Artistic representations of the Ten Commandments often depict two stone tablets on which there are two tables of inscriptions. This portrayal follows from a classical division of the commandments in which there are two specific categories—those that order humanity’s relationship with God and those that order human relationships with one another. If we consider the Bible as a totality, it becomes apparent that the Scriptures give priority to the first table, those commands dealing with God.
The Ten Commandments begin with an insistence that the Lord alone is God and there are to be no other gods besides him. This is not just a principle meant to order humanity’s expressions of ritualized worship, but a statement about the ethos of the entire moral and spiritual order. Whatever it is that humanity worships, be it the gods of the ancients or the allures of wealth, power, pleasure and honors, will by necessity give rise to our perceptions and practices concerning the moral life. The God or gods in whom we place our ultimate concern will direct our lives and determine our choices.
Given that the Bible calls humanity over and over again to relinquish its attachment to false gods and embrace the worship of the one true God, we might take that emphasis as means to interpret Christ’s actions in regards to the moneychangers in the Jerusalem Temple, actions that are traditionally referred to as the “cleansing of the Temple.” The dramatic scene portrays Christ entering the sacred center of Israel’s culture and worship at the height of the Jewish year—the feast of Passover. Christ then raises a ruckus, for he finds the Temple to be not a house of prayer, but a “marketplace.” He turns over the tables of the moneychangers, disrupts the trade in animals for sacrifice, and cleans the place out.
This scene is often interpreted as testimony against materialism in religious practice. Religion is to remain radically pure in regard to the corruptions of commerce. An idealism emerges from this interpretation that engenders a hair trigger with respect to any and all associations of religion with economics or money. According to this conceit, the only way forward for religion is to maintain its purity by eschewing the corrupting influence of commerce.
While sharing the aversion of using religion as a means to gain material wealth, I think a more fruitful way of understanding Christ’s action to cleanse the temple can be discerned in relation to Israel’s aversion to the worship of false gods and the necessity of cleansing our own temple—that is, our lives—of these fallen deities. Remember, St. Paul said that the body of each Christian is “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” By this, he means a place where the one true God is honored and worshipped. The apostle is providing us with an image of the Christian life as one in which a person finds happiness and integration in the measure that she becomes, personally, a place where God is first.
Think, then, that Christ has come not only to “cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem,” but the temple of your own body, your own life. The Lord Jesus comes into your life expecting to find a place ordered to the worship of the one true God, but what he finds is “a marketplace.” What does this mean? It means that Christ finds a place where things other than God have become primary. To bring such idolatry closer to our cultural experience, how much of your life is given over to materialism, commercialism or the accumulation of things? What rivals to the one true God have you allowed to invade the sacred space of your soul? I have referenced earlier wealth, pleasure, power and honor. How are these things enshrined in the sanctuary of your own heart?
The temple-cleansing Christ is a memorable image with enduring power. We shouldn't relegate that image or the Lord himself to merely a statement about our impatience with the corruptions of religious institutions and miss the point that strikes closer to home: Christ comes to each of us to rid the temple of our own body of the idols to which we have foolishly given power and pride of place.