What We Get Wrong About Jesus Clearing the Temple

God is a God of justice. Wherever the poor are being taken advantage of, the captives are being mistreated and power is being abused, the people of God need to be present, manifesting the hands and feet of Jesus by righting these wrongs.

Historically, Christians have often been far too complacent about such injustices, more interested in maintaining the status quo than in championing the upside down revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God. The Church needs to repent of this apathy and commit itself to the sort of disruptive action typified in recent eras by the likes of Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa, whose Christian principles were lived so loud they led to explosive societal change.

However, sometimes the Christian call to disrupt can be misused, abused or even undermined by people who are simply using it as an excuse to do whatever they want with a vaguely biblical excuse. You see this when some Christians take 1 John’s “do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you” to mean that the world should hate Christians, that Christians should actively look for reasons to be hated and if they are not being hated, then we must be doing something wrong.

Jesus’ clearing of the temple has become a very popular excuse for a lot of different behavior. You hear men (and it is usually men) bring it up as a reminder that Jesus was not always meek and mild, but was capable of drastic action. The image of Jesus throwing tables around and yelling at crooked moneychangers squares nicely with a certain brand of action hero masculinity, where muscle-y violence is justified and even divinely ordained course of action.

But if you’ve spent any amount of time in Christian circles, you know how this can go awry. Instead of being righteously angry forces for justice and truth, men end up throwing their weight around like bullies — silencing critics, squashing dissent and alienating themselves from healthy accountability. And when they’re called out for this behavior, the excuse of Jesus clearing the temple is never far from the vocabulary.

Maybe a better understanding of this story can help us avoid some of the potential downsides of the practical applications of this story.

The basic gist is this. Jesus and his disciples visit Jerusalem for Passover, in keeping with Jewish custom. The courtyard of the temple is described as being full of livestock, merchants and money changers — who could convert Greek and Roman money Jewish currency. Livestock was sold within the courtyard for people who needed a sacrifice to offer in the temple, but didn’t have any animals of their own. Jesus’ own parents are recorded as sacrificing turtledoves in Luke 2 —  a sign that they couldn’t afford a more expensive animal.

Jesus makes his famous accusation that “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves” and promptly sets about overturning tables, dumping out coins and setting the goats, sheep and pigeons free. The common interpretation is that Jesus was furious with those who were taking advantage of the poor, overcharging for animals and cheating on currency changes. Marvin L. Krier Mich has also noted that Jesus may have been targeting loans that the wealthy provided to the poor, cooperating in the empire’s exploitation of people in poverty.

So what can we gather from all this?

1. This Was a Unique Case

Scholars are divided on exactly how many times Jesus cleansed the temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this as taking place near the end of Jesus’ time on earth, while John records it near the beginning of his Gospel. Some experts think John may have recorded the same account but just put it a little out of order, for thematic effect. Others think Jesus cleansed the temple twice — once near the beginning of his earthly ministry, once near the end.

Either way, it’s clear this was a very unique case. Jesus was not given to frequent fits of violent rage, and whether it happened once or twice in his life, it’s pretty clear that this was a rare occasion. If a Christian is falling back on the “Jesus cleansed the temple, so why can’t we?” excuse every week or so, they’re not really taking into account how unusual this was in the context of Jesus’ life.

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2. This Was Strategic

In every Gospel, Jesus spends a good deal of time talking about the dangers of wealth and urging religious leaders to protect the poor, widows and orphans instead of exploiting them. It’s fair to say this was a big theme of his earthly ministry, so the cleansing of the temple wasn’t an example of him flying off the handle. It was a particular focus of his teaching.

This is underscored by the fact that, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cleanses the temple the day after he arrives in Jerusalem. In other words, he’d already seen what was happening at the temple after he’d arrived, he went and slept on it and then returned to carry out his actions. He didn’t lose his temper or fly into a fit of rage. He took time to be thoughtful and (presumably) prayerful about what he intended to do.

3. This Was a Message to His Own Community

Jesus was a Jew. He was in Jerusalem to observe Jewish tradition. And the cleansing of the temple was very explicitly a message to other Jewish people within his own tradition. People had taken a valuable service — providing a means for the poor to observe their religion — and turned it into a way to make money. Jesus could have targeted broader social issues that had to deal with Roman occupation but, instead, he saved his strongest and most drastic actions for his own people.

This is notable. Far too often, Christians only go full bull in a China shop when it comes to those we perceive as being outside the Church, whether that means Washington D.C., Hollywood, Silicon Valley or otherwise. But one lesson of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is that if you’re at a restaurant and someone at another table is out of line, you might tell them to calm down but you’re probably not going to drag them outside. If it’s at your own table, it’s a different story.

None of this should be taken as urging Christians to be less active or involved in matters of justice. In fact, I think Christians should be far more engaged. But that engagement should draw most heavily from the normal posture of Jesus instead of the exception. There will be times when tables need to be overturned, absolutely, and Christians should be prayerful about when and how to go about such activities. But the earthly legacy of Jesus is far more concerned with his life of gentleness, meekness and compassion for those society ignores than it is with money changer clearing. If you focus on the things Jesus actually focused on, the actual, justified opportunities for flipping tables will become clearer.

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