I find this morning’s Gospel to be one of the most difficult passages to deal with. Not because it contains raw emotion and a bit of violence, but because the source of that anger and “violence” is from Jesus. These are not the attributes we usually associate with Jesus, and often times this is the one story from the Gospels that people point to, to debunk arguments about Christianity being a nonviolent religion.
The challenge we are faced with this morning is, how do we deal with an angry, reactive Jesus? And, does this passage on some level support the Machiavellian precept, “the ends justify the means?” To be honest, I am not really sure. What I do know about the passage is that the story must have been meaningful in some way for the early church, because it appears in all four Gospels.
Let’s take a moment to flesh out some of the back story before moving forward in order to discuss what John assumes we already know.
The passage takes place just inside the Temple wall, in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the largest open area of the Temple compound. This was also the only part of the Temple compound where non-Jews could enter. The other two inner areas of the compound were restricted to Jews and then to the Temple authorities or clergy of their time. Based on historical evidence, by jesus’ day, the Court of the Gentiles had become an open air market for Temple business. Set up in the courtyard were booths where people could buy unblemished animals suitable for Temple sacrifices, and there were booths where people could exchange Roman coinage for the faceless Temple coinage used to make offerings, pay Temple taxes and purchase animals for sacrifice.
For the most part, the Court of the Gentiles was the main hub of Temple commerce and a free market. So where was the rub for Jesus? St. John doesn’t tell us this. However, in the other three Gospels Jesus is quoted as saying,” My house shall be a house of prayer;” but you have made it a den of robbers.” What this statement suggests is Jesus’ reaction was against something he perceived to be unjust and exploitive in temple commerce. The process of money changing was perceived as unjust as money changers charged a hefty fee to trade Roman coinage for Temple coins. These coins only had value within the Temple compound and could only be used to buy Temple goods. The animals sold for sacrifice also came at a premium and could only be afforded by the wealthy. And of course the Temple tax, which could only be paid with Temple money traded at a premium made access for the poor very difficult at best.
No, Jesus was not offended just by the fact there was commerce taking place in the outer court of the Temple, but by the fact that the commodity being traded was access to God’s grace, a commodity that was meant to be freely given, even before the day of the cross.
So Jesus becomes angry with the mockery of God’s love that is taking place the midst of God’s dwelling. Jesus becomes angry because he sees God’s laws being exploited and used against God’s own children. Jesus reacts because he came to put an end to the evil and the injustice that has separated God’s people from God. Jesus responds. . . by driving out the perpetrators of evil from the household of God.
Yes, Jesus showed passion. Yes, Jesus felt anger, and yes. Jesus responded in anger. This is not the Jesus we talk about or discuss in Sunday school. This is, however, part of the Jesus we are called to worship and emulate. This is the Jesus who is willing to stand up and fight against evil and injustice.
It is important for us, as followers of Jesus, to maintain a balanced understanding of who Jesus really was. To remember that in the face of injustice and evil Jesus does not call us to be passive door mats but to be assertive and unbending in destroying the systems of injustice and oppression which infect the fabric of our society and this world.
The question we are often forced to answer is, how.
How do Christians fight injustice? The answer of course is complicated especially in light of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s call for us to “love our enemy.”
As I have often talked about in the past, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement perfected the use of civil disobedience and passive resistance to bring about social change in the sixties. Notables such as Martin Luther King Jr. taught their followers how to, and when to cross color boundaries and then how not to respond to the aggression and violence that would ensue. In time, the world saw and condemned the brutal use of force used to control and violate our right to free speech as peaceful protest after peaceful protests were brought to an end with brutal and inhumane force. Although violence was often used on those who protested for Civil Rights, Civil Rights leaders and their followers always held to a “turn the other cheek” mentality when responding.
German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took a different approach when resisting the efforts of Nazi Germany. As a leader of the German resistance, Bonhoeffer taught a theology of resistance at underground seminaries in Germany. After a time, however, Bonhoeffer became convinced that passive resistance to Hitler’s regime would take too long to bring the evil to its knees. Bonhoeffer responded when he realized Hitler was the personification of pure evil which could only be contained by bringing about Hitler’s death. Before World War II ended, Bonhoeffer would participate in the planning of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. This decision led to his imprisonment and later his death.
Today, the world is faced with a force of darkness I am not sure we have seen since the days of Hitler. The constant parade of carnage from beheadings and mass slaughters overwhelms. The world is now aware that Isis is the newest and most dangerous personification of evil we are battling. The questions we as a country and as a civilized world must continue to grapple with is, but how? The call to war is so easy to say, but are we really ready and willing accept the carnage that will bring.
Since the days when Christianity became a state religion, there has been numerous discussions and guidelines written about what makes for a “just war.” But I wonder if a “just war” is really possible in a world where civilian are used as human shields to protect munitions factories; or in a world where women and children are encouraged and trained to perform as suicide bombers.
Ultimately there are no easy or stock answers for how the world should deal with Isis. As Christians, we find ourselves like Christ, placed in a temple surrounded by evil and injustice, aware of the need to stand up and respond. The only question is how, is nos a time to passively resist and go like lambs to the slaughter or is this a time to pick up a whip of cords to forcefully drive the forces of darkness away once again.