Here’s a great trick question to stump your Fundamentalist/Biblical literalist friends. When did Jesus go to the Temple and turn over the tables of the money changers? Most people will say “Palm Sunday” because three Gospels place the story there, but not John’s Gospel. He has Jesus in the Temple right here in the beginning of Chapter 2. Jesus is baptized, calls some disciples, changes water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and goes right to Jerusalem and starts knocking over tables. Mark’s Gospel, written first around 70 CE places the Temple episode at the end of Jesus ministry on Palm Sunday. Matthew and Luke keep the basic chronology a couple decades later. Then John comes along and reverses the order and Jesus starts his ministry as a table turning rabble rouser.
What a theological puzzle! You don’t change the location for no reason. In the Bible as in real estate, it is about location, location, location. So why does John put the story here, when it fits so perfectly at Palm Sunday and leads to Jesus’s execution? And why might that matter to us on a Sunday morning?
Some historians try to harmonize the four Gospel accounts. Maybe John had different stories than the other three writers. Maybe Jesus denounced the Temple market twice. I love harmony, but it does not make sense. The beauty of the four Gospels is seeing Jesus through four sets of eyes. That is more like church anyway. When do we all see Jesus through the same eyes? Matthew, Mark and Luke are likely correct. Why would Jesus go big and public before he is known, creates a huge ruckus and then he is allowed to walk away without being arrested?
That said, I respect John’s placement, whose reasons are likely theological rather than historical. Why does John portray Jesus as doing this public prophetic act first, not last? Looking at the message of the whole of John’s Gospel, I think this is the point:
Jesus came into the world not merely to save our individual souls from Hell, but to confront and transform sin, injustice and evil in all of its forms, so we may together have abundant life in God.
By starting at the Temple, John is signaling that Jesus intends to change not only hearts, but institutions. If saving us as individuals was the primary or only goal, Jesus could have started ministry with a forgiveness booth. People could come to him, confess their sins and receive forgiveness. He could have exclusively on healing-the blind see and the lame walk-to establish that he could offer true hope to individuals. He could have written a self-improvement book, or invite people to join support groups, or held big Billy Graham-like rallies. Jesus did similar things, but that is not where John starts. Jesus is not content with ritual behaviors. Buy a lamb, buy a dove, give some alms at the Temple, serve on a committee, sing in the choir and you are good with God.
Instead, Jesus walks into the most significant institution in the culture, a holy place that rivals the wonders of the world, which they have been building for 46 years, on their most holy season of Passover, when all the tourists and pilgrims are in town. He does not simply make a scathing speech. This is a prophetic takeover. This is a table banging, coin clanging, sheep bleating, hoof pounding, feather flying, whip cracking, one man stampede!
I’ve heard sermons that compare this episode to Jesus busting up the Saturday night Bingo game at Our Lady of Perpetual Chances. Or knocking over the “2 for $5” craft table. But it goes much deeper than selling things to support the church budget. There were many years of money changing and buying animal sacrifices before Jesus without a lot of trouble. Possibly it had now gotten out of hand, but there is a deeper context when we turn to the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah and Amos. Temple worship must be morally and ethically integrated. You can’t praise God on the Sabbath and then cheat people, engage in injustice, or turn a blind eye to suffering. If oppression and indignity is banned from the morning worship to keep everything nice and uncontroversial, then the preaching and prayers are just noise to God. You are probably familiar with the words of Amos 5, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. often said. Now listen to the three verses come before:
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24 English Standard Version (ESV)
Let me contemporize: I despise it when you offer up thoughts and prayers for victims of violence, but refuse to do anything to solve the problem. The Parkland, Florida student protests have revitalized to our national debate about the role guns in society. They are not only articulate about public policy, the 2nd amendment and how to use social media. They are calling for a different country than this one where violence is allowed, dismissed and even glorified. Many of them knew their attacker. It is not simply a mental health problem, but a hate problem. Like many mass murderers, Nikolas Cruz was in the sway of hate group propaganda and recieved gun training at a weekend with The Republic of Florida, whose goal is to make Florida a white ethno-state.
Parkland is not just about better Gun Control policy. This national challenge requires moral, spiritual and theological energy. Pay attention to what the NRA is saying to their own members in response. Watch their one-minute commercial on their YouTube channel. Dana Loesch begins with more venom than I can get in my voice, “Protestors are perpetrating a hateful attack on our system of government and our President, and their goal is to destroy it. This is an insult to each of us and they think we are so stupid we will let them get away it.” In the background are rapid fire images of football players taking a knee, large protests, with a focus on people of color, and a call to be ready to stop them and the need to be armed. She concludes, “Their fate will be failure and they will perish in the flames of their own political fires. We are the National Rifle Association and we are freedoms safest place.”
(I could not embed it, so go to Youtube and search for “Freedoms Safest Place.” There are several videos in the campaign.)
This video is just a hairs breadth from calling for a violent civil war against their political position. The NRA has made this about more than personal protection and hunting, it is now a struggle for the soul of the nation, demonizing and threatening others to protect one political party. When things get this ugly, it will take more than good gun control policy, it is a moral and spiritual crisis.
Which all brings me back to John’s Gospel, and why he placed Jesus knocking over the tables in the Temple at the very beginning. Jesus intends to transform the systems of sin, evil and injustice in all its forms, both individual and systemic. If we are to join in this ministry, we have to get our worship right. The point of the songs we sing, the words we pray and the liturgies of Sunday are meant to shape us to bring about the world that God intends. Sabbath is not just a transaction to purify our souls, it is the time set aside to renew, to heal and to reflect, so we can continue the work of bearing witness to the hope God has for the world.
We don’t come to church to pray, “God I’m so sick of the world and its problems, please save me. Please do something about this. Please make some other people better.” Rather we pray with St. Francis,
“God, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers to make a place for all of us at God’s table. Come now to Christ’s table and receive all of his good gifts, that you may abide in his love. Amen.