Jesus: Agent Provocateur -- A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B
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!” 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.
Jesus is a confounding person. We have tried desperately to domesticate him, and with him, we seek to domesticate God. We want to claim God for our own causes, dividing up along lines of blue and red states. We have the Christian Right and the Christian Left, both claiming to represent Jesus’ cause. As Abraham Lincoln profoundly noted in his Second Inaugural Address both sides in the Civil War that intractably engaged the nation for four years prayed to the same God, pleading with that God to bless their efforts, for both believed that their cause was just.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Yes, the “Almighty has His own purposes.” While religion is often the tool of oppression, or at least a co-conspirator, Jesus offers us a different vision, one that challenges our attempts to manipulate the faith for partisan purposes. That’s not to say that there is no place for activism on the part of the church or of Christians, or that we need to abandon participation in the body politic, but it is a warning to be conscious of where one stands in relation to God and the powers that be.
So, what should we make of the Jesus who appears at the Temple here in the Gospel of John? Is he an agent provocateur?
When we read the Gospel of John, it is good to note the differences between his telling of the Jesus story and that found in the three Synoptic Gospels. I learned long ago that John is less interested in chronology, which means that we often disregard it when we try to put the Jesus story together. Instead we follow the patterns found in the Synoptics. The lectionary itself uses John mainly to fill in spaces left by the Synoptics – there is no year d with John forming the foundation of the readings. Nonetheless, John does have important words to share with us.
One of the more intriguing pieces in John’s story is the placement of the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.” All four gospels have a cleansing, which is good evidence that Jesus did in fact cause a ruckus in the Temple. The question is – when did Jesus do this? John places it early, the Synoptics in the last week. In John, Jesus goes early to Jerusalem to confront the system. In the Synoptics he stays up in Galilee until the very end. If we want to read the Temple Cleansing as the reason why Jesus was executed, then choosing the Synoptic telling makes sense, but what if Jesus early and often went to Jerusalem to challenge the religious elite who seemed to be manipulating the religious enterprise for their own benefit? Now, when we ask this question we have to be careful about how we understand Jesus’ actions, because for too long Christians have used John’s challenge to the “Jews” to cast a shadow on the Jewish people (remember Jesus was Jewish). That is not the case – it is not the Jews as a people whom Jesus is opposing, but the elite who run the Temple-State in collaboration with the Roman Government.
So, in John, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover, and as one might he goes to the Temple. There he finds a section of the Temple being turned into an emporium or marketplace. Vendors are selling animals for sacrifice (not just any animal is appropriate) and changing money (not just any coinage is appropriate to purchase animals for sacrifice or to give Temple offerings, and of course there is a cost to exchange the coins). Jesus doesn’t cleanse the Temple – he doesn’t run the vendors out – but he does obstruct their business by chasing out the animals and turning over the tables of the money changers. He disrupts business as usual, rather forcefully (using a whip). Why does he do this? Is he concerned about the purity of the Temple? Or, is he concerned about the exploitation of the people for the benefit of the elite? It is good to remember that at the time that Jesus was active in ministry, the finishing touches were being placed on Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple. It took lots of money to build one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
Remember Luther’s attack on indulgences that lit the fires of Reformation in the 16th century? The funds from the sale of indulgences, which were designed to shorten one’s stay in purgatory, helped build St. Peter’s in Rome. How often do we sell religion for the benefit of ego or power? I’m not against church buildings and do believe that there is value in aesthetics, but there is a deeper issue here. Are people being exploited and manipulated?
So Jesus comes and challenges the elite. He acts as a provocateur. I thought maybe he could be seen here as a community organizer (after all, I’m involved in community organizing), but Jesus doesn’t really organize here. Instead he somewhat alone disrupts the flow of business.
So, what do we make of the parallel statements about the Temple and the Body? In John’s telling of the story of the disruption of the Temple, the plot line doesn’t take us directly to the cross as is true in the Synoptics. Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher suggest that perhaps the body being spoken of here is not (at this point in the story) Jesus’ body on the cross, but the people of Israel, who are being destroyed by those who exploit it. However, those who know the rest of the story, by attacking the Temple-State the cross is clearly standing at the end of the road, for that is “what would happen to a prophet/messiah who took such bold brazen public action in blockading the temple.” And that is how he would become the savior of the people (John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel, pp. 162-163).
So, how do you feel about following a Jesus who engages in the renewal of Israel in such a provocative manner? Is this vision of Jesus a comfortable one when it is coupled by middle class American mores? Don’t we prefer a more sedate Jesus? As we continue the Lenten journey the Gospel texts have a tendency of making us uncomfortable. They challenge our comfort zones, at least I find that mine are challenged. And simply giving up chocolate for forty days probably doesn’t change our realities. It might make us feel better, or at least make it seem like we’re making a change in our lives, but are we?
In some ways we can try to hide away in Jesus’ words about his body being the Temple, which is destroyed and raised up after three days. Now for John, this is a reference to his death and his resurrection. But we need to be careful about over spiritualizing it, so as to take away the sting. Yes, it is not the building nor the institution in which Jesus is invested – it is in the people, both Israel and we who follow in his footsteps.
It is said that many believed (v. 23), but for how long? Will they stay with him for the duration? Will we?
Note on picture: JESUS MAFA. Jesus drives out the merchants, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48271 [retrieved March 3, 2015].