all leavened products are expelled from Jewish homes. The whole family does it, but the father of the family has the most authority to do so.
Yeast, if you have ever worked with it, is a rather stinky pungent substance. Getting rid of the yeast is symbolic of getting rid of anything offensive to God, especially our sins, and the whole of Lent has this purpose.
So we can see in this event Jesus with the authority of the Father cleansing the Temple of the things that didn’t belong in a place of worship and prayer.
Jesus was bringing the Temple back to its original order and purpose, and making the place more conducive to finding God during the years of His public ministry.
It was a very confronting and dramatic thing to do, and it took a deal of courage.
The rest of us would probably complain and grumble privately and never do anything to fix it because fighting ‘city hall’ is never easy.
Why do it that way?
Well how did things get that way in the first place?
To me the following seems like a plausible scenario:
In the beginning all the animals and stuff were outside the Temple walls, a short distance away. Then one day it must have rained hard, and the merchants moved their unblemished animals closer to the Temple for shelter. The dove and pigeon sellers possibly got just inside the front door, and then they got more business because of the better/closer location, sellers and buyers were happy and the birds made next to no noise. But one pigeon table became two tables, and two tables became more tables. Not too long after the lamb sellers thought they’d see if they could muscle in too. The slow creeping encroachment continued. By the time the presence of the sheep had been accepted as normal, the cattle sellers made their move. Time passed and the presence of the doves, pigeons, lambs and cattle in the outer Temple precincts became tradition. No one remembered that it had ever been anything different. People occasionally grumbled about the noise and the smells and the mess, but it was what it was, and it was still convenient.
So how do you fix something like that?
Obviously an incremental approach; remove the cattle, then remove the sheep, then remove the birds isn’t going to work. Why should I move my stall if the other bloke isn’t moving his?…etc.
How do you fix it so that no one dares to even think about creeping back in for a very long time?
You have to do it dramatically, and emphatically, and all at once.
And that is exactly what Jesus did.
We might even see Him do it again.
We have seen a lot of creep over the years ourselves, no fault divorce, contraception, abortion, cohabitation, redefinitions of marriage, gender fluidity, euthanasia. Young people today cannot even imagine a time when these things weren’t accepted and weren’t celebrated.
Likewise an incremental approach to fixing it is unlikely to work.
Something bold, dramatic, authoritative and emphatic that brings us back to God’s original vision for marriage and family and contains enough awe for us to never to consider that other stuff again for many centuries. That’s what would work. Something only God can do.
In history we see that whenever societal norms have swung too far one way, the pendulum swings back the other way. Similarly the ying yang concept of the orient implies that if you go too far ying then everything becomes yang, and if you go too far yang then everything becomes ying, and quite dramatically so.
Lent is a time for us to work on clearing out any compromise and any increasing levels of compromise in our lives, in order to put God emphatically first.
But we also shouldn’t be surprised if God does some dramatic and emphatic spring cleaning too; individually, in families and parishes, and on a worldwide basis.
It is wonderful that God has this kind of zeal for our salvation, and that He is willing and able to clean everything up and restore it to original order and purpose.
May He have His way in us, and in our troubled world. Amen.