The picture from my childhood remains amazingly clear in my mind all these years later. My illustrated Bible, given to me by my grandparents when I was three years old, has picture after picture of Jesus.
There is the sweet, cherubic, haloed baby Jesus in the manger. There is the eager boy Jesus at age 12 in the Temple. There is the compassionate Jesus healing the sick, the kind Jesus scooping up the lost sheep, the gentle Jesus embracing the little children.
And then turn the page and there is what we today might call robo-Jesus. There is nothing sweet or compassionate or kind or gentle about him.
The artist seemed to take great delight in depicting this Jesus. His eyebrows are furrowed, his nostrils flare, his arm raised ready to violently swing the whip that he clenches in one hand, while he points in anger with the other. People are fleeing from him, fear etched on their faces.
It is by far the most realistic looking illustration in the book.
This story about Jesus angrily clearing out the Temple, or Jesus’ “temple tantrum” as one writer puts it, is one of the New Testament’s most well-known stories, mainly because it seems so out of character with the Jesus we see in the rest of the gospels.
But when read in context it is not out of character for Jesus at all.
This story is part of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious and civil authorities, tensions that ultimately lead to his death.
The Temple was the holiest spot in all of Judaism. To be in the Temple was to be in the presence of God.
As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book The Last Week, the Temple was “the navel of the earth, connecting the world to its source in God.
“The Temple mediated not only God’s presence, but God’s forgiveness,” they add. “It was the only place of sacrifice and sacrifice was the means of forgiveness.
“As the mediator of forgiveness and purification, the Temple mediated access to God. To stand in the Temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God.”
Faithful Jews from all over Israel made pilgrimages to the Temple. It was common for vendors to set up shop there to sell animals for sacrifice, and to exchange the coins they needed for transactions in the Roman world in which they lived for coins that could be used in the Temple –that is, those without the image of the Emperor on them.
The Temple always had a market, an economic side to it. That was not what upset Jesus so much.
What upset Jesus was that the leaders of the Temple, this most sacred spot, had become collaborators with the Roman authorities who ruled the country. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, appointed the Temple’s high priest and other leaders to be their representatives in Jerusalem.
The high priest and other religious leaders were charged with collecting and paying the annual taxes to Rome from the Jewish people. As Rome demanded more and more money, ordinary people went further and further into debt, and the records of those debts were stored in the Temple, the place that was supposed to meditate forgiveness.
The Temple was no longer just the religious center for the Jewish people. It was now also the central economic and political institution in Jerusalem, part of the detested Roman system of oppression and domination.
The house of God on earth had become the institutional seat of submission to Rome. And those who were supposed to be mediators of God’s grace were now collaborators with Rome.
The symbol of God’s kingdom of justice and peace had instead become the symbol of corruption and injustice.
Notice that Jesus’ “Temple tantrum” is not against Rome, not against the civic authorities, but against the religious authorities who align themselves with the corrupt and the oppressors.
His actions are a call for people of faith, particularly religious leaders, to examine where our true loyalties are, and with whom we are aligned.
This week I read a statement from Christian leaders doing exactly that.
More than 100 Evangelical Christian leaders signed on to a letter condemning Christian Nationalism’s role in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” meaning good news. All Christians should be evangelical, meaning we should all be spreading the good news of the Gospel.
But in reality “evangelical” has come to mean conservative, and in recent years most evangelical Christians have become aligned with one political party, and more recently many have become proponents of Christian Nationalism.
“Christian nationalism identifies the nation with God’s will, conflates national and Christian identity,” writes Dr. David Scott, a Methodist theologian. “Christian nationalism gives moral cover for actions, even unseemly ones, taken in pursuit of national or political goals.
Christian nationalism was on full display at the Capitol on January 6, prompting many evangelical leaders to say “enough.”
“While we come from varied backgrounds and political stances, we stand together against the perversion of faith we saw on January 6, 2021,” the statement issued last week says. “We also stand against the theology and conditions that led to the insurrection.”
The leaders note that throughout history there have been “mutations” of Christianity that take the faith far away from its core values. When that happens the Church must respond.
“It is in that spirit that we unite our voices to declare that there is a version of American nationalism that is trying to camouflage itself as Christianity — and it is a heretical version of our faith.
“Just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith, we feel the urgent need to denounce this violent mutation of our faith. What we saw manifest itself in the insurrection at the Capitol is a threat to our democracy, but it is also a threat to orthodox Christian faith.
“On January 6 we saw the flags claiming Trump’s name, calling for violence, and raising the name of Jesus. We saw images of a police officer being beaten with an American flag and another being crushed in a doorway.
“We witnessed the cross and the gallows being erected. We saw and heard the prayer the insurrectionists prayed from the Senate desk in Jesus’ name. We reject this prayer being used to justify the violent act and attempted overthrow of the government.”
The leaders also condemned the connection between white evangelical Christians and white supremacy.
“We recognize that white evangelicalism has been susceptible to the heresy of Christian nationalism because of a long history of faith leaders accommodating white supremacy…We do not want to be quiet accomplices in this on-going sin.
“Just as it was tragically inconsistent for Christians in the 20th Century to support the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi ideology, it is unthinkable for Christians to support the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, QAnon, 3 Percenters, America Firsters, and similar groups.”
And finally, they noted the dangers of seeing the country as specially chosen by God.
“Instead of seeing the United States as God’s chosen nation, we thank God for the church around the world that calls people of all races, tongues, and nations to the knowledge and love of God.
“Instead of seeing any particular political leader or party as divinely appointed, we believe in the prophetic and pastoral ministry of the church to all political leaders and parties.
“Instead of power through violence, we believe in and seeks to imitate the powerful, servant love practiced by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Our faith will not allow us to remain silent at such a time as this.”