The last part of that text, the little incident we call the “Cleansing of the Temple”, is part of the Palm Sunday story and is considered by many Jesus scholars to be the precipitating event that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus simply could not be ignored any longer, by religious and political authorities alike.
Jesus not only upset a few tables and people in power, many others have found the story a little bit troubling as well. It doesn’t fit the image many people have of Jesus. Luke’s version of the story is actually very mild. Here he simply drives out those who are most likely selling animals to be sacrificed in the temple. In Mark and Matthew he overturns tables and chairs of money changers. John is the most graphic. There Jesus pours out the coins of the money changers, overturns their tables and makes a whip out of chords to drive out the sellers and the animals alike. It is hardly a peaceful image. This is not your mild-mannered, gentle Jesus we often picture. This is more of a Arnold Schwarzeneger Jesus or dare I say, a Donald Trump Jesus. Some may really like that image, the rightfully righteous anger at the sight of beautiful babies killed by banned chemical weapons, ironically babies who are among those targeted by the executive order banning refugees from Syria entering this country. Such righteous anger, whether from families of the victims or world leaders, may well be justified, but it is not an image of Jesus with which I have been comfortable. I have often wondered, was this the divine Jesus acting in this way, or is this the human side of Jesus we see, the one who gets caught up in his emotions the way we do?
In the Star Trek series begun as a TV series and reborn not once by twice on the big screen, one of the key characters is the half human and half Vulcan Spock. And Vulcans, as we all know, are devoid of emotion and can only think in terms of logic. In that “save the whales” episode directed by Leonard Nimoy, the ship’s doctor, Bones, who despises Spock’s rationalism, asks Spock at one point if risking their mission to save one crew member is the logical thing to do. Spock replies, no, it is the human thing to do.
So I want to ask, is overturning tables and driving out money changers in this way the divine thing to do or is it the human thing to do? Is it just Jesus’ sense of divine justice and righteousness that drives him or does he show some human emotion here? Just to consider this possibility is for me very reassuring. To know that Jesus had very human feelings, that he experienced some things the same that you or I do, is comforting. It makes Jesus more real, more accessible.
So I invite you to consider the possibility with me this morning of a heart to heart talk between God and Jesus, Father and Son, the kind of conversation any of us might have with a parent or child. The Father is the first to speak.
Father: Jesus, Why did you do that?
Son: Why did I do what?
F: Don’t act innocent, you know very well what I mean.
S: Oh, that little scene I caused in the temple?
F: “Little scene” hardly describes it. You caused so much ruckus we could hear you all the way up here. It woke Gabriel with such a start, he thought the end had come and started blowing his trumpet. Then of course all hell broke loose…
S: You shouldn’t say these like that, of all people, I mean divine beings.
F: But hell did break loose. That’s what happens when Gab blows his trumpet. Had a heck of a time gathering up all those little devils.
S: There are more than one?
F: Naw, there aren’t any, really. That’s just the name we give to bad things and evil spirits.
S: So you’re mad at me for causing you trouble.
F: Oh, it wasn’t that much trouble. I just didn’t like all that violence. Didn’t I just hear you say, “O Jerusalem, if you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” Heck of a way to show them the things that make for peace! Warn me, would you, if you ever decide to show them the things that make for war.
S: But Dad, don’t you see what they have been doing in your temple? The Holy days have just become another commercial enterprise, an opportunity for someone to profit off others who have sacrificed enough already just to make the long journey.
F: Yes, I know, but it’s not like they are selling souvenirs and “Got God?” bumper stickers for the rear end of their donkeys. People need those birds for their sacrifices and money changers so they don’t bring the image of Caesar on their coins into the temple.
S: But do they have to do it in the courtyards of the temple? Are there no businesses in the city that can handle these things?
F: I suppose you have a point there. Nevertheless, you are such a gifted speaker, Jesus. You have such power in your words. Could you have not found a better way to make your point than becoming so violently angry?
S: I don’t know Dad. Sometimes I feel like no one is really listening to me. After I have just told them it is more blessed to be poor and persecuted than rich and well-fed, they shake my hand and say, “Nice message preacher.” No matter how many times I’ve told my disciples that the first shall be last and that it is better to serve than be served, they still argue over who’s going to sit in the places of honor at the next banquet. And you know the religious leaders have opposed me from the very start. They are so entrenched in their positions of power and have completely sold out to the Romans, we might as well use Roman coins in the temple. Sometimes I think they worship Caesar and the god of their money more than you anyway. So yeah, I got a little violent, though without hurting anyone, you’ll note. Frankly, I was mad. And I don’t think it was inconsistent with what I said at all. The way to true peace begins by turning our lives over to you, and that means we need to cleanse ourselves of those things that influence us in negative ways, especially the influence of money. What I did in the temple was simply a parable in action, one people will not forget for a long time.
F: You’ve got that right. And I confess, what you say makes a lot of sense. But Jesus, I am not sure people will remember what you did in the temple in the same way as you intend. Some will see it as a justification for their own use of violence. Others will see it as a sign of condemnation upon your fellow Jews. As for parables in action, I liked much better the way you rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, reminded me of your mother when she rode one of those things all the way to Bethlehem. No doubt that’s why she went into labor so early and had you in that barn. No person of any importance would ride one of those things. Making your grand entry into the city on that donkey was both ridiculous and beautiful at the same time. Your people shouting, “Hosanna, Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!” and then you riding that silly animal. I had to laugh, it was perfect! It reminded me of what you said about not being like the rulers of this world, lording authority over others. You certainly can’t lord any authority from a donkey! I can’t think of a better way to show that might does not make right and that the ways of this world need to change. People need to learn the ways of humility, gentleness and servant hood. You were on a roll Jesus.
But then you got carried away, using the same kind of force and violence I so detest. Unable to persuade people to change their selfish ways with your teaching, you resorted to methods of the very rulers you have so often criticized.
S: But Dad, is there not a time for righteous anger? Have you not taught us that we should be angry at injustice wherever it occurs, whenever people neglect the orphans and the widows? Have you not displayed anger at us to teach your children the errors of their ways? Have you not led us into battle against our foes or was that some other god? Indeed is not our family history full of stories when you have displayed your anger at our enemies and sometimes even against your own people? I don’t remember any stories of you, Dad, turning the other cheek. And if you used anger in that way, sometimes very violent ways, are we not justified in doing the same?
F: Let me remind you my son that I have also repented of my anger and my wrath as I did when the people turned against me in the wilderness and Moses pleaded with me to not be angry. Or again in the case of Jonah, when he brought my message to Nineveh and I relented when I saw their heartfelt response to that message. Sure I have displayed anger, I cannot deny it. There are times when anger is very justifiable and appropriate. The question is how you use your anger, what you do with it. I have discovered that anger, when it results in violence, only causes more anger and perpetuates the violence. We need to put a stop to that kind of anger, be it from abusive parents or peers, criminals or authorities, terrorists or Messiahs. We need to demonstrate a more humane way to resolve conflict, that the ways of peace do not come through violence.
This world is a rapidly changing world. It’s not the same world when Moses and my people crossed the wilderness or when David sat on the throne. The potential for harm from violence today is much greater than it ever was before. People are afraid to go out at night. Children are afraid that they will not grow up. Women are not safe in their own home. Youth are forced into war to fight their parents battles. People in cities fear the police called to protect them. So long as violence remains an acceptable means to accomplish a goal in any one situation, there will always be someone for whom violence will be an acceptable means to get what they want in any situation. It’s not just the criminals and terrorists that concern me, but also good people, those who worship me, who read their Bibles and pay their taxes. Good, religious people are just as inclined to justify violence when they are convinced that they are right and the other person is wrong. Violence that comes with righteous anger is the violence I fear the most.
So, my Son, that is why I am concerned today. Someone could have been killed. That someone could have been you.
S: I am sorry, Dad. As always, you are right.
F: And as always, my son, I forgive you.
S: Is there some way I can make amends?
F: No, that won’t be necessary.
S: Could I not do something to demonstrate the alternative to violence, to show people that there are other choices? Perhaps I can show through my example another way. If I made a sacrifice…
F: I have had enough sacrifices. I want and need no more.
S: If I put my life on the line for my friends, …for my enemies too.
F: You could go too far.
S: But someone needs to, Dad. Someone needs to show how far your love will go. People need to see the folly of violence and the wisdom of love.
F: And how will you do that?
S: I’ll go back to teach in the temple.
F: Are you crazy? They’ll kill you.
S: But Dad, we can’t back down now. We have to show them that love is the greater force, greater than the temple leaders, greater than the powers of Rome, greater even than death. Have you not taught me that I can do anything with you? You will go with me, won’t you, Father?
F: Yes, I will go with, always. But be careful, Jesus, I love you, and worry about you.
And there ends this conversation. To imagine such is perhaps sure folly, but then again, what was Jesus doing that night in the garden, when Luke tells us his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground? There is of course more to this story, more that we know and do not have to imagine, and more we can imagine but don’t have to know. Ah, but that is the story we must wait to tell, just six more days, on brutal Friday afternoon, one very long Saturday night, and one eternal, Sunday morning.
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)