Say it isn’t so
I remember the feeling I had one day when, probably in church, I was old enough to realize for the first time that Jesus was capable of doing what we just read about; that Jesus could get angry – really angry – I thought Christians were not supposed to get angry. That Jesus could get violent – turning over tables in the temple! I haven’t even done that! That he made a whip and drove out – what? the animals, right? Not the people – he would not go that far to use a whip on people, surely! Say it isn’t so! (John is unclear: Matthew Mark and Luke show us whip-welts on the people too).
Why do we even have this story the bible? Couldn’t they have left it out to spare us the embarrassment? Apparently not; unlike many stories of Jesus, this one is in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They apparently thought we needed to hear this story – and although this happened near the end of Jesus’ public ministry – in fact helped to provoke the plot to have him killed – John brings the story to the very front of his gospel – not to mess with the chronology, but to give us a lens through which to view all the rest of Jesus’ life – it is that important.
And I agree: I think that this story is important indeed for us, today, and we do need to hear its message; so let’s dive in.
First, the place; the story happens in the temple and ends with a cryptic statement about destroying and rebuilding it. Whatever the meaning of this story, it is about the temple.
But by the time John put pen to parchment to tell us his version of this story, it was gone. There was no temple there. It had been destroyed. The Roman army came and crushed it as punishment for an attempted rebellion of the Judeans in 70 CE.
John admits that Jesus’ words about the temple were cryptic – no one really understood what he meant in that moment – in fact not until after Easter did they realize what he was talking about. Hindsight is 20/20.
But it was the Romans who destroyed the temple about 30-odd years after Jesus said those words; what did he mean by saying to the very people who were officiating at that temple “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”?
Simply this: even without any prophetic powers, Jesus saw the path they were on and believed if they continued, they would destroy the very temple they were running. “Keep on doing what you are doing, and you will destroy this temple.” And they did; and they did.
So what were they doing that was so awful? It couldn’t have merely been exchanging money – they had to do that. If you lived a long way from the temple and wanted come to passover and offer an animal sacrifice, the OT allowed you to simply bring cash and buy an animal there. But how could you use the money in your pouch: it had an engraved image on it: the emperor? Simple – an exchange service was provided: trade your Roman coins for Tyrian coins without a an engraved face, and then buy your sheep.
Could the problem have been simply that the rates of exchange were skewed, even to extortion levels? Probably that was involved, but Jesus did not say a word about fairness, he was upset at the very presence of that business going on there, within the temple precincts. His words say it all:
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
The word he used is the source of our word “emporium.” That temple was all about money, and it was set up to benefit a wealthy few at the expense of everyone else. The whole system was corrupt and unjust, causing great suffering and hardship for most of the people. To cap it off, the temple was not helping people get closer to God, but rather became an obstacle in their path. It was the combination of these two issues that got Jesus angry enough to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt and send everyone diving for cover.
Jesus took his cues from the Old Testament scriptures in which the prophets predicted that in the future,
Zech. 14:21 and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts… And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.
No traders in the house of the Lord; that’s the vision of a future that God wanted.
There was a long tradition in the Old Testament of two days of waiting and then a dramatic action by God on the third day. Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egyptian slavery to Mount Sinai where, it says,
“The LORD also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” Exodus 19:10
In keeping with that tradition, when they asked him to authenticate himself as a legitimate prophet with a sign, Jesus announces to the people who are in the process of destroying the temple:
19 “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
There is double meaning spilling out all over the pages here. Jesus believes these people are destroying the temple itself but he knows also that what he has just done will provoke an attempt on his life. As the disciples remembered only after the fact, it was true that “passionate concern (zeal) for God’s house consumed Jesus: cost him his life.
But his life in fact is the new temple – the location of the presence of God himself. It will be raised up on the third day, on Easter, and from then on the powerful presence of God will be found in Jesus.
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.
In fact the resurrection was the confirming sign that they had asked him to show. The resurrection is God’s exclamation mark on Jesus oddly angry, violent actions that day.
There are two reasons why this text speaks powerfully to us today.
First, just like in those days, we are surrounded by gross injustices and great suffering one every side, and it is not OK. Following our Lord, we are authorized to be passionate about the destructiveness of evil. Evil causes suffering, and we care! Deeply!
This economic crisis was of human origin. People made a lot of money on commissions and returns on investments – a lot of money. From loan officers at the local mortgage company to hedge fund managers, they made money leveraging their companies at 300%, and now we are all suffering for it.
And of course the suffering is worse for those at the bottom than it is for us in the middle. There is an 8% unemployment rate in our country – unless you limit the statistics to black Americans: as a group they have a 15% unemployment rate now. We are not blase about that.
I just saw again more video about the Invisible Children of Uganda that have to leave their huts at night and walk several miles to the towns where they sleep in huge groups – just to escape the brutal militias who abduct children. This is horrible! This arouses our passions. We are not content to turn away; we are Christians. Christians are disciples – followers and learners. As disciples, just like our Lord we are upset when children suffer.
And when investment and pension funds like Fidelity are invested in companies like PetroChina that fund genocidal regimes, as in Sudan in the name of their “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” we say “No! I’m a shareholder and I do not need blood money to support my lifestyle. Jesus has led me to have quite different values and to be passionate about injustice and evil!”
So yes, we actually do need this disturbing story of Jesus, red-faced with a whip in his hands and furniture flying. We need to be passionate in our battle against evil.
But a word of caution is required. There is almost nothing more seductive to us frail human beings than a cause we can get angry about. We seem to love to be right and be ready to start swinging cord at people who disagree. We must therefore be extremely suspicious of our own motives when we feel a righteous rage coming on; it better be about a clear, evil injustice – or maybe we ought to chill.
The second reason we need this story is quite different. We need this story because in it Jesus says so clearly what his whole mission is about: Jesus came to de-centralize the presence of God. Jesus came to make a way so that everyone sitting in this room has access to God, just like a priest in an ancient temple. Jesus came to be Emanuel, God with us: a walking temple.
But Jesus does not walk the earth as a temple, Jesus has gone back to the Father in heaven – and now he is present to us everywhere, all the time. Jesus is present here and now, and so, God is present. We as believers, in fact, are the body of Christ: God, through his Holy Spirit, now dwells in us! And Jesus has told us to see him in the faces of the “least of these” who are hungry, thirsty, naked and in prison (Matt 25). Jesus is present to us, and where Jesus is, there is the temple: the presence of God.
These are difficult, frightening, alarming days. What is ahead, no one knows. It is in times like these that we need to know that God is with us. He is present to us. He is there to cry out to, he is there to support us along the journey. Everything for us depends on this story: the temple, the dwelling place of God, is not distant nor obstructed; God is here: Jesus has brought God’s presence to us in a new and powerful way.
As disciples, we do just what Jesus did: we take the time to come to the Father in prayer. We ask him for the sustaining power of his Holy Spirit every scary day, relying on his presence.
So we see we did need this story: we need to be passionately engaged in God’s struggle against evil, injustice and suffering, and we need to know that the temple is here: God is here, and he will never leave us. We will be disciples: passionately engaged in mission, passionately engaged with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christians are disciples: disciples are followers of Jesus, students of Jesus. There are times when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. And there are times when the evil is so destructive that we must take up the whip of direct action against it. At both times, he is the temple: God is here with us.