In 1966, in an interview with CBS’ Mike Wallace, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro…I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
The quote, “rioting is the language of the unheard” has been used out of context, in the same way that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple has been taken out of context. Today, I take comfort that Christians all over our world—at least those who follow the lectionary—will be struggling with our scriptural passage. American Christians, in particular, will face the juxtaposition of several fairly recent events, in reflecting on Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The passage asks us to consider, for example, what conditions prompted a peaceful Jesus to do an aggressive act? Does Jesus’ actions qualify as a riotous act? If so, how do we hold this act in tension with the majority of his non-violent teaching and behavior? Is his disruption of the temple legitimate and if so, why does it matter? And, finally, how are our actions either similar or different from Jesus’?
Scholars agree that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was one of the things that greatly accelerated the events that led to the cross. By upsetting the status quo in Jerusalem, by upsetting the moneychangers and business as usual, Jesus and his followers brought attention to the practices that they deemed unjust, as well as undue attention and outright resistance to themselves.
In general, this is not one of those biblical passages that people debate whether it happened or not. Some version of the event occurs in all four gospels—a telling sign that it really happened, though the reasons for Jesus’ specific actions, the timing, and the amount of unrest and upheaval might be debatable. Jesus may or may not have wielded an actual whip of cords, but he most definitely drove out some of the profiteers, as well as the animal sellers, while overturning some of the tables where money was being counted in the outer courts of the temple.
Depending on how you read the different accounts and their timing, some few have said that Jesus cleanses the temple on at least two times: once in John 2 and again at the time of Passover. However, I am more likely to consider the different timing just two different ways of telling the same story, since John is written much later and John’s main emphasis in his gospel is to show Jesus as the Word of God incarnate. John’s Jesus might rage, but he is always in control, a word that act and is alive in the world.
To understand why Jesus was so angry, one must understand that the Temple had designated places for people to worship and pray—the outer courts were the designated place for the Gentiles, the outsiders of the faith, but worshippers and God-fearers, nonetheless. As one moved further into the Temple, one approached other courts: those set aside for women, those for Jewish men, and those for the priests and other temple dignitaries. Moving through the inner sanctuary, one would eventually arrive at the Holy of Holies, where only certain ruling priests could enter at designated times.
So—Jesus’ act of aggression occurred in the Court of the Gentiles—a place of prayer for those God -fearing outsiders who were not allowed any further into the Temple. His act—by all accounts– was a reaction to the kind of monetary exchanges that took advantage of the poor and those pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to make sacrifice. No doubt, he witnessed greed, excessive charges, and exploitation at work that day. It is not hard to imagine how unscrupulous people both then and now can begin to take advantage of the poor, the needy, or the desperate…not to mention those who have traveled a long distance to worship.
In any case, Jesus is clearly angry, and not just angry, but full of a controlled rage. Some might disagree but he is not a silent, simmering Jesus, but a Jesus who was motivated by his anger to action. His rage was not blind, but righteous. Which brings me to my next question—how is Jesus provocative act instructive for us?
Often when we get angry, we are angry because we failed to get what we wanted, or we feel wronged, or slighted, we are inconvenienced in some way, or we are the recipients of someone’s hypocrisy or unjust behavior. More rarely are we angered or enraged on God’s behalf, meaning that we get angry for the same sorts of evils that enrage God: exploitation of the poor, oppression, the wanton and fruitless destruction of war, and the corruption of values that uphold human dignity, worth, and peace. Instead, we are more often moved to argue over non-essentials… to make political show over little drips while ignoring the flood under our feet. Yes, we will move ourselves to discomfort, pity, empathy, and compassion– for a moment, but we also tend to become quickly resigned or acquiescent to the ills we abhor.
Jesus’ rage was focused on the misuse of the Temple precincts as a place of graft, corruption, and flagrant abusive practices. Under these conditions, Jesus’ act was an act of protest taken on behalf of those who could not afford to protest, who would not be heard or heeded, and his was a part of a larger movement to reform the religious and political practices of which he was a part. One commentator, Paul Shupe, writes, “… the targets of Jesus’ displeasure…are not kings in remote palaces, or the forces of empires seen or unseen, or pagan rulers who may never have heard of the God of Israel. No, driven before him are the money changers, whose table were tolerated, even encouraged by the temple authorities, who would have known better. They had made a career of studying the word of God. They were committed to building up institutions to proclaim and embody that word, and yet they had somehow managed to accommodate the money changers.”
And here is the hook. Perhaps the passage is less about whether to follow a Jesus that is capable of rioting, and more about us—whether we ourselves easily accommodate the evils that we abhor. Similarly, given the Temple references, in what way has the church participated or turned a blind eye to injustice, while debating over or controlling the kinds of prayers we say, songs we sing, or the smaller minutiae of our beliefs or practices? In what way do we focus on other people’s drops and drips, and not the flood under our feet?
Likewise, in our personal lives, are we more likely to be angered by the towel left on the floor or the dishes in the sink and not the larger issues of our souls and their inherent messiness? Are we more likely to tolerate the lack of peace in our hearts and families than the lack of peace in our communities?
Most of what we understand about Jesus is that he was primarily non-violent. The events in Jerusalem, no matter how explained, describe a person who clearly enraged, and who clearly destroyed someone else’s property in the process. This is at odds with what we, as a society, value in non-violent movements. In some ways, the actions that Jesus took make him much more human, than John’s gospel would probably want or admit. Whether it was planned or not, his actions in the Temple show his anger about the oppression he witnessed and the destruction of the Temple as he witnessed it.
We who struggle with this passage today must ask ourselves how we are destroying our own temple—the Church—and if we are as likely to care about that as a reflection of our values as we are to care about our petty grievances and misplaced anger. We are to ask if our rage is primarily emoting about ourselves, our appearance, and our disappointments or about the disappointment of God who desires and deserves better for humankind.