Today’s scripture highlights one of the most controversial biblical narratives about Jesus. All four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—reveal this startling story about Jesus turning ballistic. Jesus wasn’t simply mad, he made a weapon and attacked. What we’re about to learn today is the only recorded incident that depicts Jesus as physically violent against both people and animals. With an introduction like this, you’re probably wondering where we’re headed. I agree with you that this topic isn’t easy, and is best avoided by those who don’t want to share an uncomfortable exposé. Despite the temptation to ignore trouble, we must not run and hide. We’re brave enough to hit this thing head-on (pun intended).
The setting for today’s lesson was the high holy day known as Passover. Jesus was visiting Jerusalem but things went wrong when Jesus saw businessmen selling sacrificial animals and exchanging Jewish coinage for visitors’ foreign money. There was nothing unusual in the services that these entrepreneurs provided. Yet, outraged at what he saw as profiteering, Jesus decided to take some flesh. Jesus made a whip and drove his points home with whacks rather than with theological arguments.
Ouch! A whip of cords was a serious weapon, ironically not unlike the whip which Pilate later ordered used against Jesus as part of the scourging before the crucifixion. Jesus’ public violence during his “cleaning of the temple” is so out of character as to be one of the most disturbing acts in the gospel. Christian literature refers to Jesus’ actions under the benign-sounding description of “Jesus cleansing the Temple.” Yeah, right. Jesus didn’t get a Swiffer and tidy-up the horse poop in the corner. Oh no, in this situation we have Jesus acting with a revolutionary vigor. No doubt that some of Jesus’ critics perceived his actions as wanton vandalism or urban terrorism. Either way, what scripture records challenges us to perceive Jesus in a different light.
If either the Romans or the Jewish authorities wanted to catch Jesus in something for which he could be arrested and executed, then the temple violence was their best chance. Romans wanted peaceful submission from their subjects, and they would stop at nothing to ensure calm. Roman cohorts patrolled Jerusalem as part of the garrison protecting Pilate and keeping the peace. As for public violence, either Roman or Jewish soldiers would have been called to stop a madman. Jewish temple guards would have been first on the scene and they would have authority to stop an assailant and ask questions later. Both the Romans and Jewish officials would unite against someone hurting people and vandalizing the market. At the very least, Jesus would have been arrested (which is what eventually happened).
It’s unconscionable to think that Jesus could have eluded arrest for his actions and yet scripture is silent in connecting persecution of Jesus with his temple violence. Scripture doesn’t come close to placing blame on Jesus for anything. Perhaps it is too embarrassing and troubling. Yet, it is likely that Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are at least in part tied to the temple cleansing incident. I suppose Jesus exercised some restraint because as the Son of God he might have called angels to kill everyone involved.
How do you reconcile the Jesus you thought you knew with the one who was taking flesh off peoples’ backs? What would Jesus do today? Can you imagine Jesus denouncing economic injustice as he hurls insults and pulls the network cables out of the computers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? In the midst of the mayhem, perhaps Jesus would be wielding a club to teach a lesson to the currency traders and investment bankers. It all just makes you wonder what parallels there are between ancient history and today’s “business as usual.” –Reverend Larry Hoxey