Jesus is a Jew, part of God’s people. And as a faithful Jew, he takes a trip to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover, the festival that remembers Israel slavery in Egypt, and God’s salvation, God’s liberation, freedom from the shackles of bondage, their forced labor, their economic exploitation.
When he arrives in Jerusalem, walking through the crowded city, all the streets leading up to the Temple, he joins the throngs of people gathering for worship, for prayer and sacrifices—some of the people live there in the city and the surrounding villages, in Jerusalem and the suburbs. Other people are pilgrims, making long journeys to get to the city, to the temple, traveling from distant lands, Jews displaced from their homeland by Roman occupation, Jews in exile throughout the Roman empire. Passover is their homecoming. They have come to offer sacrifices, rituals of prayer, glorifying God.
The people who live in the area can bring their own animals or perhaps barter with a neighbor or buy from a local friend—a calf, a lamb, a dove, whatever they could afford. But the travelers, the pilgrims, the people of God scattered throughout the Roman empire—they have to buy what they can when they arrive, and they have to use the local currency. They depend on what the price of the merchants, the sheep venders, the bird sellers. And the money-changers—they set the exchange rate, they decide how much their foreign coins are worth in Jerusalem.
If no one watches any of this—the way that the buying and selling work out on the ground, the relationship between temple and the economy, the sacrificial system and the local economy—the way all of this is set up, this religious arrangement would make it easy to take advantage of the pilgrims, the travelers, the faithful pilgrims. They would have to pay too much, way too much, in order to practice their faith. This system exploits piety. Too many people making a whole lot of money off of worship—off of people like Jesus, perhaps. After all, as we learned last week, Jesus comes from Nazareth, that worthless town miles and miles from Jerusalem, up in the northern country, the edges of Judea.
Jesus is in the crowds, streaming through the alleys toward the temple, all of them converging in the temple courts, the area surrounding the temple. When he finally winds his way through the city, up the steps—when he finally sees the temple, he is filled with anger, enraged with holy zeal, furious at the sight of merchants. Watching Jesus, the disciples thought of the words of Psalm 69, verse 9: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Holy anger courses through his veins as he makes a whip. Zealous devotion pulses in his hands as he overturns the tables, spilling money on the sidewalks.
He is like the prophet spoken of long ago in the book of Jeremiah: “Has this house become a den of robbers in your sight?” God asks the prophet. Therefore “stand in the gate of the Lord’s house,” God says, “and proclaim there this word [to the people], saying, ‘If you truly act justly one with another, if you don not oppress the alien, then I will dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:1-2, 5-7, 11).
Jesus is that kind of Jewish prophet, calling for justice in the household of God—and not just calling for justice, but enacting it, putting God’s words into action. Jesus is God’s words made flesh, John says at the beginning of the Gospel. That’s what we see here, in this story, God’s word of justice made flesh, God’s righteousness made flesh—the zeal of the Lord consuming the body of Jesus in this scene at the temple.
What happens here in this passage, in this story, early in his ministry—this is a very Jewish thing for Jesus to do. He isn’t criticizing the piety of his people, as they seek to pray in the temple. He isn’t calling for the end of sacrifices, of worship practices, of the holy liturgies and rituals of his people. Instead, he’s angry at the power brokers of the economy, the money-hungry capitalists doing anything for a profit—his anger at the marketplace insinuating itself into the holiness of worship. So Jesus comes with a whip.
Since we’re a peace church, as part of the Mennonite tradition, it seems like we should think about what it means for Jesus here, in this story, to teach us what it means to be committed to nonviolence. Jesus weaves cords into a whip, yes, but he doesn’t attack anyone with it. Instead, he drives out the animals:“He drove all of them out of the temple,” it says, “both the sheep and the cattle” (John 2:15). He becomes a shepherd, herding cattle. And with the moneychangers, Jesus doesn’t threaten them with death or physical harm; he destroys their tables and scatters their money. Jesus doesn’t hurt people, but he does damage the marketplace, vandalizing property, redistributing animals and coins into the crowds.
I think of Jesus cracking his whip and throwing tables whenever protestors turn their holy rage against buildings—like in Fergusson a few years ago now, the people’s righteous hunger for justice consuming the city, their outrage at the racism of the city’s police force.
The challenge here, for us, for pacifists, is to consider what’s worth getting angry about—letting some of that same spirit of Jesus to consume us, leading us to overturn tables. I like what Heracleon wrote in his commentary on this passage in the second century, a long time ago: “The whip is an image of the power and activity of the Holy Spirit.” It’s the Spirit of God, unleashed in Jesus as he disrupts the marketplace in the temple courts. And here’s Origen, the great biblical theologian of the third century, commenting on our story: “Are there not some money-changers sitting here who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of the small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned?”[i]
There’s something wrong about money in John’s Gospel. It’s a theme that lurks in the background of the story, appearing here and there, like in the story this week about the marketplace in the temple courts, and later with Judas, the betrayer, who’s in charge of the purse, the money—and there’s his confrontation with the woman who spends a fortune on precious oil to wash the feet of Jesus, wasteful Judas says, but to waste money on others seems to be the right kind of economic exchange, a refusal of wealth’s ability to take over our lives, the way the logic of money, of profits, of greed, of wanting more and more sneaks into everything, into all parts of life, even the temple, even worship.
That must be what’s at the heart of Jesus’ pious anger—that money (the logic of money, the way money makes us think) has come so close to worship, that buying and selling has wormed its way into how people understand their relationship to God, that the marketplace has colonized the temple.
Economic exchange is all about turning hard work into money, and using that money to buy something, something needed or wanted, or investing finances for a future, for something we want years from now, a dreams to work for. And it’s so easy for us to think about God this way—to think of worship as payment to God, to think about faith as an investment, to secure a future, either in this life or the next: faith as a way to buy the life we want, with the currency of morality, morality as the payment our faith makes to God, to earn a good life now, full of divine happiness and heavenly relationship and fulfilling work. Faith, perhaps, as our monthly contribution into a retirement account for eternal life, faith as investments for our future in heaven, to reserve a room with a view.
Economic exchange is our world, it contains our world inside of it, it possesses our lives. We can’t escape it—the need to buy this, to sell that, the realities of work and bills, of debts and investments. Money always lurks behind the scenes, always under the surface, perhaps ignored now, but will make its presence known later, in our calculations about jobs and relationships and time.
Money is a force, a power, that grabs us, that consumes us, that colonizes our minds, our thinking, distorting how we see other people, how we receive or reject strangers and foreigners, and, ultimately, how we understand our relationship with God. Soon we start talking about people as being valuable—this person as more valuable than that person, because of a skill they have, because of an educational achievement, because of their family name or their wealth. Soon we start thinking about God as valuable—because of what we think God can give us.
And Jesus will have none of this, when it comes to worship, when it comes to the household of God. So he makes a whip and flips tables, scattering money and cattle and sheep and doves everywhere.
In his sermon from the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo preached about the doves in our story. He saw in them a symbol of God’s presence, the spirit of God, hovering like a bird over the waters at the beginning of creation, in the first chapter of Genesis—that same Spirit at work when Noah released from the ark a dove, hovering over the waters of the flood, returning with an olive branch, a sign of life; the same spirit who, as a dove, descended on Jesus at his baptism, a sign of God’s presence. “The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove,” Augustine said in his sermon, “And the dove is not for sale; it is given gratis, for it is called grace.”[ii]
That’s what God is all about, that’s the vision Jesus offers for the household of God, as he releases doves and casts money into the street, coins thrown into gutters—a world of grace, where, as the prophet Isaiah says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat” (Isaiah 55:1).
Grace looks like the scene at the temple, Jesus rejecting anything that gets in the way of God’s love for you—that’s what the temple in Jerusalem is all about, a sign of God’s presence of love. A fierce love, defending the pilgrims, the foreigners, the poor. Jesus, wrecking the marketplace, is what God’s love looks like, love made flesh.
[i] Heracleon quoted in Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 10.212-214, and Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 10.16.
[ii] Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John 10.6.1-3