#OccupyChurch: Jesus Threw out the Moneylenders for a Reason (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary on John 2 for March 11)

Andy Lester was one of the most important professors I had in seminary. I took two classes from him: Introduction to Pastoral Care and Pastoral Care Confronts Anger and Conflict. As part of the latter class, we helped edit his book A Pastoral Theology of Anger, which cuts against the grain of the tradition that anger is always a sin. Perhaps the most important reading assignment in that class was an essay by Beverly Wildung Harrison titled, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” She invites us to consider that the problem is not anger itself, even if anger is rated as one of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ Anger can be either positive or negative. Indeed, it is right to be angry at injustice, and problematic to be apathetic toward injustice. Thus, she challenges Christians to“harness the power of anger in the work of love.”

Jesus’ Anger at Injustice

John 2 presents one of a number of episodes in the Gospels in which Jesus is likely angry:

14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan emphasizes that Jesus was “not against the Temple as such, and not against the high priesthood as such. It was a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.” In these days of Occupy protest movements, it is significant Crossan that continues to say that Jesus’ way is “against any capital city’s collusion between…religion and imperial violence at any time and in any place.”

In my undergraduate philosophy classes, we used to talk about the need to avoid a genus-species fallacy. In biology, a genus is a higher level of classification and a species is a lower level. An example of a genus-species fallacy would be to assume that an aspect of a species is necessarily also the case with every species in the higher taxonomic level of genus. This logical fallacy is also known as a ‘category mistake,’ attributing something to a category to which it does not belong. Jesus, accordingly, was not against the genus ‘Judaism’ or for the genus ‘Christianity.’ Instead, he was against a specific species of unjust Judaism, just as he would be against similarly unjust species of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism today.

Specifically regarding Crossan’s claim that Jesus’ action in the Temple was “a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism,” the Torah is replete with the theme that the Land is ultimately God’s, and we are but stewards. Moreover, Jesus could have had in mind passages such as Psalm 24:1, “The earth is God’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Beyond these implicit themes, remember that while overturning the tables, Jesus explicitly quotes Isaiah 56:7 to emphasize that he is influenced by the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. God’s desire has long been for “a house of prayer for all the nations,” not a corrupt religious institution that is complicit with or oblivious to the plight of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus learned his unrelenting passion for the God’s way from the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah who came before him and similarly chastised corrupt religious and political leaders of their own day. Consider, for example, to the fifth chapter of the book of Amos, where the prophet says on behalf of God:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Jesus’ actions recapitulate Amos‘ words 700 years later. Both are saying saying that if God has to choose between worship and justice, then God chooses justice. God does not want to make this choice, but God’s preference is clear.

A question for us today is whether we are willing to take the same risks that Jesus took to seek not only individual change, but also institutional change. This shift is both vital and risky. As Dom Helder Camara said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

In moving from inclusive table fellowship to action against the Temple, Jesus shifted from the controversial (but more acceptable) practice of eating with others across diverse socioeconomic boundaries to confronting the institutional system that create and entrench unequal and unjust socioeconomic boundaries in the first place.

Christian social justice advocate Jim Wallis similarly likes to say, “You can’t just keep pulling people’s bodies out of the river without sending somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in.”

The Gospel of John presents the episode in the Temple as happening early in Jesus’ ministry, but scholars are clear the John is much more interested in theology than history. However, even as historical scholarship shows us that Jesus’ protest against the Temple precipitated his death, it is vital to be clear that Jesus did not want to die. Rather, he was willing to take whatever risk was necessary to follow his passion for God’s way. Jesus could have stopped the trajectory of his public ministry short of advocating for systemic change. New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton writes that,

Jesus’ teaching in regard to the kingdom and its purity, including his communal meals as enacted parables, might have been continued indefinitely outside of Jerusalem. Sporadic, local controversy was involved, but it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus and his disciples, in their travel from place to place, were able to find enough of a welcome to keep their movement going. But Jesus then sought to influence practice in the Temple….

Jesus’ action against the Temple that precipitated his death was a radical act. Crossan invites us to consider the comparison of overturning tables in a draft office during the Vietnam War. Such a symbolic act does not stop the war. However, “It is a symbolic negation of all that office of Temple stands for.”

Jesus had been in the Temple before, but did not turn over the tables immediately. Thus, we never know when God will inspire someone to take the next step of experimenting with prophetic actions of civil disobedience such as Jesus’ actions at the Temple. From another angle, such acts could be seen not only as ‘civil disobedience,’ but as holy obedience!

Crossan points out as well that, “Jesus is concerned primarily with systemic rather than individual evil.” He was executed precisely when he moved against the system. In Crossan’s words, “Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.”

Jesus was crucified precisely when his ministry moved from the periphery of power in Galilee tothe center of power in Jerusalem — when he moved from small acts at no time in particular to an aggressive move against corruption in the Temple at Passover, one of the most volatile times of the year due to the influx of pilgrims in town for the festival. The preferable option would have been for the political and religious leaders in the first-century to have responded to Jesus’ prophetic act with repentance. Instead, they moved without haste to eliminate his prophetic witness. The better option would have been for Jesus to not have been killed, but because he was willing to risk death, his crucifixion inspired his followers to continue the movement he started.

Being a part of the Jesus movement at any time and place should, then, eventually include moving from the regular table fellowship of his active ministry to a ‘Holy Friday Moment’ of civil disobedience (or ‘holy obedience’) in which one risks confrontation with a corrupt aspect of the ‘powers that be’ that is in conflict with one’s primary allegiance to love out God’s way of love in the world. (And what is the season of Lent if not a journey toward and beyond Holy Friday!) As a key to discerning the timing of such an act, theologian Rita Nakashima Brock writes that she learned from womanist theologian Delores Williams to avoid asking “‘What we [would] die for…?’ [I]f we ask that question, somebody will be quite willing to oblige us and kill us, especially if we belong to a marginalized or oppressed group…. Our question should be ‘What are we willing to live for?’”

A brief historical survey of recent history shows that Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, along with many others, did die in the twentieth century as martyrs for their passionate commitment to God’s way of love. Other passionate exemplars of Jesus’ way, such as Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day, were not killed, although they both risked being killed on multiple occasions. Thus, theologian John Mabry writes that,

Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil.

I will readily grant that I have no idea what percentage of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are Christians. Furthermore, Christians would be foolhardy to place too much emphasis on the success or failure of these particular protests. Nevertheless in the wake of this our focal scripture, I can understand the photo I saw of an Occupy Wall Street protester, who was dressed up as Jesus and who was carrying a placard that read, “I threw out the moneylenders for a reason”:

There are some significant parallels between Jesus’ aggression against Temple corruption in the first century and the Occupy Wall Street protests in the twenty-first century — as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Poor People’s Campaign,” which is arguably what angered the powers that be enough to assassinate him, just as Jesus’ aggression at the Temple is what angered the powers that be enough to crucify him.

Anger at Corrupt Institutions Today

I began this post with the claim that we need a more nuanced understanding of anger, beyond simply dismissing anger as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the bumper sticker says, perhaps there is some truth that, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” So, holding in mind Jesus’ aggression against the Temple in the first-century, as you look at our world today, listen to the radio, and read the newspaper, how is God calling you to “harness the power of anger in the work of love?”

In the wake of the Occupy protest movements (and in the spirit of Jesus’ aggression against corrupt first-century religious institutions), some people have begun to ask what it could mean to similarly ‘Occupy Church.’ But the listed demands in the graphic are just one person’s answers.

I invite you to pause for a few minutes of contemplative silence. Look around the world and inside yourself to listen for how is God may be calling you today.

How is God calling you to “harness the power of anger in the work of love”?

For Further Study

Appendix: Further Annotation

Note: There are some aspects of the commentary below that are somewhat in tension with the sermon above. I, nevertheless, present these points to better portray the full picture of scholarship regarding Jesus’ aggression against the Temple. As John Dominic Crossan confesses, “historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke…[because of] the number of competent and even eminent scholars producing pictures of Jesus at wide variance with one another.”

“Tables of the Money-changer.” In Exodus 30:11ff, God instructs Moses that each (adult, male) Israelite is to pay “half a shekel” to the “sanctuary,” which is later incorporated as the center of the Temple. This was an annual fee from that time on in order to provide communalatonement throughout the year. These Temple workers also served the purpose of exchanging the pilgrim’s foreign currency, which often had idolatrous symbols. Jacob Neusner echoes the Mishnah that all of these were essential services necessary for the running of the Temple.

It is possible that there was abuse (purification theory), but it is far from explicit in the text that the money-changers were cheating their customers. It is also possible that the money changers were Jesus’ target because they were the most visible and most accessible (in the Court of the Gentiles). It would have been much more difficult to make a conspicuous scene (and to get access to) to restricted Court of the Priests. Perhaps Jesus also would not have wanted to profane the Court of the Priests, especially given the respect he expressed for the altar in some scriptures.

“Seats of those who sold pigeons.” As with money changers, the pigeon-sellers provided a vital service for the survival of the Temple system. Doves were the cheapest animal for getting individual atonement, but they blemished easily. It made sense for pilgrims to buy the doves in Jerusalem instead of bringing them from home, when the doves would get blemished during travel.

“House of Prayer.” This quote is from Isaiah 56:7. Some scholars have expressed doubt about its authenticity (which is possible), but it can be easy to be overly skeptical. Jesus would have been immersed in scripture. It is conceivable that he would have combined this scripture on the spot with Jeremiah 7:15 about the “den of robbers.”

“Den of Robbers.” This saying should be understood in its original context. Like Jesus in the first century, Jeremiah was also standing in the Temple when he says,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place [the Temple]. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.  Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?(Jeremiah 7:3-11)

This quote may be about finances on the surface, but there is a much deeper meaning as well. In Jesus’ day, as in Jeremiah’s, it seems that people were seeking cheap forgiveness: mercy without justice. Bonhoeffer called such attempts, “cheap grace.” Money is at issue, but only because it has become an idol between the people and God. Jesus, like Jeremiah, speaks against this abomination.

“For all the nations.” Only the Gospel of Mark extends the Isaiah quote to include the words, “a house of prayer for all the nations.”  It seems unlikely that these are the historical Jesus’ actual words given the many anti-Gentile passage attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). The anti-Gentile passages are much more likely to be original to Jesus because the anti-Gentile passages would be embarrassing to the increasingly-Gentile early church. In other words, Mark (representing the increasingly Gentile early church) would be more likely to have added “for all the nations” than for Jesus to have said it. From another perspective, as a human, Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52) as he grew older, so perhaps he added “for all the nations” just before the end of his life.

“Vessels.” This passage is only found in Mark. Matthew and Luke do not include this for an unknown reason. There is a parallel to this passage in Josephus, Against Apion 2.106 (37-100 C.E.): “no vessel whatever might be carried into the temple, the only objects in which were an altar, a table, a censer, and a lampstand.” This seems to reflect a desire to “purify” the Temple.

Notes

1 For more on Andrew Lester’s work see his books The Angry Christian and Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling.  For more on Lester’s life, see “Special Tribute Paid to the Life and Work of Andrew D. Lester.” Available at http://www.oates.org/home/news/277-newslester.

2 Beverly Wildung Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” in Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics, ed. Carol S. Robb (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 3-21.

3 Jesus was “not against the Temple as such — John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperOne (2007), 132.

4 Jesus’ way is “against any capital city’s collusion….” — Crossan 2007, 132.

5 God’s preference [for justice more than worship] is clear — Dennis E. Smith and Hal E. Taussig,Many Tables: The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International (1990), 112.

6 “When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”Dom Helder Camara,Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books (2009), 11.

7 see what or who is throwing them in.” — Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, 204.

8 “might have been continued indefinitely outside of Jerusalem” — Bruce Chilton, Jesus’ Prayer and Jesus’ Eucharist: His Personal Practice of Spirituality. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International (1997), 58.

9 “symbolic negation” — John Dominic Crossan Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco (1995), 64. See also Chilton, 61.

10 “did not turn over the tables immediately.” — Crossan, God and Empire,134.

11 “Jesus is concerned primarily with systemic [evil]….” — Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 157.

12 “Those who live by justice are often crucified.” — Crossan, The Birth, 586.

13 “What are we willing to live for?” — Rita Nakashima Brock, Claudia V. Camp, and Serene Jones,Setting the Table: Women in Theological Conversation. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.(1995), 263.

14martyrs in the twentieth century” — in addition to the numerous biographies of these figures, see the films RomeroBonhoefferGandhi, and Citizen King. On Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day, see Tracy Elaine K’Meyer Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm. Charlottesville, VA: Univ. Press of Virginia (1997) and Ann Louise Coble,Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan’s demonstration plot at Koinonia Farm.

15 “not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil.” — John Mabry, Crisis & Communion: The Remythologization of the Eucharist – Past, Present, and Future. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press (2005), 129.

16 “angered the powers that be enough to assassinate him” — see James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. On this book, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author and director of the School of Conversion in Durham, North Carolina, has said that, “Everyone I know who has read this book says it’s the most incredible story they’ve read in years. With great care, Douglass has retold the story of JFK’s life and death through the lens of Thomas Merton. In the end, though, it is a book about God — a God whom we can thank for interrupting us with mercy” (blog.sojo.net/2009/01/28/jfk-resurrection-and-post-modern-christianity-books-for-a-new-year). If you do not have time to read the book, see Rose Marie Berger, “The Hungry Spirit: Tackling the Unspeakable.” Sojourners Magazine (Feb 2009). An excerpt:

Douglass probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic president. JFK is the story of how President Kennedy nearly started a nuclear war, then turned toward peace with the enemy who almost started it with him—and why that turning got him murdered. It’s an old story of prophets, kings, and consequences…. Kennedy showcased his new vision in June 1963 during a speech at American University in Washington, D.C., by preaching on the absolute necessity for nations to choose peace. “What kind of peace do I mean?” asked Kennedy. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … .”

Available at www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0902&article=tackling-the-unspeakable.

17 OccupyChurch — On the parallels between the inequality in the first century that inspired Jesus’ civil disobedience in the Temple and the inequality in twenty-first century that has inspired the Occupy movements, Crossan says that “The kingdom movement was precisely focused on the destitute and the dispossessed — that is, on those groups who proliferate in any peasant society under rural commercialization. That was, in this case, Lower Galilee under Antipas’s urbanization of Sepphoris and Tiberias in the first twenty years of that first common-era century.” Crossan, Birth, 344.

18 “scholarly bad joke” — John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco (1992), xxvii.

19 “annual fee from that time on in order to provide communal atonement throughout the year.”— see Jostein Ådna, “Jesus’ Symbolic Act in the Temple (Mark 11:15-17),” in Gemeinde ohne Tempel / Community Without Temple (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 469. See also, Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (New York: KTAV Publishing House), 347.

20 “exchanging the pilgrim’s foreign currency, which often had idolatrous symbols” — see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995), 405.

21 “essential services necessary for the running of the Temple” — Jacob, Neusner, “Money-Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah’s Explanation,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989), 287.

22 “doves would get blemished during travel” — Ådna, 466, 469.

23 “Jesus would have been immersed in scripture” — E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Philadelphia: Fortress Press (1985), 66.

24 “Money is at issue, but only because it has become an idol between the people and God. Jesus, like Jeremiah, speaks against this abomination.” — Ådna, 470. It is also helpful to see Jesus’ Jeremiah quotation in the narrative context of the parable of the ‘husbandmen’ — see William W. Watty, “Jesus and the Temple: Cleasing or Cursing?” in Expository Times, 93 (May 1982), 238.

25 “It seems unlikely that [“for all the nations”] are Jesus’ actual words given the many anti-Gentile passage attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.” — E.P. Sanders, “Jerusalem and Its Temple in the Beginnings of the Christian Movement,” Judaism 46, no 2 (Spring 1997), 3. [Page numbers reflect online version.]

26 “anti-Gentile passages would be embarrassing to the increasingly-Gentile early church.” —Craig A. Evans, “From ‘House of Prayer’ to ‘Cave of Robbers’ Jesus’ Prophetic Criticism of the Temple Establishment,” in The Quest for Context and Meaning: Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders, ed. Craig A. Evans and Shemaryahu Talmon (New York: Brill, 1997), 421.

27 “no vessel whatever might be carried into the temple” — Eds, M. Eugene Boring, Klaus Berger, Carsten Colpe, Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995), 177.

I welcome continued conversation and insights in the comments sections.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Paul Janssen

    Good post. One quibble, however. The “den of robbers” language is not in John. In John, it’s just “marketplace.” (emporiou in the Greek) In my mind, that accentuates the point that the sacred pursuit of justice is not to be confused with the market’s pursuit of profit. Is the first wholly good and the second wholly bad? Probably not — Jesus does not commend the elimination of the market. He simply says “This — the temple — is not that — a market. Don’t confuse the two.”

    Peace be with you

    • Carl Gregg

      Paul, thanks for your close reading and noticing of this error. This lectionary commentary was generated from a previous effort that looked at the parallel accounts of this event.

  • Mary Slenski

    What about the whip of cords? Doesn’t sit well with me. Have we become so numb to violence that we don’t notice that John has put a weapon in Jesus’ hands?

    • Carl Gregg

      Another great point. I just finished reading Crossan’s new book “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus” (http://amzn.to/sF9yGx). He powerfully demonstrates, especially in Part 2, how the progression from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John is one of immense paradigm shift, including increasingly pro-Roman, pro-violent sentiments. That’s oversimplifying, but see his book for more detail. Thanks for your comment.

      • Mary Slenski

        Thanks. I’ve a lot of respect for Crossan’s scholarship and voice and haven’t seen that one yet.

  • http://www.thefunstons.com Eric Funston

    Very very well done exigesis! I almost (but not quite) wish I’d read it before preaching my own sermon taking the Temple cleansing as the starting point for a discussion of social justice. http://thefunstons.com/?p=1541

    “Not quite” because I’m afraid the sermon would have gotten too long! ;-)

    • Carl Gregg

      Thanks, Eric, for your kind words. And I feel you on the problem of sermon length. Almost every week during sermon writing, I regularly create a document I call “extra” and date the same as my sermon. At some point, I start cutting and pasting from my sermon manuscript as the sermon gets too long. I often can’t bear deleting my writing fully, but I also think there is some wisdom in the advice of one of my seminary professors who says, “Sermons should be about God…and about 15 minutes.”


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