On Monday in Holy Week, Jesus performed the second of two provocative public protests in Jerusalem. The first, as described in my previous blog, occurred on what has come to be called “Palm Sunday.”
Two processions entered Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover that year. One happened every year while Judea was ruled by Roman governors, the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate. Imperial cavalry and troops, displaying the pomp and power of empire, entered the city to reinforce the garrison permanently stationed there. Passover – which remembered and celebrated ancient Israel’s liberation from imperial Egypt – was a politically volatile time.
The other procession happened only once: Jesus entered the city riding on a young donkey that symbolized a king of peace who would bring an end to war. The contrast to imperial power and violence was intentional and obvious.
On Monday, Jesus performed another provocative public act, this time in the courtyard of the temple. As Mark (and Matthew and Luke) tells the story, he overturned the tables of some money-changers. Though often called “the purification of the temple,” the gospels do not call it that. Moreover, the name is misleading – as if the issue were that the temple had become impure because it mixed “business” with worship.
Rather, his act was an indictment, a public protest, against what the temple had become. In words that echo Jeremiah 7.11, it had become “a den of robbers,” a robber’s cave, a center of injustice and complacent affirmation of God, as the fuller context of Jeremiah 7.1-11 makes clear.
So it was in the time of Jesus: the Roman governor ruled Judea through the temple authorities whom he appointed. So long as they collaborated with Roman authority, they remained in office.
That is what had turned the temple into “a den of robbers.” Because of the collaboration of temple authorities with Roman rule, it had become the center of an economically exploitative domination system and thus a center of injustice, as in the time of Jeremiah six centuries earlier. That was not what it was meant to be.
The authorities understood that Jesus’s protest and indictment were directed against them. It was too much. As Mark tells the story, it was the last straw. They decide that Jesus must be killed: “When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” Before the end of the week, they and the Roman governor find a way to do so.
Why did Good Friday happen? Because it was the will of God? Or because Jesus in the name of God publicly denounced and defied the domination system of his day? The historical answer is clear.