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Sermon for Lent II

St Frideswide Sermon Sunday  11th March 2012

The Third Sunday in Lent

Fr. Martin Henig

Gospel for the day: John 2:13-22


In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords he drove all of them out of the temple…

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Gospel reading today, indeed all our readings today, are immensely rich in ideas. From the Hebrew scriptures we have the foundational Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and one of the most glorious of the psalms (psalm 19); from the New Testament two of the most  significant acts of Jesus’ ministry on earth coupled with the lovely hymn in 1 Corinthians (1:18-25) on the wisdom of God. To do any sort of justice to the themes presented here would take many hours, and you will be relieved that I do not intend to try your patience for very long. I will merely suggest that you do not prioritise any of the readings but meditate on them for yourselves. Here you will find law, and invitations to meditation and, indeed, a call to action.

St John sets the scene just before Passover, the commemoration of the Exodus which gave the Hebrew People their freedom and a code of law summarised in the Commandments. A couple of years later than the episode the evangelist recounts the Passover would see Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Having just performed the miracle of turning water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana in Galilee he travels to Jerusalem, causes a riot in the Temple by driving out the people trading there and  goes on to proclaim that if Herod’s great temple were destroyed he could rebuild it in three days.

The synoptic Gospels also record the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ but they place it late in Jesus’ ministry., together with his assertion about destroying and rebuilding the Temple. The latter (at least the ‘three days’ mentioned) must  in part reflect later beliefs about the Resurrection . As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, followers of the Way continued to frequent the Temple presumably until at least the outbreak of the Jewish War in AD 66 which culminated in the destruction of Herod’s magnificent building in AD 70. Thereafter, with the Temple destroyed, sacred space for Christians as well as Jews gravitated elsewhere, to churches and synagogues. If Margaret Barker is right the Church inherited many aspects of Temple Worship, including  the singing of psalms and the offering of incense.[1] Churches, previously spare meeting rooms, became sacred space, embellished with altar, screen, baptistery  and figural art.   Jesus’ assault on the moneychangers and those selling sacrificial animals has the air of authenticity, but it is far more likely to have happened very late in his ministry. We need to pause to consider how such an event might have been regarded both by the Temple authorities and by the Romans. Animal sacrifice was central to worship in Antiquity not only for the Jews but for Greeks and Romans, and any archaeologist (like me) excavating  or writing about temple sites for instance in Roman Britain at Bath, Hayling Island or just up the road at Woodeaton  must expect to find vast quantities of animal bones.[2] . There were, undoubtedly, unusual aspects about Jewish worship, above all the privilege of being relieved of the requirement to sacrifice to the Emperor (although the mad Gaius Caligula would attempt to revoke this concession), but eschewing sacrifice was not one of them and Judaism remained a religio licita. The disruption of cult sacrifice would have been regarded as sacriligeous not only by the Temple authorities but almost certainly condemned as an assault on traditional rites by the Roman state itself. It would have been a highly plausible motive for Jesus’ arrest and indeed his death.might well have been the direct consequence of this episode.

St John places the cleansing of the Temple and the rebuilding of the Temple in the person of the resurrected Jesus together to make an important theological Christological point. Following on from his miracle of the  transformation of the water stored in stone jars  [used for purification] into new wine at Cana we  see the sacrificial system of the sacrifices of the Temple being replaced by that of the new Temple whose sacrifice is his body and blood.

That need not prevent us looking for other meanings. Jesus was shocked by the commercialism of what should have been sacred space. The buying and selling in the Jerusalem sanctuary must have made it a noisy place. Monetary transactions, including money-changing and the  sale of sacrificial animals as well as votive trinkets was a major activity in all major sanctuaries. Certainly it hardly rendered such places suitable for private prayer and contemplation. Perhaps Jesus’ attitude might give us pause when we see churches and cathedrals being run as tourist honey-traps. At least they do not display the sights and smells of a stockyard, abattoir and hamburger bar in one!

Did Jesus disapprove of sacrifices as such? Some have commented  on the episode suggesting it may have been a motive, but that is a little unlikely in the context of  Jesus’ loyalty to his traditions. Indeed, in St Luke’s Gospel (2:24) at the time of her purification we  find  Mary (with her husband Joseph) sacrificing ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’. Of course Luke is concerned to present Our Lord with a faultless Jewish pedigree but this feature of his babyhood  is likely to be true because it would have been true of  other contemporary Jewish babies..

Nevertheless, the same Jewish tradition was firm on seeing animals as very much part of God’s creation and hence, as we have seen, livestock were forbidden to  work on the Sabbath. Jesus inherited the tradition that God was concerned for all Creation, animals as well as people and that human beings should show compassion towards all animals.[3] He would undoubtedly have been disgusted by factory farming and fast food culture, treating animals as mere commodity. In the eschatological future all creatures (and that includes humankind) would live at peace without harming one another.

Those selling cattle, sheep and doves to the crowds who flocked to the Jerusalem Temple may not quite have reached the level of regarding the animals they sold as mere objects, so horribly prevalent in today’s culture but they were surely beginning to approach that state of mind where money and greed for it replaces faith and our human (humane?) love for the Creator and his Creation.

I mentioned action; there are times in which individuals who believe in a loving God must  feel impelled to take action in the cause of justice. Jesus’ action, whenever it took place in his ministry, was certainly about redressing wrongs; it was also about making others think. In this very church I was intensely moved by a short homily delivered by Fr David Platt, like me an opponent of nuclear armament, in which he said he was prepared on Christian grounds  to break into the Faslane Polaris facility to bring attention to the cause.

Another homily which has moved me greatly was given by Dr Matthew Simpson at a demonstration against the Oxford Animal lab in which I took part. He pointed out that protestors from SPEAK were even there on Christmas Day and that was appropriate ‘because it was the birthday of a man who had asked the question as to whether it was ever right for the strong to tyrannize the weak, and gave the resounding answer which has echoed through the ages: “No,no,no!”’. Matthew’s short speech has been central for me in my Christian mission.  If  animal ethics are not as high as they should be on the agenda of the Anglican church, despite the existence of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, they should be. I  have been rather disturbed to find the mere term ‘Animal Rights’ causing negative reactions in this city, but then other terms like ‘Asylum Seeker’ seem to produce the same sort of hostility. In both cases I suspect it is because facing the issues of abuse, neglect, cruelty and persecution are just too painful. Hostility to Jesus sprang from similar unwillingness to face very awkward facts and as we have seen  his action in the temple may have provided a perfect excuse to remove him. That does not mean that any sorts of action are appropriate: means do not necessarily justify ends. But then burying one’s head in the sand in the face of suffering Creation  is simply never a Christian  option. It is a matter of  fact that vivisection, experimenting on animals, which is today practiced on such a large scale in Oxford was strongly opposed on Christian grounds by some of the greatest churchmen of the 19th century,  amongst them  Bishop Edward King of Lincoln who founded my theological college, St Stephen’s House, and the Blessed John Henry Newman, the latter devoting his sermon in St Mary’s University Church on Good Friday 1842 to the topic.[4]

So if we are to take it seriously, the new Temple of Jesus’ body and blood, in which we share at the Eucharist, demands more from us than the old Temple did of its votaries.[5] Above all we should display compassion in our eating, so we do not over-exploit the environment or other creatures. There is no place for speciesism in our faith.[6] Lent is the ideal season in which to become attuned to God’s Creation all around us, not just to our fellow human beings. This is, after all,  the season of lengthening days when we can watch plants burst into leaf , and spring flowers blooming. And the sparrows, woodpigeon and ring-dove in my garden more nearly remind me of the Creator than any rather dubious sacrifice in the old Temple could have done. Be kind; be gentle as Jesus too was gentle and kind .

And, of course, this is a fully orthodox position. It is the faith of  saints such as Basil the Great, the Desert Fathers, the Celtic Saints and of St Francis and his followers.[7] God is present in all he has made.  As the psalm for today proclaims:

The heavens declare the glory of God,

And the firmament shows his handiwork.(Ps.19:1)

As we journey on through Lent  we should hold in balance the immensity of God and the particulars of  Jesus’ life and Passion, the historic Temple whose remains still excite wonder and the new Temple  of God’s power and wisdom,

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,

And God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor.1:25)


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] M.Barker, Temple Theology. An introduction  (London 2004)

[2] M.Henig,Religion in Roman Britain (London 1984),33-4 and passim.

[3] R.Bauckham, Living with other creatures. Green exegesis and theology (Milton Keynes 2012) especially chapter 4, ‘Jesus and Animals’.

[4] Cited by Andrew Linzey in Why Animal Suffering matters, Philosophy, Theology and Practical ethics  (Oxford  2009), 38

[5] M.Barker, Creation. A biblical vision for the environment  (London and New York 2010)

[6] The word was invented some years ago by  Richard Ryder to describe an instrumentalist approach to life, largely derived from Aristotle

[7] Bauckham, op.cit. ch. 2, pp.29-42