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It’s Holy Week. You already knew that.

But what we really don’t know is what happened early in the week. Or maybe we’ve never really attended to it. We’re not very good at making connections between Monday’s, Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s events, and what happened later in the famed and familiar events of the week.

I’ve written here before about the Tuesday of Holy Week. So I thought I would look instead at what probably/maybe/likely happened on Monday (biblical timelines and harmonizations of the four Gospels being what they are).

Jesus “cleanses” the temple. Less than 100 hours before his death, Jesus goes to the holiest place on earth and there, loses his cool.

Actually, Mark’s Gospel and “tradition” put it on Monday. Matthew and Luke seem to suggest it was Sunday, immediately after the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. John — O John! — places it almost at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I’m going to make a terrible precedent and disagree with both Augustine and Aquinas who assert that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.

I’m going to make another somewhat brash and stupid claim. I think we overemphasize this story, make too much of it. I wonder if there is really much “depth” to it, any great theological significance. (John, I suspect, would disagree) It is very brief, especially in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts.

Instead of deep theological import, maybe its function is simply to report what happened, and to keep the story rolling forward. The cleansing of the temple triggers the awful events of Thursday and Friday. By seeming to threaten the economic hub and the source of national pride in Judea, Jesus signs his own death warrant.

What I don’t think we should draw from this story

+ That violence is acceptable for Christians. This is a complex topic, and here I’m not trying to address it. I’m simply saying that deducing you may drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima because Jesus flipped a few tables is a pretty tenuous argument. Once more to be clear, I’m not weighing in on the US use of atomic weapons at the close of World War II, nor claiming that all Christians must be “pacifists.” Have those debates — just don’t look for significant support from this story. It is more along the lines of a frustrated outburst, a fit of pique, not an endorsement of violent actions.

+ That “righteous indignation” is a good thing for Christians. Perhaps Jesus can pull this off. Perhaps you think you can. I have found my attempts at righteous indignation always slip into self-righteous indignation. And almost always when others tell me they feel righteous indignation, I find them tedious, whiny, condescending, and usually masking great insecurity. My point is not to quell our anger. It is often the fuel I run on. Frequently we are told that anger motivates and moves us. Probably. I’m still processing that. But if so, own up to anger. Don’t baptize it as righteous indignation.

Sinless and Perfect

This causes me to wonder about how we are to understand Jesus’ sinlessness. That’s not what I want to debate or debunk here, not at all. I suspect, however, that the notion of Jesus being perfect distorts the way we understand him. It makes him so unlike us, rather than like us in every way, except sin. We “know” better, but often our Jesus is a bland and bloodless automaton. Maybe this is a reason we’ve been drawn to, even overemphasized, the cleansing of the temple. It is one place where we can identify with an annoyed and truculent Jesus. We like it. Maybe he’s even acting “manly.”

If we call Jesus’ actions in the temple a “temper-tantrum” does that undermine his sinlessness? What if he just lost his cool rather than gave us a demonstration of justifiable violence? We are comfortable saying that Jesus was sometimes tired, hungry, sad, discouraged, and lonely. Could we add irritable? How can we hold on to the sinlessness of Jesus, but reimagine in a way that also allows him to be deeply human?

Filthy Temple, Dirty Jews

One final concern: am I being too finicky to wonder if there isn’t perhaps just a whiff of anti-Semitism wafting through the story? Replacement theology? Supersessionism? It doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is not a big jump to the conclusion that Jews are money-grubbers and cheats. Even that we’ve dubbed this story “cleansing,” implies a filthy place and dirty people. Why not simply “Jesus Expels the Merchants and Money-Changers”?

Given that the Gospels were almost certainly written down after the temple had been destroyed in 70 CE, might the story subtly function to convey that they — the Jews — had it coming? Jesus pointed out corruption that would finally do them in? Maybe there’s even a bit of neener-neener glee? Now, our bodies become the new temple which Jesus cleanses. Meanwhile the actual Jerusalem temple becomes irrelevant, no concern of ours as Christians.

And so…

I’ve shared several concerns and questions and potentially troubling trends in Jesus cleansing the temple. Other than advancing the story, and possibly giving the immediate impetus for Jesus’ execution, does this story have any “meat,” some take-aways?

“Deconstructing” is the theological word of the year. Re-evaluating, taking apart one’s faith — usually a constricting, heavy-handed faith.

Maybe Jesus is doing a little deconstructing of his own here. If so, it is what I would call “healthy” deconstructing. He is annoyed by the state of the temple, yet it is there that he spends much of his next few days, teaching and debating. In Luke’s Gospel as a 12-year-old, he could barely stand to leave the temple and called it “my Father’s house.”

Throughout his life, Jesus pushed hard on religion, so often wrangling with religious leaders. Yet he was an observant Jew. He went to synagogue and celebrated the festivals. His vocabulary and imagination was formed by the Hebrew scriptures. His critics said he broke the religious laws. He said he fulfilled them. He stayed connected to his faith and tradition, even as he challenged it.

Maybe in his cleansing the temple, Jesus is suggesting, actually modeling, that religion always needs a self-critical mechanism.

To religious people, like myself, this is both freeing and threatening. Jesus invites us to deconstruct and then reconstruct with stronger, better materials.

And to those who just can’t do it any more, who don’t really know what or if they believe, who can’t fully express all the doubts and wounds they carry, I point you to the events later in the week — the cross, specifically. I hope my pointing is invitational, not a fix-it, not a patronizing answer. We say that on the cross, Jesus reconciled all things to God through himself. All things just might include you and your wounds and questions and disillusionment. I hope so.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

11 Comments

  • Wonderful thoughts and writing. I’ve struggled with all this myself.

    Have a blessed Holy Week.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks, Steve. Good call. Although, as you know, I don’t see any convincing reason that the Gospels were written after AD 70. But be that as it may, your warnings about our easy implications from the Cleansing. are compelling. It seems to me that Our Lord’s sinlessness was very specific, that is, covenantal. It was a sinlessness of obedience, a perfection of calling, which calling was, admittedly, quite wide. I think that’s true for us to, and I believe that while sin is real, and huge, and debilitating, it is actually far less important than we make it in God’s economy. And as to your main point, maybe you’re right, maybe sometimes we try to derive too much “meaning” from an event reported in the Gospel that is reported for not much more purpose than reporting it. “Whoa, this happened!”

  • Nancy says:

    Your comment about our “…attempts at righteous indignation always slip into self-righteous indignation” caught my attention. I had never considered this to be the case, however, I do agree that this occurs, and must be confronted. Thank you.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    “He stayed connected to his faith and tradition, even as he challenged it.”
    May we all do the same.
    Thanks for these challenges.

  • Mary Huissen says:

    I appreciate all of this, in particular the ironic choice of the lead image: the blue sky, friendly animals, ambiguous round items (crackers for the sheep?) er, gold on the floor and in the bowl, the furrowed brows on Jesus and the others as if they simply disagree where the table should be placed – as if Jesus is simply suggesting “Wouldn’t it really be better closer to the pillars?”

    You often manage to make profound points and ask deep questions with a wry smile. I’m grateful for your humor, and also today for your closing thoughts, which feel as if written to me, personally. I will endeavor to accept your invitation. Thank you.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    We sometimes let ourselves think Jesus cleansed the Temple of some sort of unholy flea market, when in fact the temple tax was as old as Moses, the money changers were providing a service so worshippers could pay the tax in the right currency, and selling sacrificial animals was also a service to people who would find transporting an unblemished lamb from Galilee extraordinarily challenging. I think your hypothesis that this story, told some fifty years after the fact, hints at the emerging separation between Jesus followers and Judaism is really insightful. Thanks for giving me new perspective.

  • William Harris says:

    I would think that the easiest, most direct answer is that Jesus is a purist, a reformer from the North(ie Galilee). Seen from the stance of one who as a zeal for the Covenant God, this action looks understandable; it’s a sort of iconoclasm. It is a political act, so it sets up a tension, ‘what sort of Messiah is this?’ The question then becomes why doesn’t this go to the expected political (and futile) route? Something else is at work here. Could we perhaps read this event alongside the story of cursing the fig tree? Both are signs of the need for a kind of purity, of faithful response.

    Spiritually, or at least in a more typological, Lenten way, this event also rhymes with Mary and Martha: the necessary stuff of life sometimes gets in the way of the thing that matters.

    When we read the cleansing through he lens of its violence, we say more about the role of violence in our own culture. Could it not be that this violence is the very thing that has to be cleansed and thrown out of our hearts?

  • Valerie says:

    I’ve always been able to think of Jesus as the Son of God more quickly than I think of him as Son of Man. I can get behind the omnipotent, omniscient, almighty Son of God. It’s harder for me to view the Jesus who sweat, who vomited, who had diarrhea, who had body odor. Maybe because our own human-ness can be so disgusting, it’s hard to break Jesus out of that flannel-board character into flesh and blood.

    • Rosalyn De Koster says:

      This is a beautiful comment. And the idea of Jesus doing those very human things is quite mind bending.

  • /svm says:

    https://todaydevotional.com/. has an interesting perspective on this story.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thank you all for a helpful and multifaceted discussion. Mary, thank you for noticing the lighthearted image. It wasn’t easy to find. Most images of the temple cleansing seem to revel in a furious Jesus with a whip (something mentioned only in John). Daniel, I wish you or someone would do more work on your comments on “sinlessness.” How to understand it in some broad, overarching manner rather than focusing on every small act, thought, or gesture. I think a person who was “perfect” in the way we often imagine it, would not be appealing to others, but probably odd and off-putting.

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