The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 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, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
It is worth considering this passage in light of the OT reading this week: the ten commandments from Exodus. Both of these readings have to do with, well, "holiness". Holiness is perhaps not a terribly popular concept. I think it shares that place with other Lenten-ish things like self-denial, sacrifice, repentance from sin, and other the other fun stuff which makes me say "Have a miserable Lent".
The 10 words from Exodus are about holiness of a people; and here it seems that Jesus is concerned with holiness of a place. But there is that wonderful play on words (lost to his hearers) about the new temple - the temple of his body. And by extension, Paul will later pick up on this same theme - we are a new "temple", just as we are a new people.
What is Jesus doing when he "cleanses the temple"? What is YWHW doing when he "cleanses" a people? By Jesus' time, sacrifice had become more of an industry, not unlike a certain amount of what I see passing for "Christian" marketing of products today. There are any number of shelves in certain bookstores which should simply be overturned, but maybe that's just me. At any rate, we have the several layers of holiness - people and place.
How seriously does Jesus take sin? Or perhaps the question should be framed more positively, how seriously does Jesus take holiness? "Zeal for your house will consume me". There would be both a positive and negative way of imitating Jesus on this point. Zeal and passion for the worship and holiness of God should be a feature of the Christian life. Zeal and passion for the building (for the building's sake alone) should not. What is the proper "zeal" a Christian should have for her/his place of worship?
As a Lenten passage, one can envision Jesus turning to us - each of us as "temple" - and saying to us: "Remove these things from yourselves". We are God's temple, and just as Jesus was fairly ferocious in cleansing the temple in Jerusalem, so he will also be fairly ferocious in cleansing the new temple - his people. This is the image of the work of repentance: inviting and allowing Jesus to drive out from us those things which make our souls a marketplace instead of a temple of the living God. It is zeal for us which drives Christ to do this work in us.
also, some semi-obscure numerology on 46 from St Augustine, among more enlightening comments in his tractates on John
I suspect that one of the overlooked dynamics of this episode is the reaction of "the Jews" who ask Jesus for a sign: What sign can you show us for doing this? It would appear that if the proper sign is forthcoming, then there is a justification for the action. There is not an automatic assumption that what Jesus is doing is completely outrageous, merely that he is doing it without proper authority. In this reading perhaps Jesus is not alone is seeing a problem with the practices in the temple precincts; only he takes action, while others do not. To pull in another thought, this is a bit of an example of what Peter Rollins might refer to as retroactive justification. Truly revolutionary acts are only justified later; in this case, at the resurrection.
My 9 year old suggested that I talk about the month of March on Sunday - in like a lion, out like a lamb. Which, when you think about it, kind of fits at least one pattern in Jesus' life...