According to New Testament scholar NT Wright, the elite social-religious ruling class of Jesus’ Palestine, the Sanhedrin, were in their purity laws trying to both maintain their own bourgeois-like status they had within the Jewish community and yet throw off non-native, foreign, godless influences. They felt that by being pure enough, the Delivering God of Moses and Isaiah would come down, slay their enemies and deliver them into the Promised Land*.
In this, there is striking confluence between American churches – particularly but not at all exclusively the Religious Right – and the Sanhedrin. The reign and rule that Christian churches and the old Sanhedrin want to establish is of a preferred culture, is Middle Class, is whole and well and apparently without blemish – it is “pure” according to whatever definition they establish and regulate within their community. All others must either meet up to the standards and be more holy than the Pharisees or get the hell out, as Jesus acknowledged in (and is widely misunderstood by Evangelicals in) Matthew 5.
Of all the major incidents in Jesus’ life/ministry, the most pertinent to the divide between this culture of Holy Purity and Jesus’ working definition of purity is also one of the least talked about. And maybe that’s because it is ultimately rebelling against how church and society are run. Even when the Christian Left illustrates the issue (with a cartoon of Jesus driving out Wall St types), though it may touch on an important aspect of what being a prophetic Christian should be about and in keeping with the ministry and teaching of Jesus, the prophets, apostles and Church fathers/mothers (and we try to touch on that as well at Commie Pinkos Wrote My Bible), it really doesn’t get to the heart of this centralized illustration of Jesus clearing out the Temple Courts.
The story, in fact, is so integral to the Christian witness it is repeated in all four of the Gospels and with little, but yet significant, variation. We’ll begin by encountering John’s version of it, which comes, interestingly enough, early on in his declaration of the goodness in the life of Jesus.
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.”
This is the common reading told by John in the second chapter – confusing those who read the bible as being linear (whereas the others arrange the accounts more-or-less chronologically and therefore place this setting towards the end – right near his crucifixion).
Usually, when there are variations, scholars will point out that each of the writers have a particular perspective to pull out of the narrative. However, I like to think here that a combined reading pulls in pieces of a bigger picture: A Jesus who infuriates the social leaders by denying their rules. A Jesus who sees worship of God without denied people as being sacrilegious.
Matthew 21 says that after the clearing, people with blindness and physical disabilities were able to come into the temple. They came to find and receive healing.
Luke 19 says that Jesus took over the temple, teaching from it, for the next several days. He and his crowd cleared the temple of the restrictive market forces to occupy the temple for its intended purpose: So the people can gather to be a part of and enact in the Kingdom of God.
Luke and Mark 11 record that the chief priests, the religious powers, thus enraged were condemning him to death and plotting to murder him. Jesus was challenging their livelihood. He was upsetting the power balance. He was disturbing the peace. He was rousing the rabble. It is for reasons like this that Jesus suffered the rebel’s capital punishment.
In each one of these accounts, the radicalism of this action of temple-clearing is front and center. The religious-political-economic powers are frustrated and turned on their heads, so they fight back in the ways they know how. They question Jesus’ authority. In a shaming and patriarchal society, that normally works. But here, Jesus outsmarts them. They find the crowds loving Jesus and his rebellion.
He is labeled a rebel – a threat. And he is. They are not mistaken. Jesus prominently featured a God welcoming all to her breast like a mother hen protecting her chicks as the barn burns down. The ruling classes would have none of that; it disturbs the status quo of their dead God. Jesus had upset the order carefully placed by the ruling classes and would continue to do so.
Jesus and his fellow broken humans were occupying the temple in the name of The Father who welcomes all to her presence. This theme would be further explored and pushed to the most obscene level at the crucifixion the leaders were planning. It is there where the veil separating the presence of the Most Holy God would be ripped, allowing the scoundrels, the riffraff, the gangbanger, the Samaritan, the mute, the paralyzed, the bipolar. These people the Pharisees labeled unclean, demon possessed, beggars, them, that person. In Jesus’ stories they are the heroes, they are moved from the silent margins and into the middle of the action.
These are not the people the church wants to make protagonists of. That would privilege people who can do no good for business. And the contemporary American church operates as a business. Churches have not just “lead” and “teaching” pastors, but “executive” pastors who peddle books for ministers molded on the same forms and types of executives that run Boeing, Apple, and Citigroup – companies that prey on, extract from, shoot down, or otherwise exclude the marginalized, poor, people of color. This reinforces the idea that the Christian church is primarily concerned about convenience, about the wealthy, able-bodied, developmentally abled, psychologically stable. Those who fit in the mold with ease. Those without blemish are allowed to participate fully, without shame.
The boards of the typical Evangelical church are comprised of white businessmen. Because they obvs know how to run a business, the thought goes, they deserve first-preference to run the church.
Even the poor who flood megachurches are wanted only for their change which helps to keep the church running and the pastors eating well while the congregants delay their pressing worries for another day. The songs, the greetings, the preaching, the vocabulary, the overall messages of the church delay the hopes and dollars of struggling, suffering, sacrificingcongregants into a tomorrow that is promised but can never arrive. Though they are ostensibly welcomed into the prosperity gospel-preaching church, their beings are not, their concerns are daily being rebuffed. The message is clear: To be poor or physically, mentally, sexually, socially, emotionally “unclean” is to doubt God’s work through that church and teacher.
In the established Temple Marketplace, God cannot work, cannot deliver, without the socio-religious elites’ purity being enforced throughout. The minds, bodies, concerns, and beings of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized are not allowed into the temple area. The business of the holy is business; therefore, the sacraments are not accessible, the price is too steep – doves cannot be offered when doves cannot be bought. Tithes cannot be offered when the family can’t make rent.
This is in terrible contradiction to the Jesus who disturbed the temple business and reclaimed the House of Prayer. To paraphrase the Methodist blessing: The Temple of the Lord for the People of the Lord.
When the order of the church’s day is business, profit, and maintaining the purity status quo – whether stated or not, whether in an Evangelical, prosperity gospel, neo-reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline church – then the marginalized are restricted access to the full glory of God as witnessed in the teachings and restorative healing actions of Jesus. And when the marginalized are restricted, God is not welcome. For God sides with the oppressed.
*While evoking Moses, Jesus also evoked Jonah’s God and Jeremiah among others not so easy to hear.