The violence of Jesus: cleansing the temple

We probably all have our favorite images of Jesus. In a well-known scene from Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby preferred to pray to the Baby Jesus. Others of us might be drawn to the healer, the teacher, the man who loved children. I suppose all of the favorite thoughts come under the heading “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” So what about the violent man who upset tables and drove the money changers out of the temple?

It is one of the few incidents in his life mentioned in all four gospels: Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-22. According to the synoptics,  Jesus erupted after his triumphal entry. John describes an incident early in Jesus’ ministry. Could he have behaved that way more than once?

Christ Cleansing the Temple / Luca Giordano, mid 1670s

According to Mark, Jesus went to the temple the afternoon of his entry and looked around. He drove out the money-changers the next morning. John says that Jesus made a whip with cords.  That’s not the work of a few seconds. In both cases, clearly, Jesus did not suddenly go berserk. He carried out a premeditated plan.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and elders naturally took great offense at Jesus’ actions. Before we assign them to their usual role as antagonists and villains, we should acknowledge that they had a very high concept of what the temple stood for.

It was the place of the sacrifices ordained by God himself. It was the place where Jews could come to make atonement for their sins and receive cleansing from God.  It was the center of the Jewish national identity. It was very holy.

The sound of children shouting praises in the temple shocked and offended them. Jesus’ apparent claim that he could destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days shocked and offended them. His violence against the money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals–a time-honored part of the entire sacrificial system–shocked and offended them.

I doubt if anything ever shocked Jesus, but the presence of merchants and all the attendant haggling and cheating offended his own very high concept of what the temple stood for. The first time recorded in Scripture that he ever saw the temple, as a child of 12, he regarded it as a place of instruction. He taught within its confines every time he visited Jerusalem thereafter. Scripture described it as a house of prayer. Nowhere in Scripture did Jesus ever take any interest in the sacrifices. After all, he had come as a better sacrifice.

He could not reject the holy ritual of the sacrifices without invalidating his own mission and death, but he could and did reject the cheap commercialism that had grown up around it. He rejected it violently.

According to Christian teaching, Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Can we regard God merely as some kindly fellow, full of good advice and kind deeds? Can we think of him as a kind of ideal role model who really doesn’t expect anything like obedience? Why on earth did God expect sacrifices in the first place?

Jesus became violent against those who polluted the sanctity of the  house of prayer and instruction for the same reason he preached more vividly about the reality of hell than any other person in the Bible.  He hates sin. He hates how it diminishes holiness. He hates how it distracts people from getting right with God.

Matthew and Mark recount how Jesus cursed a fig tree at about the same time. This act likewise seems uncharacteristic at first until we recognize it as an parallel to the cleansing of the temple, an enacted parable.

If we want to accept God’s grace, we must also accept his violent hatred of sin and judgment against it. Grace means undeserved favor. We don’t like to think we don’t deserve it. Jesus’ violence (as well as God’s violence throughout the Old Testament) serves as an uncomfortable but necessary reminder that the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness, and only by grace are we not consumed.


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