The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 3 in Year B is John 2.13–22, the Fourth Gospel’s account of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple and driving out the traders and money-changers. After quite a bit of immersion in passages from Mark’s gospel, it is an interesting contrast to be back in John. No driving narrative here, but a much more crafted, ‘literary’ shape to the passage, with careful structuring. And instead of teaching us things through the placing of one event after another—communicating by putting things next to each other in parataxis—this gospel does its work by double meaning—communicating by overlaying things on top of one another!
Our passage follows on from the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, but in between there is a brief topographical and temporal reference: ‘He went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days’ (John 2.12). The comment combining his biological family and the new family of faith is intriguing; we only know of Capernaum as his ministry base from Matthew 4.13, but here as elsewhere the writer of the Fourth Gospel assumes that we have read the other three.
From Cana in the hills, you must ‘go down’ to Capernaum by the lake, and similarly you must ‘go up’ to Jerusalem, since it is at a higher altitude. (In both Greek and Hebrew, the phrases ‘go up’ and ‘go down’ are a single verb.) Whereas we tend to view movement by compass direction, looking from above at a map with north being ‘up’ (so from where I live in Nottingham, I would ‘go down’ to London), here the movement is viewed from the ground, so what matters is whether you climb or whether you descend. Such topographical detail marks out this gospel, which (despite being thought of as the ‘spiritual’ gospel) has more and more accurate topographical references than the others.
One of the obvious differences in chronology between John’s gospel and the ‘Synoptics’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is that John gives an account of Jesus in Jerusalem on five different occasions, two during a Passover (here and at John 12.12), one during an unnamed festival (John 5.1), once for Succoth (Booths) from John 7 to John 10, and one at Hannukah (John 10.22; it is not clear whether Jesus has remained in Jerusalem the whole time between these feasts). The third Passover is mentioned in relation to the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6.4, so that in the first half of this gospel, there is a Passover at the beginning, middle and end. The Synoptics instead present Jesus in Jerusalem only in the final days of his adult ministry, and include the cleansing of the temple episode in this period; it is this which provokes opposition to Jesus and leads to his execution.
In the first part of this gospel, we have had a symbolic, relative counting of the passing of time, ‘the next day…the next day…on the third day…’ which hints at both a new creation and a new sabbath. But with the mention of the festival, we shift from relative narrative time to absolute historical time, and it is this which shapes much of the later narrative.
The phrase ‘Passover of the Jews’ is rather striking—after all, whose Passover could it otherwise be? We need to be alert to the way that this gospel uses the term Ioudaioi. At times (as in this example) it is a value-neutral ethnic, religious or cultural descriptor, as we had in the previous account of the jars used ‘for the purifications of the Jews’ (John 2.6); elsewhere, it appears to refer to Judeans, that is, southerners and Jerusalemites in contrast to Galilean pilgrims from the north; at other times it seems to refer to the ‘Jewish leaders’ and in particular Jesus’ opponents; and then there is the intriguing group of ‘Jews who had believed in Jesus’ (John 8.31) but who have now turned away.