13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 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.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 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.
23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
For our last year or so of college in Chicago Jenn and I attended the Church of Wrigleyville. It was a church in which very few people were older than 40. Because of this there were a number of small children and many of the adults had grown up with flannel graph. At one point there was a series of sermons on “stories from Sunday School” reconsidering the classics. As part of each service before the sermon there would be a children’s story with a flannel graph board. Kids would put up the characters. During one of the early stories a bear showed up. Because we were in Chicago and the football team is the Bears the online discussion or message board on the church’s website began to revolve around the bear. So the bear kept coming back. At least one time a small child ended up putting the bear on Jesus’ back.—This was an exciting story.
While there will be no bear or bear fighting with Jesus this morning the story of Jesus in the Temple is similarly exciting. In the passage we read from John we see Jesus come in like a whirlwind and cause a ruckus in the Temple.
This incident—often called the “cleansing of the Temple”—shows up in all 4 Gospels. Many actions and teachings of Jesus do not appear in all four. The other 3 Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke, often called the Synoptic Gospels-have many of the same features in this particular piece. I’ll mention these briefly. A main difference consistent in the others is that they near the end of Jesus’ ministry. They are just before his arrest and crucifixion. In these versions of the cleansing of the Temple, which I have called a ruckus in the Temple, marks and contributes to the growing tension and eventual confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities. This is also the case in John but in a different manner. Think of a movie. As we get closer to a big showdown there are certain indications that this is happening. There may be a quickening of the pace. Perhaps the music begins to change. In an action movie the hero may be sneaking into the lair of the enemy, close to being seen but darting just out of view. There are indications that we know that we are nearing a turning point. This ruckus in the Temple is an indication that we are nearing a turning point in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John it is early in Jesus’ ministry but plays a similar role. Rather, however, than being part of the buildup it is a glimpse or a hint at what will come. We sometimes miss such hints in the first reading or watching. It is a subtle hint.
In the other 3 Gospels the cleansing of the Temple happens after Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheering and praising of the people and before or near Jesus cursing a fig tree which has no figs when he’s hungry. In Luke, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem directly before clearing the Temple saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and you children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
In all three accounts Jesus seems to indicate why he is upset saying, “My house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.” As noted, the ruckus in the Temple in John occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it is found in the second half of the second chapter. The opening of the Gospel of John is fascinating. Whereas Matthew provides a genealogy for Jesus and Mark drops us directly into the action of the fully grown Jesus, John begins with a sort of poetic philosophical depiction of the coming of Jesus. It begins,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth.
This mystical- philosophical-poetic beginning plus the Wedding of Cana (where Jesus saves a wedding party by turning water into wine) makes the Jesus’ causing a ruckus in the temple even more dramatic. It is almost as if John needs a counter point to the beginning or to set a trajectory towards conflict and Jesus’ eventual death.
After the Wedding at Cana there is an abrupt scene change. We are told that the “Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” This is typical. Passover included going the Jerusalem to sacrifice in Temple. This being a central act of worship in central religious holiday which is based on a central event in Jewish history in the center of the city that was at the center of Jewish land which was at the center of Jewish religious, political, and historical existence. This is where it was at. So Jesus with the rest of the people came to the center, to the heart of their life. It says that in the Temple “he found people selling” a variety of livestock and changing money. Now if Bryan brought a sheep to church tried to sell it to me I would find this strange. Or if Jenn wanted to change my dollar bill into a Canadian Loonie I would have questions. If however, I was biking to church and really needed a sheep once I got here it I would be quite happy that Bryan had taken the effort to transport a sheep and sell it to me. Or if there was some sort of Canadian specific vending machine that only took Canadian money here and I could only access it with Jenn’s Canadian Loonie then I would be thrilled that she would change my dollar for her Loonie.
This is approximately what was happening at the Temple. As part of their worship people were required to pay in a particular currency and offer sacrifices with animals. Traveling into the city from far and wide it was convenient to have the animals brought to where they needed the animal rather than bringing their own or searching the overcrowded city for a seller. When Jesus arrived this is what he saw. And he would have none of it. It says, “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.”
Why was Jesus so mad? What made him so angry about this? We tend to assume that he was furious. Why else would he do such a crazy thing? It doesn’t actually say that he was angry. He obviously was aggressively confrontational. It notes that later on the disciples remember a verse (which is from a Psalm) that notes being consumed by zeal. I don’t feel like I need to say he wasn’t angry but it doesn’t say that he was—in this or the other three Gospels.
Why then was Jesus bent on clearing out the Temple? Mad or not why did Jesus cause such a ruckus and clear out the place? Weren’t these entrepreneurial folks simply providing a necessary service to faithful worshipers of God? The reason stated in John without much explanation is “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In the other three Gospels it is “My house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.”
So perhaps it was that commercial activity had entered into the place of worship or that the sellers were taking advantage of travelers who had no other options to fulfill their religious duty. Like expensive food in an amusement park when the amusement park isn’t an optional luxury recreational activity. Or perhaps more like the exorbitant interest rates on a payday loan for someone who needs the money for survival
Naturally the leaders of the Temple challenged him, asking “What do you think you are doing?” “What sign can you show us to prove that what you do is legit? If John was giving subtle hints to the coming conflict earlier in this chapter he basically gives a spoiler right here. Jesus says tear down the Temple and I’ll rebuild it in three days. They say, no way it took 46 years—this was our lives’ work. Then the writer gets even less subtle and lets the readers know that this is talking about Jesus death and resurrection.
The final verses of this passage say that Jesus hung around teaching and many believed. So belief seems to be a potential outcome of this. There are, however, perhaps at least two ways that we can take this passage.
Variation #1—causing a ruckus in the temple—shaking things up—challenging what needs to be challenged. This is how I would typically think of this passage. We see Jesus engaged in a prophetic action against either an abuse of power, a misuse of the Temple, or something else. Jesus was upset—and because it was Jesus we trust that he was righteous in his action—Jesus was rightly upset and did something about it. Not only did he do something but did something dramatic. This was not a gentle suggestion but a shocking confrontation. Though this scene feels riotous this is the challenge needed to establish peace—that is what is needed to establish right relationship between God and people and between people and people.
Theologian Stanly Hauerwas writes,
“[T]he peaceable kingdom is a present reality, for the God who makes such peace possible is not some past sovereign of the universe. Such a peace is just the opposite of order, as its institionalization necessarily creates disorder and even threatens anarchy. In effect the peace of God, rather than making the world more safe, only increases the danger we have to negotiate”
(Peaceable Kingdom, 142).
“In effect the peace of God, rather than making the world more safe, only increases the danger we have to negotiate”
Jesus’ action in the temple is necessary but dangerous for him. In Matthew 18 we are instructed that when a brother or sister sins against us we are to go to them. If they don’t listen take someone else as a witness. This confrontation is not necessarily safe but is critical for right relationships.
On Earth Peace, an agency of the Church of the Brethren, recently posted a piece about the vice president of a college losing his job. He preached a sermon in which he observed the vast difference in the money earned by the movie American Sniper which portrays the unflinching use of violence with what was earned by Selma which focuses on the civil rights movement. He challenged our obsession with violence and lost his position.
When we challenge what is sacred we may get crushed.
When we challenge what is sacred we may get crushed.
We may also be called to places of danger, perhaps confrontation, perhaps fatigue, but certainly joy. One of the saints of our church Peggy Gish recently finished another several month stint serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams in northern Iraq and will soon be leaving to serve several months with the violence battered Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.
When we think about this way of reading the passage we probably tend to put ourselves in the place of the righteous challenger of oppression or misuse of power. What if this action comes against us? While walking back from a meeting on Friday discussing the sermon and this text this is what Bryan noted. We often assume that we would be the one overturning the tables. Our thought process is, we follow Jesus, Jesus did something like this, though we recognize that we don’t follow Jesus in some sort of “Simon says” game in which we precisely imitate specific action we think that this sort of prophetic action is the sort of thing we might be called to do.
Variation #2—towards us.
The second variation is aimed at us. It could be someone turning over our tables but it may also be more internal. What mystics might call this the inner life. Jenn has called this “tilling the soil of our souls” from this pulpit. It is for this reason that this passage was originally included in the passages before Easter as a part of our preparation during Lent for Holy Week. During this time of self examination and reflection we consider what clutters our lives and distracts from God. Several weeks ago I exhorted us to quiet waiting. In the following weeks we were challenged to slow reading and contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount.
As we move toward Easter may we have the courage, patience, and humility to watch for turned tables.