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.
I couldn’t bring myself to preach on this passage yesterday, and ended up going off lectionary (to one of the Mark passages that we otherwise wouldn’t hear this year).
I don’t think it was the violence that bothered me as much as the theological exchange that comes after– the supersessionism of Jesus essentially claiming to replace Judaism with his own body. One of my seminary professors was Mary Boys, and she writes about the problem of Christian-Jewish relations with one of the best book titles I’ve ever heard on the subject: “Has God Only One Blessing?”
Thanks for your reflections, Milton.
I can’t read John without remembering its purpose, as we understand it: to differentiate between Jewish Christians and the other Jewish people of a later era. Right from the beginning then, or from Chapter 2 verse, anyway, Jesus sets himself into opposition with the Way Things Are Done. It’s more subtle in the other gospels, say in the stories where he visits the local synagogue and people identify him as teaching with authority. But in John, there is only one message: Jesus is God, therefore those who don’t believe it are in the wrong in every way, and how this will look to people reading later does not come into it. It’s a tract.
I did preach the passage, with a focus on not idolizing the Way We Always Do Things, but I share the concerns Mags expresses and yours, too.
Preached from this passage yesterday. I’ve discovered something interesting recently. Nowhere does the text say that the people involved were cheating the poor. In fact, their law required the changing of currency so the Temple Tax could be paid. And if every family in Jerusalem for Passover is to sacrifice an animal, they have to buy them somewhere.
The text seems to indicate that Jesus drove the animals out with the whip. But he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers.
My take this year: This is where a spirituality based on laws brought them. To the inevitable place where the complexity of their rules has turned their worship into something ridiculous.
I think the key for me is Jesus’ response. If this is where our temple worship has brought us, then maybe it is time for a new temple.
Okay, I’ll play the heretic.
I really don’t say this to be cute, though some may take it this way. But, the volatility of the Jesus in these stories that you are struggling with sounds a great deal like someone who might have been struggling with mild form of bipolar.
I am very close to someone who is recently diagnosed and I can’t help but notice some vague similarities here. In fact, this passage came to mind during these past few weeks when we found out about this person.
Of course, we don’t get all the in-between moments, either. So there could be a lot going on that we aren’t privy to, as well.
Less personally and more theologically, I tend to think of this passage as a moment in which Jesus tries to wrest access to God from those that demand an extortionist tax/fee/tithe for the forgiveness of sins and access to God.
Jesus cleanses the Temple by breaking the fabricated clerical barrier between God and humanity.
Also, when we think of peacemakers, we unfortunately think of folks who are meek and mild. Perhaps this is a case for strong-armed peace, a peace that lives off the yin-yang of creation and destruction rather than mediation.
Or, maybe, Jesus didn’t have his coffee that morning. He was human, after all. 🙂
The greek at the wedding sounds even a bit more harsh: “What is that to you and to me woman?” Although it is merely an idiom, in it’s time it would not have implied any disrespect.
And if, as argued by many “Historical Jesus” scholars, Jesus is symbolically destroying the Temple, then I imagine he would try to ham it up a bit. Check out the OT passages that are alluded to in the Gospel pericope.
“More light to break forth” in a room that will soon be empty; you’ve lost over 25% of your membership in the last 30 years.