Title: Jesus comes with a whip
Date: March 15, 2008 (3rd Sunday of Lent)
Texts: Ex 20:1-17, Jn 2:13-22
Author: Isaac Villegas
Jesus, like any good Jew, takes a trip to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover. And when he finally gets there, after his long trip, he is disgusted. It’s not the holy place he imagined or remembered. And he’s angry. Very angry. He finds some chord, makes some fancy knots, and starts running around whipping all the people making money in the temple courts.
My guess is that this is not the kind of Jesus that we usually think about. I usually like to picture Jesus with a gentle smile on his face—happy but cool, not too much emotion, just enough to let me know that he cares.
But the Jesus in this story gets a little too emotional, don’t you think? He seems a bit out of control; his anger explodes. What about pacifism? What about peace? Doesn’t Jesus believe in non-violent peacemaking like we do? So what in the world is he doing coming with a whip? He’s far too nice for this sort of thing. What happened to his gentle smile? Jesus appears to be downright mean. Far too angry for my taste. Angry people aren’t very appealing.
Just in case you didn’t hear about it, there was a presidential campaign last year here in the United States. (You may have been living in a cave). While all this was going on, a friend of mine started running an alternative campaign called “Jesus for President.” His whole point was that Jesus shows us a different way to be in the world, a way that doesn’t require us to kill one another when we disagree, a way of life that doesn’t let us kill our enemies.
And that’s the basis of the president’s power—who to kill; he’s the commander and chief of the armed forces, after all. Killing is part of the job description. Which means that people who call Jesus Lord are disqualified from such things.
Jesus offers us an example of a different way. We would rather be killed than to kill. We don’t kill our enemies (or our friends, for that matter); instead, like Jesus, we die for the sake of our enemies, which is what the cross is all about. We follow in the way of the cross. Ok. I imagine none of this is news for you.
But my friend took his “Jesus for president” campaign one more step. He said that Jesus shows us another way to engage in political discussions. We don’t care about the difference between Democrat and Republican. Instead, as Christians we distinguish between “mean” and “nice” politicians.
And Jesus is definitely on the side of being nice when we disagree. Jesus is on the side of civil argument where we take time to listen to voices that disagree. Jesus is on the side of patience and dialogue and deliberation and making thoughtful and educated decisions.
Oh, wait a minute. Those are the things that I care about. I think patience is important, and civility, and deliberation, and listening, and being nice. But does Jesus?
Now, I don’t want to be extreme. It would be ridiculous to say that he doesn’t care about being nice. Of course there are stories where Jesus is gentle, full of compassion and empathy, willing to talk and listen. And of course Jesus embodies patience—that’s what the cross means: Jesus chooses to suffer patiently.
But what about our story for today from John’s Gospel? Jesus is consumed with anger, consumed with zeal. He can’t hear a thing as he picks up and throws tables around, or as he shouts down the protests of the money-changers and vendors. Jesus responds to their civil disagreement and request for deliberation with the crack of the whip.
Now, we should be careful to notice that John doesn’t say that Jesus cornered the people and punished them with his whip. Jesus doesn’t beat anyone up. He isn’t interested in torture or punishment. Instead, he just wants all these people and their products away from the temple.
So he is like a drover, someone who herds cattle. These people have turned the Temple into a marketplace and they have to leave, now. But they are not killed or held hostage or tortured. They just have to leave. Jesus is angry, consumed with zeal.
So, why all the anger? Why does Jesus have to be so mean? The marketplace in the Temple courts served a purpose. It was extremely difficult for people to bring their own animals to sacrifice if they traveled long distances. The marketplace offered the pious a solution. Just bring money and buy an animal to sacrifice when you get to the Temple. Easy enough. Convenient. I’m sure the people appreciated the service.
And the money-changers… they are concerned about the holiness of the Temple too. The problem is the Temple can’t accept the regional coins people bring. Their coins have graven images on them—of animals or kings. And that violates one of the commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4). No graven images; no idolatrous coins.
The money-changers take the idolatrous money and give people back appropriate coins for their offering to the Temple. Not so bad, right?
Wrong. Jesus destroys the marketplace. He doesn’t try to find a pragmatic solution that the money-changers and merchants could support. He doesn’t negotiate a deal with the Temple authorities and the bureau of commerce. Jesus doesn’t take time to listen. He isn’t patience. He won’t compromise. Just a whip. He sounds like the worst of our political leaders. I wouldn’t vote for this guy.
Again, why the anger? It’s not like Jesus is just having a bad day. He should be pretty happy. He is coming from a party, a wedding banquet. He was just in Cana, making wine, having a good time with family and friends. No reason to get so zealous all of a sudden.
So, why so angry? I wonder if part of it is that Jesus can’t stand the way the practices of the marketplace distort true religion. Buying and selling, economic exchange, has nothing to do with true worship. But as Jesus approaches the Temple, he sees how the logic of the marketplace is insinuating itself into Israel’s true worship.
And there must be no compromise, no pragmatic solution, no negotiation between the two. The only response is a whip.
In the marketplace we buy and sell. Our hard work is turned into money. We take that money to a merchant and buy something we want. And once we buy it, we own it. It’s ours. We possess it. It’s our property. We can do with it what we like. Use it when we want. Put it on the shelf when we are done.
This is not the case with the mystery we call God. We can’t purchase God, nor can we buy God’s favor. God isn’t a thing we can put in our pockets or tuck away in our hearts for safekeeping. God isn’t a charm we can put on our shelf to protect us from all that bad stuff. We can’t possess God; instead, God possesses us—God is already too close to us, too intimate with us, for us to try to get his attention.
This is wonderful news, and at the same time, it is completely frightening. Especially if this Jesus we see in our story shows us what God is like. I would rather keep this Jesus at arms length, especially when he is consumed with the zeal of the Lord. That kind of zeal can make my life uncomfortable.
But this is exactly what Lent is about—making room for God, even if some stuff needs to go, stuff we may even like, that makes us comfortable. Maybe you already know this. But the word Lent is a Medieval English word that means spring. The church thought this was a good name for the season before Easter because it turned the soil into a metaphor of what is happening in our lives. We are the soil.
So, on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are clumps of earth: “From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.” While this is a pretty gloomy reality, the season of spring also shows us that abundant life is about to shoot up from the earth. We are clumps of soil, and that’s good news because we become the birthplace of new life, beautiful life, God’s life.
Maybe a better metaphor for us is spring-cleaning. For some reason, during the spring, we go through our house and get rid of things we don’t want anymore. The stuff in the attic, the stuff in our closets, the stuff in our garages. We need to make room. It’s time to cleanse your house of all the clutter.
And that’s what Jesus does in his Father’s house, the Temple. Cleansing. Making room. Overturning tables. Driving out the money-changers. This is a story of Jesus’ springtime cleaning; he’s cleaning house; he’s practicing Lent.
And he’s filled with anger. I’m not sure we think about being angry during Lent. I know that I don’t. For me, it’s more like, hmm… that might be nice to give up for 40 days; we’ll see how it goes. And I shrug my shoulders and see if I can do it. But anger? That’s never part of my Lenten attitude.
I wonder if Lent should be a time where we make room for God’s anger in our lives. Now this isn’t to say that we need to get angry more often about the stuff that happens in our lives. My guess is that most of the time we get angry about silly things—like the injustice of someone cutting you off while driving. And I imagine that most of our episodes of anger are quite selfish; it’s all about being wronged, what someone has done to me, and our thirst for revenge.
We exhaust all our anger on such things, and shrug our shoulders to all the stuff that angers God. In order to keep our sanity, we have developed ways of processing the shock of a world gone mad. We would go crazy if we took time to notice all the evil in the world. Maybe that’s why Lent is only 40 days—just 40 days to be consumed with the zeal of the Lord, to be overwhelmed with outrage at our sin, to make room for the anger of God.
So, here’s my question for us to wrestle with during Lent: what is God angry about? Maybe it’s something in our lives—some kind of sin that we’ve make peace with. Or maybe it’s something that happens all the time in our community or city or country or world. It’s wrong, but we’re used to it, and that’s just the way it has to be.
So we become patient pragmatists. Things will work themselves out, maybe a little adjustment here and there. But no need for us to get too emotional. No need for anger to get the best of us. Maybe we should just count to ten, regain our composure, and talk things through.
But Jesus comes with a whip.