Anger has never come easy for me. My father grew up in an angry household, for reasons that would take several posts to explain. His take away from those days was to decide the family he helped to create would not live that way. He didn’t yell or lose his temper, and neither did my mother. What I learned—not necessarily what they were trying to teach—was we were not supposed to get angry. There was something wrong with it. So I socked it away and kept it to myself. As I dealt with the stories of Jesus over those years, his cleansing of the Temple and cursing the fig tree have been problematic because I felt like his was angry—visibly and tangibly so. Didn’t he know the rules about getting mad?
I read the accounts now and I see to say he was mad, or even angry, lacks in appropriate vocabulary. I need a better word. When I turn to the written accounts, the gospels are sparse and lacking for detail. All four tell of the cleansing, but not in the same way. I charted it out.
Matthew 21: triumphal entry, cleansing, healing
Mark 11: triumphal entry, cursing of fig tree, cleansing
Luke 19: triumphal entry, cleansing, teaching
John 2: wedding, cleansing (with whips), musings
The Monday before Jesus died (or whatever day of the week Jesus knew it to be), Jesus entered the Temple and turned over the tables on the moneychangers. The only gospel that gives much detail at all is John, who also places the event early in Jesus’s ministry, rather than during the days before his crucifixion. None of the gospel writers says a word about anger, they just describe the scene. We can certainly infer it, with the turned tables, scattered change, and escaping doves—John even puts a whip in his hand—but Jesus’s feelings are not named. We can say he was feeling compassion for the oppressed, or frustration with the system, or that he was hoping to incite a riot or a revolution, but we have to read that into the story.
Jesus had been going to the Temple for years. Why this year? I know, in terms of the gospel timeline, it was all building to the Big Finish. Was it a sudden impulse, or a planned response? Had he been thinking about it for years and decided he had finally had enough? Did he see someone get swindled one time to many? Had the ride into town heightened his sensibilities?
The Passover rituals that were a part of Jesus’s life were nothing new. I wonder how long it was after the Temple was built that the money changers started showing up. You can see how it would happen. People need to make sacrifices, or make donations to beggars, and they get to the Temple after a long trip without change, so someone sets up a change booth and, of course, charges a small fee for the transaction. The next Passover, they have doves and other animals so people who come from a long way off don’t have to travel with them—at a price, of course, and the prices always went up during Passover. Once those transactions became ensconced in the institutional memory (do you think that free range dove seller will be there again this year?) it was hard to change. Then Jesus started turning tables.
There’s a certain snowball effect to the life of any institution. They have a way of hanging on to things, of taking an exception or a margin note and incorporating it into the main agenda. Much of the energy of those who belong is used up perpetuating the institution rather than furthering the dream for which it was created. Maybe Passover had become as much about the transactions in the Court of the Gentiles than it was about telling the story of their deliverance from Egypt. I can hear my father saying if Jesus had come to the church instead of the Temple, he would have started by disbanding all committees rather than turing over tables.
Now I hear Tracy Chapman singing in my head:
don’t you know you better run run run . . .
yes, finally the tables are starting to turn
talkin’ bout a revolution
But it’s the opening lines of the song that get me:
don’t you know
talking about a revolution sounds
like a whisper . . .
In our world of giant churches and media exposure, we think the big play is what matters, the grand gesture, the spectacular event. Yet when I think of both Jesus’s entry into the city on what we call Palm Sunday and his table turning on Monday, I can’t help think they were probably small events in the scope of things—a big deal to his followers, but nothing that brought Jerusalem to a standstill. What started as a whisper turned into a resounding chord of love around the world, but it started as a whisper. Elijah heard God in the silence—the still, small voice. Jesus rode in alone on a borrowed donkey. It was no parade. And the next day he turned over a couple of tables in the Temple.
Yes. Like a whisper.