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Cleansing the Temple: Jesus' Act of Social Protest

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During the week before Easter, in the midst of all the sacred processions, weird reenactments, vacationing and feasting, I always find it helpful to revisit the "cleansing of the Temple" story to try and understand its full significance and meaning -- not only as it relates to the death of Jesus of Nazareth on Good Friday, but socially, politically and economically today. Note that in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), the incident comes at the end of Jesus' ministry and is usually considered the action by Jesus that led to his arrest and ultimate execution. In the Gospel of John, the incident comes at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

Traditionally, the story is interpreted as Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and bird sellers as way to show his condemnation of using the Temple for the purpose of conducting business. The idea is that God's Temple is holy and should only be used for prayer and worship -- kind of like a church. On the surface, this interpretation makes complete sense. However, it is entirely possible that this take may be missing some facts that would change it rather dramatically.

In his book, "The Trial of Jesus," Alan Watson notes:

"The sellers were there for the benefit of pilgrims who had come to sacrifice as Passover. Animals for sacrifice had to meet stringent requirements and would not be easily found by those coming for the festival if it were not for the sellers in the Temple precincts. No prohibition against buying sacrificial animals in the Temple existed, and Mishnah Shekalim 7.2 show incidentally that the presence there of the sellers was both lawful and known. The sale of doves for sacrifice in the Temple at any time was even controlled by Temple authorities."

Jesus was an observant Jew. He would not have objected to the Temple system of making sacrifices to God. That was the accepted tradition for the Temple, and particularly so during the Feast of Passover, when Jewish pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Israel's liberation from Egypt and to offer animal sacrifices. I think the reason traditional Christianity has taken the "anti-business in a holy place" interpretation is that it has not seen the incident from the Jewish perspective. It has perhaps failed to put "Jesus the observant Jew" in that story.

In their book, "The Last Week," theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan stress that Jesus' consistent and primary message was to proclaim the coming of The Kingdom of God and to challenge the dominant political system: the Romans and their local collaborators (the ruling Jewish class dominated by the Sadducees, Pharisees and Scribes). That ruling class had its base of operations in the Temple.

Jesus' attack on the money changers and bird sellers was much more than an attack on simple tradesman. It was less about defiling the Temple with needed and commonly accepted money transactions and more about attacking the power structure of Jewish society at the time. The "den" of thieves refers to the safe haven of the thieves -- the Roman collaborators who ran the Temple.

Jesus' teachings were mostly and consistently about social justice. They strongly opposed the domination system of the time and thereby probably any system that creates an elite and powerful class that keeps the masses poor and powerless -- for whatever reason. Jesus was a social revolutionary, a radical. He wanted to change the status quo, and that of course ended up getting him into a heck of a lot of trouble -- not because he was, you know, "God," but because he was a mischief-maker who happened to have a small local following.

I often wonder what Jesus would think of the United States, capitalism and the International Monetary Fund. I wonder what he would think of the world's free market system, where essentially the strong, influential and clever do very well and the vast majority of our brothers and sisters are either dying of hunger or are barely able to earn a living. I sometimes wonder if he would come down hard on neoliberal trade policies that hurt the poor in developing countries like Honduras so much.

If we simply interpret the cleansing of the Temple story in the traditional manner, all you have is a critique against "defiling" a holy place of worship -- a physical structure made of stone. The assumption is that somehow the Source of the universe, of all creation is offended by a few businessmen. I have no idea what to do with this lesson.

However, if we interpret the story from the standpoint opposing the domination of the people by a small elite class (yeah, like in Honduras, and increasingly in the United States) collaborating with a foreign occupying power (Rome) and truly establishing the "Kingdom of God" on earth in the here and now, then the message is clear. We are called to transform our world by seeking justice, a fair distribution of the resources that God has temporarily "lent" us.

I grant you, this is pretty radical stuff. It is revolutionary. It almost sounds dangerously un-American -- certainly un-Republican. It is the kind of stuff that people who might try to implement this Way would likely be persecuted, even killed. Sound familiar?