Jesus flipping the tables and driving out the merchants from the temple in anger is a singular experience in the New Testament. We find no other place where he reacts in such a physical way. What do we make of this? The version of the story told in John’s gospel offers some clues, but some additional context, historical and cultural, may help, too. Faith in Real Life discussed this passage and how it sometimes helps resolve conflicts by first sharpening them to gain focus, or as Vernon writes, to ‘seize the phone.’
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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.
As I read this passage, my mind went three different directions. First, there are some technical points in the text that need explanation in order to understand the material. Second, there is a primary theological statement about how Jesus understood the role of the temple and its place in religious life. And finally there are some important questions about the way Jesus made his point—his use of anger and his intentional sharpening of conflict.
First the historical and contextual points. This passage, usually titled the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ is found in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this narrative is placed late in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus drives out the moneychangers and overturns the tables saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.”
In the synoptics, the issue seems to be not only a misuse of the Temple but also active corruption in the temple. The pilgrims who came to the temple were being exploited. They would have had to purchase animals for sacrifice and would have had to change currencies to do so. They would be easy to overcharge. The Temple had become a profit center—at the expense of those it was meant to serve. This state of affairs was intolerable to Jesus and he takes a dramatic stand. But by challenging the system and personally insulting the authorities, Jesus makes enemies and sets the stage for the final confrontation leading to his death.
In John, however, the same event is more detailed and seems to have a somewhat different purpose. John places this same story early in Jesus’ ministry. It is more a part of Jesus’ discernment of his call. Also, only in John does Jesus take the time to make a whip—and then use it— to drive the animals out of the temple. This was not a peaceful demonstration. By any standard, wielding a whip and overturning furniture is a violent protest. It must have been shocking to see Jesus, the healer, the one who taught loving kindness and loving your enemies acting this way. It was so out of character that we have the disciples explaining that Jesus’ behavior emerged from ‘his zeal for the Lord.’
The last historical point I want to mention is the role of the Temple in the Jewish world. It was God’s house and it was the place where God and humans met. By the time of this writing, this vital center of worship had been destroyed. Where were the people to meet God if his house was destroyed? Jesus’ foretelling the destruction of the temple and his reference to raising it in three days is understood by the disciples—after the fact—as Jesus declaring that he was referring to the temple of his body. As the ‘new temple’, Jesus is now the place where God and mankind meet. It is a bold claim and radically changes where we look for God.
For me, the primary theological point of this story is that Jesus stood as a corrective to years of tradition. The Temple was the place to do the prescribed rituals and sacrifices that had come to define religion. In that system, it made sense that the church would facilitate sacrifices for the pilgrim. They would need animals and means to purchase them in the local currency. In John, there is no accusation of dishonesty. Jesus simply says, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” This is not what the temple is meant to be.
For Jesus, the Temple is first and foremost a house of prayer. It is a place to have conversations with God and a place to be sustained by God. It makes it possible to go from the temple to meet God in our neighbor. It is not to be glorified as an end unto itself. Just as Jesus protested that caring for living things was more important than obeying Sabbath law, he protested the misunderstanding and misuse of the Temple. The leaders claimed piety but they did not serve. Jesus was having none of it.
Jesus pushes the faithful to realize there are two clauses to the Great Commandment. We cannot stop with loving the Lord our God with our heart, mind and strength. That is necessary but not sufficient. We must also love our neighbor as ourselves. The place where God and Human meet is located in Jesus—not a building, not a private experience, not our spiritual disciplines or even a mountain top experience. Those experiences of God must lead toward kindness, mindfulness and love. Otherwise those same experiences become piously self indulgent. We may need respites, we may love poorly, but we are called to meet God in each other. The temple is there to remind us of that call and the temple is there to sustain us as we seek to fulfill that call.
Though it is sorely tempting to stay among the like minded, to bask in the warmth and awe of God’s wondrous deeds, Jesus forcefully reminds us that he—and we– are called to be servants to all and to share the suffering of the world. That is a demanding lenten lesson.
But one other point cannot be ignored. This is an exceptional passage because of its description of Jesus’ anger and intensity. The way Jesus made his point is startling and may be just as important as his indictment of conventional religion. It is not his righteous anger I am noting, it is the way he expressed it. This is the only example we have in the biblical record of Jesus using force to make his point. I am quite sure Jesus was viewed as rude and inappropriate. It is hard to reconcile the God of love using such means to make his point.
Imagine how any of us would respond if a self proclaimed reformer started yelling, turning over furniture, scattering the collection plates and shouting that we are bad stewards of God’s love if we insist on staying within our beautiful walls. I doubt we would listen. I suspect we would call the police.
I have two speculations—and they are not mutually exclusive. In the process of discerning our call, it is fairly common to find that the younger we are, the more passionate and impetuous we are. In John’s account, Jesus was just beginning to sort out his mission. Most of us have had experiences in which we try to make someone listen. Remember the times you’ve yelled at a child for not paying attention. In this version Jesus may have used a means to teach that did not match his teaching—at least he never repeated it. Rarely do coercive methods work very well to teach what it means to love. This would mean our taking Jesus’ need to ‘grow in wisdom’ very seriously. It also means that besides being capable of anger, Jesus, like us had to learn how to preach the good news.
All we know is that, as far as the biblical record indicates, Jesus did not use this tactic again. That said, my other speculation is that there are indeed times when conflicts must be sharpened in order for them to be dealt with. Most of us find that sharpening very uncomfortable. Sometimes it takes someone simply saying: “This is what is important, please listen.” Sometimes it takes someone yelling at us:“What the hell are you doing? You say one thing and do another.” And sometimes we have to be disrupted. We can become so locked in our way of doing things we must be stopped in order to create a new space for listening.
Cell phone usage is a very simple ordinary example. Try having a conversation with someone ‘multitasking’ on a cell phone. If you’re the one using the phone, you probably won’t be listening. If you are the one trying to speak, polite requests may not be sufficient. Direct confrontation may not be sufficient. You may have to seize the phone. I would argue that Jesus felt the need to seize the phone. He was bound and determined to interrupt the routine. According to the disciples, Jesus acted thus out of his zeal.
There is a place for such zeal but prophets run big risks. They are never liked and are often ignored as ‘crazy’ if not crushed. But they tell a truth that needs to be heard even as it challenges and interrupts.
Jesus had something very important to say about worship and faithfulness. I hope we don’t need to see a whip to listen. For us, as an individual church, Jesus forcibly reminds us that our beautiful walls are to help us live in service to our neighbor. They are not an end to themselves.
Look for God in Jesus. He is the place where the divine and the human meet. Look for God in your neighbor. The locus and focus of worship has changed. Let it be so.