Like a circle of amber in the fist of the sky, the noonday sun burned defiantly. Almond and acacia trees were in bloom. The air was heavy with the sharp perfume of their scent. That, and the expectation in the crowd, whose fists were also clenched.
They followed him. With all sorts of motives and for all sorts of reasons. Some were anxious or battling pent-up anger. Others were excited, bewildered or bewitched. The kettle was boiling. Hissing insistently. But no one could lift it from the heat. There was an incessant whistling in the air people simply couldn’t ignore.
His tears had passed. His vision was clear. Through the winding streets of Jerusalem he went, striding out, purposeful, determined. Nobody spoke to him. The joy of his entrance had been overtaken by the foreboding over what he was going to do next. Everybody sensed where he was going. But nobody said anything or knew why. They followed in the slipstream of his resolve.
When the outer walls of the Temple came into view, he stopped. And abruptly. It was as though an invisible wall had halted his progress and held him in check.
The Temple. God’s house. The place on earth where the mysterious beauty of God’s presence dwelt. This was the place where sacrifice for sin was offered. This was the place where the people offered their sacrifices day after day; and where the priests came doing their priestly things year after year. This was the place where the High Priest came once a year, and entering behind the second curtain went into the Most Holy Place, to the golden altar of incense and the gold covered ark of the covenant containing the golden jar of manna and Aaron’s blooming staff and the stone tablets of the covenant itself. And always coming with blood: the blood of the sacrificed Passover lambs; the blood of bulls and goats; the blood to signify deliverance and atonement. This was what the Temple was for. Tremendous and majestic, it loomed before him. Its beauty and its purpose cast a spell over the people. It drew them in. It towered above him, stretching to left and right, its walls absorbing and echoing the praise of a nation hungry for God and crying out for freedom, a people charged with a terrible destiny to be the light of all the nations and the way to peace with God.
Oh, how this nation had ebbed and flowed, sometimes victorious, sometimes faithful, but many times treacherous and fickle and going its own way. Other gods and other sacrifices and other altars had often seemed more alluring. The God who had revealed his name as the present tense of being, the one who acted in history and not just above it, had sometimes been too hard to follow and the spectacular variety of the gods of more powerful nations had seemed preferable. But as they abandoned God, so they had also returned; and so this faithful God had raised up men and women of purpose and faith to reset the compass of their faith. Their historic vocation remained intact despite exile and defeat. And now, the Temple, rebuilt and restored, more glorious than ever, and spanning acres, spoke to all who passed by of God’s dominion. Yet at the same time it was held in the firm and unyielding grip of Roman control; God and God’s people tied down, tolerated and subdued. That is why both people and scribes searched their Scriptures for a saviour, and were ready to back Jesus when he came – or cut him loose if he let them down.
Perhaps that was why he stopped: the enormity of it all, or his own doubts, fixing him to the spot? Or was it God’s much trumpeted but rarely seen compassion presenting him with a choice?
The crowd behind him muttered under their breath. Everyone had their own theory. Nobody was very sure. Conjecture and assumption filled the air. What was going to happen now? What was he going to do?
He took a deep breath, holding the air in his lungs as if it were a last breath. He looked around him, his eyes beckoning his followers to come close. None of these so-called chosen twelve disciples looked very courageous then. They shuffled forward. He wanted them with him, but he offered no instructions.
Then he moved. Striding forward towards the Temple. Through the gates and into the outer court of the Gentiles, the place where money is changed and animals for sacrifice are bought and sold. It was its usual hot bustle of people and noise. What had once been a quiet place where all the peoples of the world could come and pray (the inner court was, of course, reserved for the Jews) had now become a market place for the necessary business of getting the right money for the right animal for the right sacrifice that would make peace with God. Beyond it, invading the nostrils and cancelling out the perfume of the spring flowers, was the stench of death. Behind the walls and in the Temple itself, pigeons and goats were being killed. This is what sacrifice entails. Throats being cut. Blood being spilled. Entrails dropping. Flesh burning. The whole macabre round of covering your sin and making your peace, day after day, year after year, death after death after death.
Suddenly there was violence and foreboding in the air, and it emanated from him. He was a tornado, a whipping frenzy of righteous rage in the midst of all this commerce and clamour. He was turning over the tables of the money changers, lifting them with both hands, and sending them crashing to the ground, pushing them this way and that. He was upending the benches where those who sold doves were going about their lawful business. His stamping feet were beating out a rhythm of change and putting his mark upon the place.
Gold and silver coins tumbled to the floor and sparkled in the dust. Greedy hands stretched out to grasp them. Doves and pigeons shackled on death row received a last-minute amnesty as their cages crashed to the ground. A few stretched their wings and soared into the sky. Surprised by liberation, and ill equipped for freedom, their wings diminished and forlorn, others pecked among the dust. Wasn’t it ever thus? Why is darkness so attractive? Why are prison walls so safe?
It happened so quickly that half a dozen tables were thrown over before anyone even tried to stop him. It just happened. Everyone was too surprised and too bewildered even to move, let alone prevent him. He passed through them like the angel of death itself, deftly extinguishing light after light, and for a moment no one could lay a hand on him.
But now people saw him. It was Jesus. The Nazarene. Mad after all.
People screamed and laughed. Some ran for cover. One vomited in fear.
Others had him in their sights. Some of the money changers whose tables were further into the court hurriedly gathered up their profits in their arms and stuffed their money into leather purses and ran. Others were ready for a fight. They stared with icy opprobrium at his advance.
And now people were trying to stop him. Hands reached out to detain him, to catch hold of him. People stepped in his way. But it was still happening too quickly. It was too confused.
Jesus was at the centre of a maelstrom.
Tables were upended. Fights were breaking out. But most people were more concerned with saving their money or grabbing a piece of the action than actually stopping him.
Around him his disciples looked dumbfounded and inept: incapable of joining him, they were equally incapable of stopping him. Those who recognized them as followers of Jesus screamed at them out of their own frustration and displeasure.
Children cried and turned to find their mothers. Mothers cried and turned to find their children. Old men closed their eyes.
He swept through the courtyard like a man possessed of God, as if the Temple itself was suddenly being made redundant.
And then he stopped.
He turned, defiant and breathless at those who pursued him. His eyes blazed. It was a look that would turn you to stone; and even those who wanted nothing more than to lift him up and turn him over and give him the flavour of his own medicine, also stopped. An uneasy stillness, as if this could escalate further if they didn’t stop for a moment, and an ominous silence fell upon everyone. Not the silence of peace: more the silence of a coiled spring about to jump; or a bowstring stretched to its extremity and about to be released with a brutal finality; or the silence of a waiting battalion lined up for battle, the general about to give the order to advance.
Everyone breathed deeply. No one dared look at anyone else. All eyes were fixed on him. Was this the time to devour him? Was this where it will end? He lifted up his hands. Not in surrender, but to heaven, as if some great proclamation was about to be made. He cried out: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’
Then another silence fell. Part shame and part remorse, it prevented people from moving or acting. The violence that had been in the air dispersed. People brushed themselves down. They picked up their tables. They gathered up their coins and sorted them into neat piles. They shrugged their shoulders and smiled. Conversations started again. The doves that had not yet flown were gathered back into their cages. Normal business will soon be resumed.
But what had Jesus meant: a den of robbers? ‘We are not doing anything wrong,’ they said to each other.
And they were right. Yes, they were making a profit from these prayers, but what is profit other than another word for a living? In the main these were not rich or dishonest men. They were doing what had to be done. They were doing what the law required. ‘He wants to destroy the Temple itself,’ says one. ‘That is the meaning of this action. He doesn’t just want to put us out of business. He wants the whole thing stopped!’
And for a little while that day, that is what happened, that is what Jesus did. He stopped the Temple in its tracks. Its unending round of exchange and death stopped for a little while. It stopped because the one who was himself a temple, a place where God’s glory dwelt on earth, came; and not yet offering a final sacrifice, prevented the means of production for all those little sacrifices that in their way foreshadowed his.
He knew what he was doing. Growing inside him was the painful knowledge of what he had to do. He didn’t like it, and he didn’t quite know how and when, but shadows of what was to come kept crossing his path, and for him this was another sign that pointed the way to meaning and conclusion. Of course it had to be in Jerusalem. Of course it had to be Passover. Of course it had to be now, for this was the hour that God had led him to. He couldn’t see it as you might imagine. He couldn’t see the future in the same way that we see the past. For him it was like looking on a vine in springtime. It yields so many shoots, and each one is capable of bearing much fruit, but unless pruned will become overburdened by its own abundance and the fruit will fail, never reaching its potential. So it is pruned and pruned, till only one stem remains. So there is no doubt. This is the one that will bear the fruit, and that fruit will come when the time is right.
Hardly anyone else got it. Not even his closest followers. They still thought he would jump from the trap that was being laid. That is why they had asked for places at his left and right in glory. They could only see victory, and they wanted recognition and honour when the prizes were being handed out. They only saw the harvest, never the tilling of the soil, or the painful pruning of the plant. They just didn’t understand the things he was doing and where they would lead. No one did. Nor did they understand the type of victory he would win and the dreadful manner with which this victory would be achieved. So very quickly, even this astonishing act of cleansing was seen as a judgement on the ethics of their business practice, and not on the Temple itself.
‘They must have been short-changing the people,’ one suggested; and everyone agreed that this was what his actions meant. They even joked about it, or at least joined in the jokes that were quickly doing the rounds across Jerusalem as the day drew on. After all, hadn’t he spoken about destroying the Temple before? He had even said he could raise it up again in three days. That was a laugh. It had taken generations to build.
But these actions still had about them a brutal purpose that shocked everyone, especially those closest to him. Their jokes hid their unease. They were mainly just glad it was over and the tension was lifted from the air.
They watched him withdraw into the crowd. Some of them even dared to hope it might be over. None of them could see what was beginning.
As he disappeared from their sight, they saw another crowd gathering around him. It was a familiar one, the one he gathered everywhere he went: the blind and the lame, small children and widows. They flocked to him.
His friends couldn’t see him any more. They could just see all the people that needed him thronging around him. They were reaching out to touch him and he didn’t stop them. The music that was in him chimed with the music in them. Dispensation flowed from him, and like that spring of water that the prophets say might flow from the Temple itself, it ran like healing streams into their hearts and lives.
He changed people. That was the fearsome beauty of the things he did. His presence, his touch, his actions, his words, they did things to people’s lives. Therefore why put it all in jeopardy? Why antagonize and confront? Why come to Jerusalem at all? For in another part of the courtyard, the chief priests and teachers of the law were themselves taking council together. They had seen what he had done, and they had reached their conclusions. The man was trouble. He endangered the delicate harmony of the entente cordiale they had established with Rome. He disturbed the people. He gave succour to fanatics. He threatened their power. He raised false hopes. He was therefore a false prophet. He had to be removed. It was as simple as that.