Last Thursday, I heard a speaker preach a sermon using as one of his texts the famous incident of Jesus “cleansing” the temple. The story occurs in all four of the gospels in the Bible (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48 & John 2:13-16). Here’s the version found in Matthew’s gospel:
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Also, in John:
13 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!”
The speaker on Thursday was using the account from John, since John’s account includes the phrase “making a whip of cords”. The whip of cords is important to a lot of people’s readings and teachings on this story, I’ll come back to it in a moment.
The speaker’s message though was this – pilgrims were coming to the temple to make their Passover sacrifice and they were being forced to buy temple approved sacrificial animals using only temple approved coins, so that they were being gouged twice, once by the money changers and once by the animal sellers. They were being exploited and forced into poverty by religious abuse. The speaker explained that Jesus was showing his anger at this abuse and forced poverty by attacking the system of exploitation. It was, to the speaker’s mind, a sign that God cared about poverty among His people. “God doesn’t want His people to be poor,” said this man.
While I believe the speaker was earnest in his conviction I don’t think he understood Jesus in this moment at all. In fact, this is one of those scriptures that gets my vote for “most likely to be misunderstood” and I’ll tell you why – I don’t think Jesus was angry, at least not in the way most of us think.
In the 1970’s, the first movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar had a dramatic scene that featured Jesus cleansing the temple. It showed him as an “angry young man”, enraged by the evils of capitalism and society, venting his anger on the institutions that enslaved men. The actor playing Jesus almost screams his lyrics in a high, operatic voice and he is virtually out of control with emotion. Jesus is portrayed as a protester and a rioter, driven by his rage. I think this image has coloured virtually everyone’s perceptions of the incident ever since.
Soon after I came to the Lord, I heard for the first time someone say that Jesus had been angry, but not in the rioting protester sort of way that Jesus Christ Superstar shows. This teaching fixates on the comment John makes, that Jesus made a whip from cords. It suggests that Jesus fashioned a proper, technically made whip, similar to modern leather bullwhips, and that doing so would have taken quite some time. Since he was taking his time, Jesus could not have been an out of control rioter, but was instead, a measured activist, controlled in his anger, but nonetheless bringing personal opposition to a corrupt institution.
Personally I find the notion that Jesus made a ‘proper’ whip to be unlikely. Why would he need a bullwhip to do a job any length of cord could do? He’s just driving some livestock and maybe an intransigent accountant or two. But my problem with this teaching isn’t that it’s incorrect (I don’t know for sure one way or the other). My problem is that it completely gets Jesus wrong.
If you have time, may I suggest taking a moment to go back and read the four accounts of the story that occur in the gospels. See if you can find where any of them says that Jesus was angry. You can’t, because none of them do. None of the four accounts says Jesus was angry or offended. Now it is easy to imagine that Jesus was offended, after all the crass mixture of commerce and religion that is being described here is pretty offensive. But we can do better than imagination, because Jesus tells us his motivation, when he quotes the prophets (Isaiah 56:7 & Jer 7:11).
When Jesus quotes the prophets, he is repeating the words of the Father, which is the key to all of Jesus’ ministry on earth, as he says himself:
“I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.”
John 5: 30
And the quotes from the prophets show just that. God the Father has already revealed his righteous wrath against the commerce in the temple, through the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jesus arrives and seeing the judgement of the Father as a commandment, acts to obey God. He acts not because he is an angry young man, rioting against corrupt institutions, nor because he is an activist, using force to bring legitimate change, but because he is an obedient Son, carrying out the revealed will of his Father in Heaven.
Odds are Jesus’ actions that day seemed fairly violent to the people on the receiving end. At the very least He was being inconvenient and disruptive, and it would have been the comfortably wealthy who were being disrupted most.
A number of times I have heard Christians point to this story as a justification for action, or at the very least, a justification for anger. “See,” they say. “Even ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, was angry sometimes.” Well, no doubt Jesus was not meek or mild that day, and I don’t think he acted very gently, but He was not motivated by any emotion of his own. He wasn’t acting out of anger, or offense or sense of violated righteousness. Jesus was obeying His Father – full stop. He was acting from the one perfect motivation that any human can have, to obey the will of God.
I’ve wanted to share these thoughts for many years, mostly because I’m just uncomfortable with Jesus being misrepresented. I’ve also been wracking my brain trying to find a lesson or a teaching I could tie it to, but I can’t, except to say this; listen closely when people teach you something from scripture. Just because it makes sense, or even seems likely, doesn’t make it so.
I don’t believe in “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, but neither do I follow an “angry young man”. My Saviour and Lord was obedient unto death, even death on the cross. That’s who I follow.
Featured image: Christ Cleansing the Temple, Luca Giordano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bullwhip picture by Cgoodwin (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
All other images CC0 Public Domain, no attribution required.