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.
In Mark’s gospel, this story happens the day after Palm Sunday, the last week of Jesus’ life. It is part of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious and civil authorities, tensions that ultimately lead to his death.
In fact, in Mark’s gospel the story of Palm Sunday ends with Jesus going into the Temple and looking around, almost as if he were scoping it out in preparation for his actions the next day.
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 that Monday of what we know as Holy Week.
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.
In centuries past, Israel’s prophets have been very clear about God’s anger when worship disguises injustice. Do you think, God charges through the prophet Jeremiah, that divine worship excuses you from divine justice?
Time and again the prophets make clear that given a choice between justice or worship, God chooses justice every time.
As Crossan says, “God had repeatedly said, ‘I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,’ but never, ever, ever, ‘I reject your justice because of a lack of worship.’”
That sentiment is echoed by the prophet Jeremiah, when he says for God, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers?”
Jeremiah is accusing the leaders and people of Israel of acting unjustly throughout the week, then going to the Temple to worship, wrapping themselves in its piety. The Temple has become a place where the robbers go for refuge.
And, Jeremiah adds, if the Temple is used as a place where worship is substituted for justice, if it becomes a haven for perpetrators of injustice and a den for robbers, then God will destroy it.
Like Jeremiah, what enrages Jesus in the Temple that day is that it is filled with corruption and injustice.
“You have made this a den of robbers,” he accuses, quoting the prophet Jeremiah.
And he goes into action, driving out the buyers and sellers, overturning tables, not letting anyone come through the Temple.
Jesus, an outsider to the power structure of the Temple, is issuing a challenge to the Temple authorities. He throws the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the system during one of the most significant feasts of the year.
Jesus’ action is prophetic, a symbolic shutdown. Borg and Crossan liken it to pouring blood on draft files to protest the Vietnam War. The Pentagon is not literally shut down, but it is symbolically disrupted.
Jesus’ action was a symbolic fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophetic threat about its divine destruction if worship substituted for justice.
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Several years ago John Dominic Crossan was our Lenten speaker, as Diana Butler Bass will be next weekend. He has spent a good portion of his life teaching and lecturing around the country and the world, challenging Christians to literally choose between God and Caesar.
Either the world belongs to God, he says, or it belongs to Caesar and all the other “caesars” throughout history, past and present.
The “caesars” of this world promise victory and peace through violence and conquest. The kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ that day in the Temple, and throughout his ministry, promises something different, an alternative to Caesar—that is, victory and peace through nonviolence, justice, and love.
This choice is just as real today in this church this morning as it was that morning at the Great Temple in Jerusalem. It’s really always been all about this choice, hasn’t it?
The decision we have to make is articulated clearly in Deuteronomy: “I call on heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
While our choice is clear, our situation is sobering. Crossan writes in his autobiography that soon after he had begun his ministry, as he puts it, of a “talking head” for Jesus, he told Time magazine something like this:
“There’s good news and bad news from the historical Jesus. The good news: God says Caesar sucks. The bad news: God says Caesar is us.”