Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple,
and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
--Matthew 21:12 NRSV
Some of us grew up with an angry Jesus ready to show up at any moment to fight the Battle of Armageddon. Others of us grew up with a kind Jesus who was the Good Shepherd always pictured cuddling with little lambs. The Jesus I grew up with was kind of schizophrenic, both angry and kind, depending on the mood of the preacher I was listening to at any given time. When I realized there were options about what to believe about Jesus, I definitely identified more with the kind one, yet I’m aware there is a danger in doing so. One can end up with a Jesus so kind he is passive and inoffensive. This Jesus doesn’t demand much of us, and so we turn to him only when we have need but never when he has need of us.
If you’re like me, focused on Jesus’ radical service, inclusion and love, then his violence on Holy Monday is a shock. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus went to the Jerusalem temple on Monday of Holy week and “cleansed” the temple, driving out the money changers and merchants selling animals for sacrifice. Geesh, Jesus, what happened to loving your enemy and turning the other cheek?
When we understand more of the historical context, Jesus’ actions make a little more sense, although they still may shock those of us in the “kind Jesus” crowd. The Jerusalem temple was the center of first century Jewish religious life, the place connecting heaven and earth. There was no way to be a faithful Jew and neglect one’s relationship to the temple. Faithful Jews were expected to offer sacrifices at the temple for important life events, but it was impractical for people who travelled from a distance to the temple to bring livestock with them. So, the temple began offering one-stop shopping where one could show up and buy an animal for the priests to sacrifice.
This “convenience” was more complicated than it might seem. The Ten Commandments forbade graven images, and that included most coins which had Roman deities or emperors claiming divinity on them. In a holy place like the temple, special coins without such images could be exchanged for the normal currency (sort of like a currency exchange at an international airport). The “money changers” charged a healthy fee for their work with a big cut going to the temple officials themselves. Then one had to buy animals to sacrifice which were also up charged to maximize profit and enrich temple officials further. If you were a lower economic class person—and most people were in first century Israel—you were exploited by the rich to carry out your religious obligations. Some scholars think most of the wealth of Israel in that time was located at the temple, and it functioned more like a bank than a house of worship.
Understood in this light, Jesus’ act of “cleansing” the temple is outrage over the use of religion to exploit poor people. A strong word of warning needs to be stated here—this Gospel story has been used for centuries to promote the falsehood that Jews are greedy bankers who exploit people. Down through the centuries, through massacres, pogroms, the Holocaust, The Merchant of Venice, and conspiracy theories about the faked document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this text has been used as a weapon rather than as a tool for justice. 99% of the Jews in Jesus’ day had nothing to do with the temple’s financial exploitation of the poor. A number of first century Jewish groups recognized the corruption of the temple and sought ways to be faithful without it, such as the Pharisees we see in the Gospels and the Essenes who possibly wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus was not alone in his rejection of this kind of religious manipulation.
The point of this text is not to condemn some other religion than our own but rather to guard against using religion for our own ends. Besides, once Christianity became a state religion, if not before, it became the one who exploited the poor in God’s name. Christian history is one long story of rich rulers and clerics using God to enrich themselves.
Can we deal with a Jesus who gets angry at the exploitation of the poor in God’s name? Christians who want an angry Jesus are obsessed with end times nonsense instead of injustice in the here and now. On the other hand, Christians who want a kind Jesus don’t want him meddling in their pocketbooks. Jesus seems to confound both groups of Christians.
The Gospels and scholars agree that it was Jesus’ actions at the temple which directly led to him being executed. Caring for the poor rarely makes you popular or rich. This Gospel story invites us to think about unjust laws, regulations and rules which enrich the richest and take away opportunities for those on the bottom of the economic ladder to climb upward. Most of the time, these unjust laws, regulations and rules are created and passed by people who claim to be Christian but who obviously don’t get angry about the same things as Jesus.
Similarly, the prophets of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” peddle a brand of Christianity that enriches themselves at the expense of their flocks. On TV, the internet, and social media, they exploit the gullible and the desperate in Jesus’ name. Since they are usually the most visible Christian voices in media, it is no wonder younger generations who know no other kind of Christianity run from it. If more Christians were angry about what angered Jesus, would those who reject organized religion stop and take notice?
I like my non-offensive Jesus because I’m a comfortable middle class suburban guy. I feel sure if my life weren’t so insulated from the economic pain so many experience, then I would share Jesus’ anger.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851