Driving Out the Money Changers

Cleansing the Holy Place – Symbolic Direct Action (Mk 11/11-26)

Jim Consedine

Teachers of the non-violence of Jesus inevitably are confronted by those who say, what about Jesus when he overturned the tables in the Temple and drove the money changers out. Surely this is an act of justifiable violence?

It’s a fair question, even if it is invalid. It is the sort of question that many who take passages out of context throw at those who don’t. In coming to understand scripture, context is a large part of the equation. Without proper context, the underlying message can well be misinterpreted.

The context here in the moneychanger’s episode is crucial. The Temple in Jerusalem had become the centre not just of official worship but of commerce. It was the heart of the Jewish nation and the symbol of their religion. Yet it was supposed to be the most holy of all Jewish sites, out ranking others in the way Mecca outranks other Muslim sites today for pious Muslims. It is the place where the community’s offerings and gifts are brought. And wealth was all channeled through the High Priest and other priests of the Temple. But corruption and the lust for power have taken hold. The Temple had become fundamentally an economic institution. Racketeering was rife.

Worse even than that, it was the poor who were being exploited through the sale of sacrificial doves and other animals, which by law they were obliged to buy. Those getting the payoff included the High Priest and his entourage, who in addition to any profits accrued, received taxes from vendors and money-changers. It was lucrative stuff. Jesus knew this. Much of the meaning of the Temple as a holy sanctuary had been lost for ordinary people because of the greed of the traders and the ruling caste running the Temple. In other words, God was not being worshipped properly in this most holy of all places. To Jesus, this was a huge scandal. He was incensed.

Each Gospel records what followed, though they differ crucially in detail. One thing is obvious, Jesus got angry. We know this because each of the four Gospel writers say so.(Mk 11/15, Matt 21/10, Lk 13/35, Jn 2/13)

Committed Jew that he was, one can see Jesus arriving at the Temple after a hot day’s walk and finding it busy and noisy. The outer courts were dominated by commerce not preparations for prayer. In addition, merchants were charging exorbitant prices for sacrifices. Overcome with justifiable anger at what he saw, Jesus acts. He either grabs a chord from somewhere handy or, more likely, takes off his own chord from around his waist and wades in, overturning the tables and sending the money, papers and merchandise flying in all directions. ‘Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace’, he roars.

This is a highly symbolic action, enacted right in the centre of power, the Temple. It was as outrageous a place to act as a disruptive action taken in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in front of the Pope or the disruption of a royal parade in Westminster Abbey in front of the Queen might be. This was no ordinary building or occasion. And Jesus would know it.

Is it any wonder he got angry and took spontaneous action? Is it any wonder he reacted so forcefully? What else could he do? Take up a petition? Write a letter to the High Priest complaining? He knew, as we all know, that such action would be futile – though it is probably what the authorities would have recommended if asked. Keeping law and order is always the primary goal of institutional processes.

The temple was the highly symbolic place where civil and religious power melded into one. Jesus targets a central part of the corruption, the exploitation of pilgrims of their hard earned money.

Did he exercise violence in a way that modern war makers can use to justify their actions? No. Even a cursory reading of the scriptures shows that Jesus taught a revolutionary non-violent way of people relating to each other. He was surrounded within the Roman Empire, one of the most violent regimes ever, where crucifixion was the norm for dissenters.

One has only to read how love and nonviolence sit at the heart of his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount and other events to understand that violence was anathema to Jesus. His teachings were revolutionary then (as they are is now, of course).

So what can we make of this episode? Was it a violent aberration, never to be repeated? That would make no sense to gospel writers later seeking to present Jesus as the new Temple and author of the Sermon on the Mount and other radical teachings – like, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, walk the extra mile, share your bread with the needy, forgive seventy seven times seventy. These are the cornerstones of a truly revolutionary ethic.

Jesus action in the Temple is consistent with these teachings. His anger is justified. The poor are exploited and the Temple, God’s House, is being abused. He takes direct symbolic non-violent action. No one is hurt. Money and property are scattered. Certain egos are upset. Some disruption to business-as-usual is sown. The voice of a prophet is heard in the inner sanctum of authority. But in the midst of the violence of this occupied state, aided and abetted by the compliant religious authorities, the action of Jesus is a call to non-violence, demanding respect for God, for God’s temple, and for the poor who throng there to worship.

We are left with an obvious conclusion. Is his action not an act of religious/civil disobedience right in the heart of power? Does it not form part of his strategy of promoting the new radical ethic he is teaching?

Confronting Temple power and corruption was a crucial part of the development of a new ethic of the non-violent Jesus.

22 March 2009

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