I’ve been struggling with a story today.
“Jesus cleansing the Temple” is the way it usually gets titled for those of us who know the story. It shows up in all four gospels and I’ve heard it over and over; it’s not new to me. Jesus was going into the Temple in Jerusalem during Passover and saw the mall-like atmosphere that had grown up in the outer court where people could exchange money for Temple currency (to the profit of the money changers) and buy animals for sacrifice (also at a serious markup, I’m sure). He made a whip out of some cords and sent the money changers and merchants running for their collective lives, leaving tables turned and everyone wondering what the hell happened.
We read John’s version this morning, being good lectionary followers, which comes early in his gospel – Chapter Two, to be exact. The first chapter is full of the poetry I dearly love – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and the second begins with Jesus at the wedding at Cana, which is a story I love because of the interaction between Jesus and his mother.
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
First, who gets away with calling his mother, “Woman”? Second and speaking of performance criticism, wouldn’t you love to be able to hear the tone in the voices of both Jesus and Mary? Third, we get a picture of a pretty cool Messiah in this opening miracle. Drinks are on him.
A sentence later – that’s right one sentence, however much time actually passed –he’s in the Temple going off on the moneychangers like Chuck Norris on a drug dealer. Two sentences after that, before the dust can even clear or anyone straighten the tables, Jesus is quietly talking to Nicodemus about being born again.
One of the ways I was taught to look at Bible passages was to begin by noticing what came before and after the story of interest. How do I make sense of stories that show Jesus going from wedding to warrior to welcomer? More than that, and regardless of what comes before and after, what do I do with a story where Jesus responds with violence? He made a whip out of cords, which I’m assuming was intended to be more than symbolic, and he stormed the Temple, turning over tables and chasing everyone from the sellers to the sheep out of the room. Whatever his motivation, whatever prophecy he fulfilled, he was violent and he did damage. The blessed-are-the-peacemakers-turn-the-other-cheek guy was whipping people to get his point across.
As I said, I’ve been struggling with the story.
I went back to the beginning of John and looked at the order of things once again:
- the Prologue
- John the Baptist points him out
- Jesus chooses his disciples
- the wedding at Cana
- Jesus clears the Temple
- Nicodemus comes to see Jesus
- some more John the Baptist stuff
Chapter Four opens with Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman, which is one of my favorite stories. At the end of their conversation, he told her he was the Messiah. Could it be John was giving us an account of how Jesus grew into his identity? Could he be showing us how Jesus got started and found his way to a true sense of his calling?
(By the way, these questions are not rhetorical. And, yes, I understand the are problematic since the other gospels place the story late in Jesus’ ministry because they only record one Passover where John records three. And I’m not trying to get into a theological debate here; I’m trying to figure out what to do with a violent Messiah. This blows my mind.)
To say Jesus lost his temper doesn’t satisfy me because I don’t think he is out of control in his actions. We don’t need to retitle the section, “Jesus Goes Postal.” The recent church shooting is too fresh in my mind to think that Jesus was just freaking out. He knew what he was doing. He seemed full of righteous indignation, as Ginger says. The main victims of the merchants and moneychangers would have been the poor because of the price gouging. Jesus came to liberate the poor, to turn the world upside down; we see that over and over. Yet, only this once does his defense of the poor come in the shape of a fist.
Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo speak and he said, “Everyday, over and over, we have to make a choice of how we are going to respond to the world around us, and we are always choosing between whether we will respond with love or with power.” Here is a story of the One who incarnated Love responding to a situation with power, not love. Jesus took the strong hand and slapped me silly.
Part of my struggle is with myself. I have heard this story my whole life in church and never let myself see what troubles me about it until today. I allowed myself to be blinded by familiarity; I wasn’t looking for anything new. Jesus chased the bad guys out of the Temple, which is what good guys do. But he did it violently. This can’t be one of the go-and-do-likewise kind of stories. Had Jesus made it a pattern, he never would have gone through the Cross to the Resurrection.
I suppose this would be the paragraph where I tie it all together and tell you have I’ve come to terms with the story in some new and insightful way. It’s not. And I think that’s OK. My struggle is not a crisis of faith, as though I somehow think Jesus is not who he said he was. My struggle is to have the wherewithal to think and feel through my new understanding of the story (new to me, anyway) and see what it has to say about my faith and my growth as a human being.
As we say in the UCC, there is more light yet to break forth.