When I was about 8 or 9 years of age, my grandparents gave me an illustrated bible with several glossy, color illustrations of various stories. They weren’t great art, but they were clear and very expressive. My favorite amongst them was the illustration of today’s gospel lesson.

I know it was John’s version of the cleansing of the Temple because in that picture Jesus was swinging a whip. John’s is the only version of the story with that detail. The rest of the picture was filled with movement. Jesus was whirling about like a dervish, his long hair and the hem of his rob flaring out. Men were scattering, tables and cages sailing through the air, birds fluttering away, and coins flying everywhere.

A couple of decades ago, when several of my friends were wearing “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?) bracelets, I’d think of that illustration and wonder, “Have you considered that time with the whip in the Temple courtyard?”

That whip is one of four notable elements that make John’s telling of the story different from the way it is told in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is, perhaps, less important than the other three, which are these:

First, the timing of the incident. The Synoptic Gospels place the Temple event at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right after his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem; it is the trigger which sets off the chief priest’s plot to have him arrested and killed. According to John, however, the clearing of the Temple took place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it is the first public act of his mission. Although John tells the story of the wedding in Cana first, he doesn’t actually say that it happened first and, in any event, it wasn’t public.

Second, its immediate aftermath. In the Synoptics, this incident is followed by several days of teaching and/or healings in Jerusalem, during which the Jewish leaders seek ways to have Jesus killed. In John’s version, it is followed by the Jewish leaders asking Jesus’ about his authority: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask.[1] Jesus responds with a cryptic comment about the destruction of the Temple and its rebuilding in three days. John tells us the disciples later realize that this was a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, there is no record of the priests’ and scribes’ reaction to the answer, no story of them plotting Jesus’ trial or execution. Jesus stays in Jerusalem for Passover, presumably teaching, and has a late night meeting with Nicodemus, but there’s no mention of enmity or condemnation from the Temple authorities.

The third difference is in Jesus’ apparent motivation, the only real clue to which we have is in Jesus’ words. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes from Isaiah in whose prophecy God says, “[M]y house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples;”[2] then he condemns the dove sellers and the money changers in words taken from the Prophet Jeremiah, “[Y]ou have made it a den of robbers.”[3] Jesus seems to be angered by the personal sinfulness of the merchants. A traditional understanding of the event is that the “money changers made an excessive profit” and the animal merchants charged “exorbitant prices,” that Jesus was outraged by “greed and people being taken advantage of.”[4] Given that Jesus calls the traders “brigands” quoting from a section of Jeremiah in which the prophet condemns individual sins such as stealing, murder, committing adultery, and swearing falsely,[5] the Synoptic Jesus is clearly motivated by the money changers’ and the traders’ personal iniquity.

John’s Jesus, on the other hand, makes no direct quotation from Scripture. He says, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”[6] There is no suggestion that the merchants or the bankers are dishonest or greedy, no implication that they are short changing, over charging, or otherwise cheating their customers. The concern here is not personal impurity. John’s Jesus is motivated by social not personal injustice, by institutional not individual corruption, by systemic not singular sin. As I said earlier, the first intentional, public act of his ministry and mission addresses institutional sin.

“John places the issue [of social justice, of systematic sin] front-and-center at the beginning of his Gospel.”[7] It doesn’t matter whether the dove-sellers and the moneychangers individually were greedy or generous, dishonest or morally upright; their mere presence within the Temple “represented the concrete mechanisms of oppression within a political economy that doubly exploited the poor and the unclean.”[8] “Jesus’ disruption of the temple market wasn’t about people selling things in a house of worship. It was an act of resistance against a corrupt and exploitative system…”[9]

[B]y placing the Temple event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John … shed[s] light on the issue of social injustice * * * [and] incorporates the issue [of systemic corruption] throughout his Gospel.[10]

Our Prayer Book tells us that Lent is a time during which the church is reminded “of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”[11] We tend to focus our Lenten observance on that individual need for contrition and amendment of life; our Lenten disciplines are nearly all matters of personal behavior. But here at just about the mid-point of the season, half-way through our preparations to remember and celebrate Christ’s sacrifice, burial, and resurrection, the Lectionary reminds us that our corporate society and its institutions are also perpetually in need of reform.

Robert P. Jones, founder of Public Religion Research Institute, suggests (correctly, I believe) that Lent is a time to evaluate “the extended ripple effects of [our] own actions [and] the network of relationships, traditions, worldviews and practices that caught and enveloped [us] as [we] entered an already spinning world.”

I didn’t create these complex, imperfect patterns and institutions, [he writes] but as I came of age, I understood I was increasingly responsible for how they shaped me and how I shaped them.[12]

Although we may not have created these imperfect and corrupt systems, we do contribute to them:

Human beings are creatures who can drift away from who we are at our best. We make mistakes, show poor judgment, or operate from a wounded place. In such moments, we add to the world’s dysfunction and even unwittingly contribute to harm and injustice, despite our best efforts not to. This dynamic seems to be part of our human experience, which suggests that we would be wise to walk through the world with an ample supply of humility and that we need a community to hold us accountable.[13]

Lent is the recurring season when this, the Christian community, holds each of us and all of us accountable, not only for personal inquity but also for systemic dysfunction.

Lenten repentance requires more than individual acts of devotion or privation. It “requires reflection and self-awareness, both as individuals and as a society.”It requires that “we reckon with our past and take meaningful steps to repair the harm we have created as a society.”[14] As pastor John Miller of the Chapel Without Walls in Hilton Head, South Carolina, has said,

No nation anywhere can avoid communal sin. Because all of us live in nations, all of us are participants in the mistakes of those nations, simply by virtue (or the vice) of our citizenship. We can’t escape communal blame, and therefore we must engage in communal repentance.[15]

Lenten repentance requires that we undertake social action, that we engage in institutional reform. Lenten repentance requires that each of us, to the extent we are able, regularly and continually involve ourselves in the process of reviewing and restructuring the institutions of our society so that they respect human rights, preserve the rule of law, and are accountable to each and every member of our community and nation.[16]

As I said before, by starting his story of Jesus’ mission with the cleansing of the Temple, John places the issue of systemic sin and social justice front-and-center at the beginning of his Gospel. About 50 years ago, the evangelical theologian John Stott said, “[I]t is our duty to be involved in socio-political action; that is, both in social action (caring for society’s casualties) and in political action (concerned for the structures of society itself).”[17] More recently, he wrote that

Our neighbor is neither a bodiless soul that we should love only [their] soul, nor a soulless body that we should care for its welfare alone, nor even a body-soul isolated from society. God created [the human being], who is my neighbor, a body-soul-in-community. Therefore, if we love our neighbor as God made [them], we must inevitably be concerned for [their] total welfare, the good of [their] soul, [their] body and [their] community. Moreover, it is this vision of [the human person] as a social being, as well as a psychosomatic being, which obliges us to add a political dimension to our social concern. Humanitarian activity cares for the casualties of a sick society. We should be concerned with preventive medicine or community health as well, which means the quest for better structures in which peace, dignity, freedom and justice are secure for all [people]. And there is no reason why, in pursuing this quest, we should not join hands with all [people] of good will, even if they are not Christians.[18]

This Lent, during the time freed up by your fast from Facebook or Netflix, consider how you might undertake the task of institutional reform, how you might add a political dimension to your social concern, how you might join hands with other people of good will in the quest for better social structures.

It was fashionable in the early 1900s and again in the 1990s to begin Lenten and other meditations by asking oneself the question on my friends’ bracelets that I mentioned earlier, “What would Jesus do?” More recently, an internet meme has given voice to my unspoken question, reminding people that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities … at least as a metaphor.

So … I’d like to close with this prayer for contemplation and social action written by Catholic journalist Edward O’Neil Hoyt:

Gracious God,
In your loving heart, you made us.
Each of us, you made unique.
But it was not good that we should be alone.
So you placed us in community.
You made a purpose for each of us: to serve you by serving our human family, and in turn to be protected an nurtured by it.
You made us the Body of Christ.
You have taught us, you children, that we are called to be women and men for others:
To walk with the excluded.
To safeguard the abundant world you have made our common home.
To call young people into a spirit of creativity and encounter, where your voice can be heard.
And to show others, in the way we walk, a pathway to God.
As we reflect on our calling to help build a just and sustainable society where all this is possible, we humbly turn to you:
Bless our bodies with strength and determination.
Fill our hearts with the compassion of saints.
Ordain our minds with wisdom and vision.
Empower our spirits with faith and truth.
Employ our hands to lay a lasting foundation to bless generations to come.
Lord, you invite us to find you in all things.
As we collaborate as a people in the building of our society, may we find you there.
In our principles and laws, may we find you there.
In our policies and programs, may we find you there.
In our courts and bureaus, may we find you there.
In our streets and squares, may we find you there.
And in our neighbors, especially those on the margins, may we find you there.
We make this prayer through Christ, our Lord. Amen.[19]


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the third Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2024, to the people of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher.

The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; and St. John 2:13-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is Christ driving the money changers from the temple by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, ca. 1556, in the collection of the Musee des Beaux Arts, Nancy, France.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] John 2:18 (NRSV)

[2] Isaiah 56:7 (NRSV)

[3] Mark 20:18 (NRSV). See also Matthew 21:13 and Luke 19:46. Cf. Jeremiah 7:11

[4] Jennifer Heeren, What Can We Learn from Jesus Cleansing the Temple?, Crosswalk.com, February 22, 2022, accessed 27 February 2024

[5] Jeremiah 7:9

[6] John 2:16 (NRSV)

[7] Douglas Goodwin, The Cleansing of the Temple in the Fourth Gospel as a Call to Action for Social Justice, Master of Arts thesis submitted to the faculty of Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, NC (2014), page 2

[8] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY:1988), page 301

[9] Corey Farr, Clearing the Temple Courts: What Jesus Did About Systemic Injustice, Red Letter Christians, June 3, 2020, accessed 28 February 2024

[10] Goodwin, op. cit., pages 2-3

[11] Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 265

[12] Robert P. Jones, Lent, confession and the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, Baptist News Global, March 28, 2023, accessed 27 February 2024

[13] Mark Laboe, Sometimes, We Forget Who We Are, DePaul University, February 9, 2024, accessed 27 February 2024

[14] Rabbi Cat Zavis, Synagogue Beyt Tikkun, email meditation on Parashat Tetzaveh, February 23, 2024

[15] John M. Miller, The Necessity of Communal Repentance, Chapel Without Walls, June 8, 2014, accessed 29 February 2024

[16] Institutional Reform, International Center for Transitional Justice, undated, accessed 26 February 2024

[17] John Stott, The Lausanne Covenant: An Exposition and Commentary, Lausanne Occasional Paper 3, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (1975), accessed 26 February 2024

[18] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 2008), page 47 (emphasis in original)

[19] Edward O’Neill Hoyt, Prayer for Contemplation and Political Action, Jesuits.org, undated, accessed 29 February 2024