First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 4, 2018
Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 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.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
15 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.
16 He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
17 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."
18 The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?"
19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?"
21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
22 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.
There’s a scene in the movie “Talladega Nights” where the family sits down to pray before dinner, and an argument ensues about which Jesus to pray to. The father wants to pray to the 8lb, 6oz, tiny baby Jesus, and the mother insists that Jesus did grow up, eventually. A friend at the table offers that he pictures Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, “I’m formal, but I like to party.”
Many Christians like to pray to the Jesus we encounter in our scripture today, the Jesus who breaks out whips and turns over tables, the angry Jesus who roughs people up and throws things around. There’s a meme circulating on the internet with a 16th century painting of this scene and the caption: If someone asks, “What would Jesus do?” remind them that turning over tables and breaking out whips is a possibility.
This is such a helpful image of Jesus. In fact, it’s so useful, the church has been drawing on it for millennia to justify all sorts of violence in the name of righteous anger.
In the beginning of the fifth century, bishop Augustine of Hippo used this episode in the ministry of Jesus to justify persecution and punishment of heretics. Following his lead, Medieval monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a treatise expounding on the virtues of the Knights Templar and their role in the Crusades, urging the Knights not to make truces with God’s enemies, “until such a time as, by God’s help, they shall be either converted or wiped out.” John Calvin, one of the founders of the Reformation and forbearer of our own Presbyterian tradition, leaned on Augustine’s interpretation to defend his prosecution of Michael Servetus, a heretic credited with being the founder, in some sense, of the Unitarian church. Servetus was burned at the stake, his own books used to create the pyre.
And we continue to invoke Angry Jesus whenever we need to justify violence in the name of righteous anger. Someone’s bullying your kid at school? Teach him to fight back. Because what would Jesus do? Turn over some tables, break out the whips. Someone cuts you off in traffic? Go ahead with your road rage. Because what would Jesus do? Turn over some tables, break out the whips. Want to justify bombing another country off the face of the earth? Go ahead. Because what would Jesus do? Turn over some tables, break out the whips. We can turn to this text anytime we want God to pull out a can of bad news on someone we feel deserves God’s wrathful vengeance.
This text contradicts the profile of Jesus as always loving, peaceful, and compassionate. Angry Jesus is attractive to everyone who struggles to embrace a Jesus who is all peace, hope, and love. We all want a Jesus we can relate to, and for some folks that means Jesus can’t just teach us to be nice to each other and hand out band aids and go lay down on a cross.
It’s true that many churches like to ignore those parts of the gospel where Jesus is direct, or sometimes outright rude to people. He tells his disciples “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He spends much of his teaching ministry verbally sparring with the religious establishment and subverting the status quo. One could certainly argue that there is a side to Jesus, at least, that is not all peace, hope, and love.
But the only place angry, violent Jesus turns up in scripture is right in the center of religious activity. The only place Jesus lifts a hand in anything other than healing or sacrifice is here in the temple, the locus of religious life, the place where the most righteous and faithful gathered.
Scholars are not entirely certain what Jesus’ beef was with those selling animals for ritual sacrifice and exchanging Roman coins, which bore the visage of the Emperor, for faceless coins acceptable for paying the temple tax. Some say there was rampant corruption among the money changers or that the market somehow exploited the poor, or the Gentiles. Some say the market was just located in the wrong place. From what he says in John’s gospel, we can assume Jesus felt the market somehow violated the purpose of the temple, the house of God.
And while Augustin, Bernard, Calvin, and many people today would take this as a call to purge unrighteousness or heresy from the church by any means necessary, earlier interpretations of this text call that justification into question.
Prior to the fourth century, church leaders primarily cited this episode to prove Jesus’ divinity; confirm Jesus’ bodily resurrection; and to condemn charging money for ministry. Origen, the bishop of Alexandria in the second century, believed that this episode could only be interpreted spiritually, and not literally. For one, the other gospel accounts make no mention of Jesus wielding a whip, so that detail could not be historically accurate if we want to harmonize the gospels. Two, a literal reading is illogical. If Jesus tried to violently drive out all the people and animals in the temple, the people surely would have fought back and overpowered him. During the Jewish festivals, Roman guards were on high alert for any uprisings, and they would have quickly stepped in to quell it. Finally, Origen points out that this violent behavior is contradictory to the character of Jesus as he is portrayed throughout the gospels.
If we look more closely at the Greek text, however, there is a way to reconcile both the historical accuracy of the episode and the generally non-violent character of Jesus.
When we picture Jesus with a whip, we imagine an instrument of pain, or torture. Something like the Roman flagellum made of leather thongs with metal tips. Something like what Jesus himself was whipped with before his execution.
But what the text says is that Jesus made a kind of whip. What he would have had available to him within the temple walls was nothing more than animal bedding and the ropes they were tied up with. What he likely made was more akin to the kind of tool used by shepherds and cowherds to get an animal moving, not a weapon used for harming anyone.
A careful examination of the Greek sentence structure supports the translation we heard today, which says that Jesus drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. Other translations make it less clear whom Jesus drove out of the temple with this whip, and some seem to say explicitly that he whipped both people and animals. Much of the artistic portrayal of this scene is drawn from those translations. But the Greek is clear that Jesus used the whip he made to move the animals out of the temple, not to inflict physical punishment on those selling and changing coins in the temple.
While the earliest interpretations of this text support an image of Jesus that is compassionate and loving, and also courageous and bold, but never physically violent, over the course of Christian history, nonviolent interpretations of this passage have been eclipsed by readings sanctioning Christian violence.
We like to think that our days of burning each other at the stake and waging holy war on heathens are behind us. We’re much more civilized now. But then, a fringe church in Pennsylvania holds a mass wedding with couples carrying AK-15s to, and I quote the pastor here, “bless guns” while our nation is still reeling from the horror of the last mass shooting. To serve the God who founded our democracy, we have ordered good Christian men and women to drop nuclear bombs, spread napalm, and initiate drone strikes on civilian populations. Because what would Jesus do? Turn over some tables, break out the whips. And the grenades. And the machine guns.
Now, I grew up in a family whose bread and butter came from the manufacture and sale of military equipment. Both of my grandfathers fought in military conflicts. We can explore other parts of scripture and debate about justifying war, and depending on the day, I might come out on different sides of that discussion.
But this text should never come up when we’re considering using violence in the name of God or for the sake of God’s kingdom. Because when this text is invoked, it is used to justify violence in service to righteous anger. And that is a very dangerous prospect. And it goes against everything Jesus taught and how he lived.
In the season on Lent, we are reminded that we are never so righteous, so sinless, wise, or sanctified, that we are in a position to carry out justice that only rightly belongs to God. So when we invoke this episode to justify violence in service to righteous anger, it can only serve our broken and sinful anger. It can only serve to increase the suffering Christ came to heal.
We are welcome to picture Jesus with bulging muscles. We are welcome to root for Jesus when he tells people off and beats them at their own rhetorical game. We are welcome to follow a Jesus who is anything but meek and mild.
But we must also follow the Jesus who insisted that when someone strikes us on the cheek, we give them the other one. We must follow the Jesus who commanded us to love not just our neighbors, but our enemies. We must follow the Jesus who did not fight back when he was tortured with a whip but instead gave himself up to death on a cross. We must follow the Jesus whose body was broken for us, whose blood was shed for us.
Jesus tells the religious leaders that they can destroy the temple that is his body, and he will raise it up in three days. The new temple, the dwelling-place of God, is the body of Jesus. What Jesus did in the temple had nothing to do with righteous anger or God’s wrath. Jesus was alerting people to a change of address for God’s presence in the world. And after his ascension, that address changes again. It becomes the church.
And if we are to demonstrate any zeal for the house of God, it will not be with weapons or armies or warships. Our zeal will be visible in the strength of our relationships, in our dedication to the truth, and in our courage to speak it. Our zeal will be carried out with a shepherd’s crook, with a cowheard’s whip, driving out anything that would reduce our faith to a commodity. Our zeal will be shown in how we eschew any transactional relationship between God and humanity.
We can pray to the baby Jesus, or the grown-up Jesus. Any Jesus in scripture that we can relate to is great. But when we pray to the Jesus who drives sacrificial animals from the temple and turns over tables, we aren’t praying to Angry Jesus. We aren’t praying to a Jesus who justifies our violence. We are praying to a Jesus who is the dwelling-place of God, a Jesus who sacrifices his body so that we can become a part of it. And to that I say, Amen.