Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ (1940) portraying Jesus with flowing blond hair and saccharine blue eyes staring into space has been estimated to have been reproduced some 500 million times. The Jesus he offers us is clean, safe, passive, and effeminate. It’s hard for us to imagine that such a harmless and respectable looking person could ever be arrested, beaten to a pulp, and crucified by establishment authorities. The Jesus we know and love wouldn’t hurt a flea.
Sallman’s creation illustrates how much we prefer a domesticated deity, creating Jesus in our own image so that we can then co-opt him for our own purposes.
The reading this week from John’s Gospel challenges all such self-serving projections. The “cleansing” of the temple, a delicate euphemism to describe this violent act of Jesus, is reported in all four Gospels. It is an unnerving story that reminds us that there is no such thing as “business as usual” with Jesus. The three synoptic writers place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, sandwiching it between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the parable of the tenants. John on the other hand places the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, so unless you count the family wedding Cana a public event, it stands as Jesus’ first public act.
“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” John 2: 13-22
I can’t help but imagine that Jesus’ disciples tossed and turned in a long sleepless night that evening. It must have been terribly disconcerting for them to witness Jesus unhinged, throwing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air, herding the animals and their keepers out of that sacred space. Perhaps they ran for cover with the crowd. The next morning, do you think they looked him in the eyes or shuffled their feet, staring at the ground, making small talk? .
Jesus had joined the crowds flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover at the temple. According to Josephus, temple construction began in 20 BC under Herod the Great, and wasn’t completed until AD 63 by Herod Agrippa. The temple constituted the essence of Jewish faith both literally and symbolically. It filled the same purpose David envisioned for the temple that Solomon built, bringing together the politics and religion of Israel. The people’s collective memory, their worship, education, politics and commerce – their identity – all coalesced around the architectural splendor of the temple.
In antiquity the living sacrifices were hand raised by people themselves. They could remember the cold morning they helped the ewe deliver the lamb they brought to temple with them. They would have hand feed the doves, remembered the little nest from which the new born had come, laughed at how the tiny bird had jockeyed for position on the roost between its parents. In antiquity, a sacrificial animal had a connection with the person who made it their offering. In the name of efficiency and commerce that link had lost. On entering the temple what Jesus encountered was a meat market; men selling cattle, sheep and doves to the pilgrims who needed them to make the appropriate sacrifices, at well above market prices. Also the pilgrim’s needed to exchange their Roman currency for a special temple currency, the “sanctuary shekel”, in order to pay the temple tax and for that simply transaction a fee had to be paid, thus Jesus met the money changers. The market characteristics made it economically impossible for some of the community to join in worship. And the family of the High Priest got a piece of all the action.
Incensed at the sacrilege of it all, Jesus improvised a whip, thrashed the animals from the temple, scattered the coffers of the money changers, and overturned their tables: “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” he said. Later his disciples remembered Psalm 69:9 and attached a sense of prophetic fulfillment to the event: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” What a contrast John presents between Jesus’ private life and his intentionally provocative public ministry. Compared with the synoptic versions, Jesus doesn’t characterize the temple as a “den of robbers” (Isa. 56.7, Jer. 7.11), instead John has him alluding to Zech. 14.21 with a play on “house” (oikos): his Father’s house has become “a house of trade” or a “market-place.” This is a much more radical charge, it is an accusation and condemnation that struck not at just its abuses but the very core of the cultic tradition. Don’t imagine a poor little sheep who has gone astray, it is the ninety and nine who have lost their way. Jesus is addressing the common perception of his Father’s house, God’s domain, the Kingdom of God, a house of worship for all turned into a commercial venture.
Do you reckon Jesus simply objected to any and all commercial activity in the temple out of principle, even the honest transactions that were necessary for pilgrims to fulfill their religious obligations, or do you think his intention was to denounce the fraud, exploitation and avarice of the religious authorities who controlled the means of ritual purity and thus access to God? Another simple interpretation understands the story as a restoration or purification of the temple to its sacred purpose, as a place of prayer for all people, without manipulation or exploitation by the establishment gatekeepers. Another suggests that in his own body, in his own impending death and resurrection, Jesus fulfills all the functions of the temple as the place to meet God. But could you imagine that Jesus’ anger was directed at institutional religion that had lost its way. Having drifted into convenient practices and profitable ventures, the temple in first-century Jerusalem could no longer be the house of worship that God had called it to be. When asked to justify his violent actions with a sign, Jesus refused them; instead of any interpretation, justification or explanation, he responded by saying: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
Jesus’ anger was swift and strong. His taunt—”Destroy this temple”—suggests that only an entirely new sacred space could remedy the flaw. John’s gloss on this taunt provides a basis for hope, not only for Jesus’ disciples in the first century, but for people who are part of contemporary religious institutions. Jesus’ radical cleansing of the temple is necessary, and this purging is painful. We’ve pretty well embraced the idea that we our selves are now to the Temple of God. It isn’t begging the question at all to wonder about the house cleaning we may need to be serviceable to God’s intent for this world.
One way we might read the cleansing of the temple is as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his day and in ours. Has Church become a place of entertainment and commerce or even where I go to reinforce the many prejudices and illusions that support my idolatries?
John tells us that long after Jesus purged the temple his “disciples remembered that he said were the temple destroyed he would build it up again in three days (2:22). Holding on to Jesus’ promise and living in this hope sustained Jesus’ disciples as they walked the sometimes very hard way of the cross. In our approach to Easter, we too may hold to this promise and this hope as we struggle to see and live into the Kingdom of God and explore God’s will for us in our time and place.