I wonder what image comes to mind when you hear the words, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
In John’s gospel, this story is located at the very beginning of Jesus ministry and has a stronger sense of violence about. Jesus makes a whip of cords to drive out the animals.
It is understandable that the image might be built up in your mind of some kind of rampaging righteous hero who total disrupts the activities in the whole temple forecourt and is challenged by no one.
The Biblical scholar Douglas Hare questions this kind of image suggesting that this notion of Jesus interrupting the activities of the temple may be more than a little fanciful given the size of the temple forecourt where the market was said to be. It was simply too large an area for a single man to take control of.
Moreover, the presence of temple authorities, guards and possibly even Roman soldiers nearby raise significant doubts about how extensive Jesus actions may have been. This is not to suggest that Jesus did not engage in these actions but that the images we may have of the event are probably overstated. The fact Jesus was not arrested on the spot might be an indicator that Jesus’ action, whilst significant did not entirely disrupt the temple operations.
The importance of the event for the gospel writers is not the extent of Jesus’ actions but the symbolism contained within them.
They are a challenge to some of the aspects of the temple system, its secularisation, and the corruption of institutions which potentially disadvantage even more the marginalised groups within the community.
In terms of symbolism the turning over the money changers tables seems to raise issues about the connection between the temple and Rome and the way this relationship was being handled.
As for the dove sellers chairs this may be Jesus making way for a different approach and understanding to religious practice and how God was to be understood.
It struck me as I was considering the symbolism of this event to wonder what it might have meant for your everyday kind of devout but ordinary Jewish person. To us the old phrase the man on the street.
I would suggest that if you weren’t a follower of Jesus and neither a particular fan of the religious authorities Jesus actions were disruptive and confronting and made your life difficult. In the practice of their faith the average person knew they could not use Roman coins in the temple, the needed to use the temple currency, and if they wished to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving or purification or atonement they would need some doves.
Jesus’ action interrupts the everyday life of the average person and asks serious questions of how they understand their relationship with God and the community they are part of.
The symbolism of this action of Jesus whilst having specific meaning in the moment in time when it happened is also transferred into our present reality. Like most of Jesus actions there is a specific context and meaning but the scriptures also operate to make them parables of truth for us.
What this means is that just as Jesus presence in the temple raised issue for the average Jew on the street so too Jesus actions are a parable of God’s confrontation with our lives as well.
As I dwelt on this week I considered quite a long list of issues in which Jesus might be said to be confronting us in our religious, our social and our political practices.
Given today is Palm Sunday I have chosen to highlight just two of these issues that I have grappled with this week. One for each hand, one for each palm as it were:
On the one hand there is the whole Easter chocolate extravaganza that we have in Australia. I read a report on the IBIS World website predicting that that this year Australians will spend $190 million on chocolate this Easter: that’s around $9 of chocolate for every person in Australia!
Anyone can look at The Australian Bureau of Statistics website and be reminded about the growing number of children and adults overweight and suffering diabetes and question whether our Easter chocolate splurge is warranted. In general most kids that I hear talking about Easter are counting the days until they get their chocolate. Is this really generosity? Does it really help people in their faith?
Added to this issue, there is of course the issue that much of the chocolate sold comes from sources where children are used to pick the cocoa, sometimes in conditions that we would consider slavery. Each year I follow the anti-slavery and anti-child labour campaigns like STOP THE TRAFFIK to see what progress we are making in these areas. As much as these issues are coming more into the public’s mind the changes at the checkout are not as significant as we might hope.
Now I believe Easter should be a celebration and that generosity is a good thing. We usually have a couple of Fair Trade eggs in our house and I have given them out to congregation members in the past. But what happens when our celebration and generosity get misdirected?
This is exactly the kind of social and systemic norm Jesus challenges as he turns over the tables. It is not that celebration and generosity are wrong but when the unintended consequences are revealed maybe, just maybe, Jesus would encourage us to think again on how to engage in celebration and generosity and possibly more importantly to whom our generosity should flow.
So that’s one thing for us to think about this week as we prepare our hearts, our souls and our children to celebrate Easter.
On the other hand a second issue I would raise is the way we approach our faith. At some point in the period between the beginning of the Enlightenment and now we have been taught to believe that “faith is a private matter” something not for the lounge room but rather in the privacy of the more hidden spaces of our lives.
The question raised by Jesus in the Temple forecourt was both political and religious. How are you practicing your faith? How are you engaging in the rituals and the conversation and how is that shaping your day to day lives?
As I consider the hidden, private nature of faith – a faith forced into the shadows I believe we have as Christians lost both some of our basic disciples and stunted our growth. If we do not converse, how to do we grow? If we do not engage, how do we share God’s love?
If we simply look at the specific context of what Jesus was doing in the Temple on that day we can be left floundering in our own mediocre approach to our relationship with God. Jesus challenge to the way the Jewish faith was being lived out can easily be converted to being a challenge to how we are living our faith out.
In both examples, in the two hands, I would suggest Jesus is continuing to push us in our understanding of ourselves and God.
The reason the specific context is so important is because Jesus confrontation at the Temple is a step in a bigger journey through which we see God moving towards the world in love and reconciling all things to himself. As we may find these moments of confrontation uncomfortable the good news is that Jesus has made all things new including our errors and misdirection. As people who hear this message of good news we are invited to share in that message by considering again how we might live as followers of Jesus now.