Thus, the story of Jesus at the Temple in John 2 has a couple of underlying messages about Judaism, at least as it was historically expressed. First, there is a clear message that the system was corrupt. People were profiting from the spiritual practices of others, and this compromised the integrity of Jewish spiritual identity. Second, the system focused on the wrong things. The temple building was not intended to be the most important feature of spiritual identity, but it had become so. The perspective of people -- particularly people in power -- was so skewed that they missed the very point of having a spiritual identity in the first place.
When Jesus raises a ruckus, then, the authors are commenting on how corrupt and misguided the Jewish system had become. They connect this to a resurrection legend and equate Jesus with the "real" temple where sacrificial offerings are made to a supernatural. We might interpret some different meanings from the story if we start out with a different set of assumptions, and we have been approaching the stories in John from the perspective that the Jesus character is in some way an exemplar.
What observations can we make about Jesus in this story? He clearly did not hold making money as the highest priority. He had an understanding of spiritual integrity that did not prioritize physical buildings. He acted publicly on his principles with impressive conviction. He knew himself well enough that he didn't seek approval from others -- he didn't need external validation.
Jesus' perspective isn't made explicit in this story, but he obviously disagrees with the perspective of the Jewish religious leaders. This seems to be a difference of how one ought to relate to the divine. The Jewish people had a system of well-defined sacrificial acts that they believed connected them to their supernatural -- where they believed divinity was situated. If we consider the possibility that what we call "divinity" is really a set of inward human qualities, then relationship with the divine is really about being connected with that deepest, most noble part of ourselves. Sacrifices don't make any sense in that context. Does what Jesus suggested make any sense from that perspective of inner divinity?
Well, he starts off suggesting that there is something wrong with making money off of the sacrificial system. This has to mean that there is something wrong with the system itself, because many people could not offer the appropriate sacrifice from their own possessions. That's why the livestock and money-changers were there in the first place. So, if there is something wrong with the sacrificial system, this means that there is something amiss about the prevailing view of relationship with the divine -- something off about the common understanding of spiritual identity.
When challenged, he states that if the Temple is destroyed, he will raise it up in three days, which the disciples in the story interpret as a reference to the resurrection. What if these words mean something else? What if the most important thing about spiritual identity is meaningful connection within ourselves, followed closely by meaningful connection with other people? Without the building to distract people, they might start to recognize their own deepest, most noble selves -- their own identities. And they might be able to connect in community with other people in a more sincere and meaningful way. Without the sacrificial system to distract them, people might begin to grasp the true heart of spiritual identity rather quickly. The groundwork for meaningful community had already been laid in the culture. Within three days, all of the necessary elements for spiritual identity could be brought together without the need of a physical structure or a complex system of sacrifices.
After all, what does it take for people to develop clarity about their spiritual identity? They would need to be confident in their ability to engage in that process, and -- because human beings are relational -- they would need a community within which to develop that personal clarity. Perhaps a spiritual leader or guide is also an important element in the mix. They don't need a building, to be sure. They don't need to follow a prescribed set of rituals, particularly when those rituals become rote practice instead of personally significant. They certainly don't need to pay people for the means to connect with divinity. Within a relatively short amount of time, all the essentials for meaningful spiritual community and meaningful personal development could be put in place. True understanding takes a lot longer, but it starts from having a useful foundation.
It bears repeating that we never need to pay for spiritual integrity. We may choose to pay for the services of a coach or guide. We may choose to contribute resources to a community in which we have found meaning. There is something off, however, if we are ever compelled to give money that we aren't giving out of our own desire. Our spiritual well-being does not have a price tag. Our spiritual well-being is our responsibility. No matter what promises are made about more money coming back to us if we give beyond our means or beyond our comfort, our financial well-being is our responsibility, too. When money is coerced from us, there is something wrong with the situation. When we offer money out of our own sense of abundance -- out of our own identity as generous people -- then we can most meaningfully connect that to spiritual integrity.
Little Experiments: What can you do in three days? If you want to build up your spiritual identity a bit more, there are some meaningful actions you can take that do not require a lot of time. These are steps in a journey, not the destination, but they can still be incredibly meaningful and important.
In the next three days, you could:
Start in on that personal development book you've been meaning to read.
Connect with someone with whom you haven't spoken in a while.
Commit to a practice of meditation.
Decide to give out of your abundance to a cause that you care about.
Seek out a community of like-minded people who are challenging and supporting one another.
If you wanted to, within the next three days, you could plan a simple dinner and invite people who have helped you clarify your own identity, people you have inspired and empowered, or others with whom you would like a deeper connection. That could even be the start of a meaningful community of individuals who are willing to be intentional about their own identities and their relationships with one another. Everything has to start somewhere. You could start something in the next three days.