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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.
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.