Today we’re highlighting a controversial story about Jesus, a moment in his ministry that portrays him in an entirely different light. All four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John reveal a peculiar incident that echoes through time. Jesus wasn’t simply mad, he made a weapon and attacked. What we’re exploring is the only recorded episode depicting Jesus as physically aggressive. This topic isn’t easy, and is best avoided by those who don’t want to share a troubling exposé. Despite the temptation to ignore it, we must not run and hide. We’re brave enough to hit this situation head-on (as Jesus did–literally).
The setting for today’s situation was the high holy season of Passover. While Jesus was visiting Jerusalem, he saw activities in the Temple area that aroused his rage. Jesus may not have liked that God’s holy Temple was being used for commerce. One problem may have been that the overly-strict religious law meant that people had to exchange foreign money for ceremonially pure coins, those without the offensive image of a god, emperor, etc. Likely outraged by what he interpreted as profiteering, or some other aspect of money-changing, or the buying of sacrificial animals, Jesus decided to unleash rage. He made a whip and drove his points home with whacks rather than with subtle theological arguments.
A whip of cords was a serious weapon, ironically not unlike the whip which Pilate later ordered used against Jesus as part of the scourging before the crucifixion. Jesus’ public violence during today’s incident is so out of character as to be one of the most disturbing acts in the gospel story. Christian literature refers to Jesus’ actions under the grossly-misleading description of “cleansing the Temple.” This is all wrong because Jesus didn’t get a Swiffer and quietly sweep the tracked dirt off the sacred floor. Truly, in this situation Jesus acted with revolutionary vigor, hurling words and a weapon which both pierced the air.
If either the Romans or the Jewish authorities wanted to catch Jesus in something for which he could be arrested and executed, then the temple violence was one of those moments. The occupying Romans wanted peaceful submission from their subjects, and they would stop at nothing to ensure calm. Roman cohorts patrolled Jerusalem as part of the garrison protecting Pilate and keeping things calm. As for public violence, either Roman or Jewish soldiers would have been called to stop a madman arousing havoc in the sacred Temple area. Jewish temple guards would have authority to pierce an assailant and ask questions later. In this respect, it is surprising that Jesus wasn’t killed on the spot.
It’s unlikely that Jesus could have eluded arrest for his Temple-tantrum. Scripture is silent in connecting persecution of Jesus with his act of violence. Rightly or wrongly, the Bible writers don’t come close to placing blame on Jesus for anything. Perhaps it is too embarrassing and troubling to even suggest that Jesus had an anger management issue that day. Yet, it is likely that Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are inseparably tied to his Temple violence. Jesus exercised some restraint because as the Son of God he might have done something far worse, such as calling killer angels to slaughter everyone. It is unknown if Jesus’ closest followers were with him that day in the Temple, or if the story of the incident was passed-down to his disciples in a later teaching. Whatever the case, we are left with images of an undeniably violent Jesus.
How do you reconcile the Jesus you thought you knew with the one who may have been taking flesh off peoples’ backs and destroying property? What would Jesus do today if similarly angered? Imagine the Lord visiting the fast-food court of a megachurch, stopping by a food dive called “Blessed Burger”? What if he began overturning the greasy grills, crying, “You have turned my Father’s house into an overpriced health hell!” Or on a broader scale, can you imagine Jesus denouncing economic injustice as he pulls the network cables out of the computers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? In the midst of the mayhem, perhaps Jesus would be wielding a club to teach a lesson to the currency traders and arbitrage investors. All this makes you wonder what parallels there are between ancient history and today’s worship of the . . . Almighty dollar.