Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Flail Away with Jesus

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ John 2:13-16

Turn the other cheek? Please.
Jesus is so incensed when he sees entrepreneurs in the temple that he starts smacking them upside their heads.

Interestingly, the dealers turn tail and run. It makes you wonder if Jesus was bigger and meaner than he is generally portrayed, or perhaps the vendors simply knew better than to get in the way of a messiah on the edge.

The cleansing of the temple is told in all four Gospels and it is the sole instance of Jesus using physical violence to make a point. In John’s account, Jesus barks out orders to clarify the point: “Get out. Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”

Obviously Jesus felt strongly enough about the issue to start flailing at miscreant traders with stinging ropes. That in itself would place the tenet among Jesus’ Big Three: love your neighbor, forgive your enemy, and don’t you dare make my Father’s house a market place.

This makes me nervous. I’m too introverted to make a big display of loving my neighbors and people generally have to injure me in the extreme before I dub them my enemy. 

But the third tenet is hardest to accept. I’ve been a church bureaucrat for 40 years. My bread and butter has long been mined in the market place of God’s house. I’ve sold bibles and books, begged money for special offerings, and designed ecclesiastical tchotchkes to sell at church meetings.  I am a money changer in the temple.

As hard as that is to confess, perhaps I can take some comfort that my profession is likely the second oldest in the world. Almost from the beginning, the church paid pious lip service to Jesus tantrum in the Temple while secretly admiring the shrewd mendacity of the merchants.

What was it the money changers were doing that was so bad? They were simply changing Greek and Roman coins to the currency required in the Temple gift shop. Others were selling doves to people who couldn’t afford the more expensive sacrifices of sheep and goats. All of these transactions earned a slight profit for the retailers, which enabled them to return day after day to provide a necessary and holy service to the faithful. We call it the cost of doing business.

But these bygone Temple hawkers were pikers compared to the genius of Christian marketers. Sales kiosks identical to the stalls that annoyed Jesus lined the paths to medieval churches and cathedrals. Priests and popes added to church coffers by selling indulgences required for the cleansing of souls, essentially high-priced tickets to heaven. Long after church reforms and the Protestant Reformation put an end to such practices, vendors were still charging the faithful for spiritual thrills, such as touching the wood of the True Cross or caressing the spear alleged to have pierced the Savior’s side. 

These dubious practices survive in modern times, as anyone knows who watches television evangelists. Over the centuries, the most useful Latin phrase uttered in the church has been caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

Jesus clearly felt the hawking of wares and high-profit currency exchanges were demeaning to God’s house. And if we know Jesus as well as we think we do, we might also guess that he was angered by the exploitation of poor people, and especially women and widows, who were forced to pay dearly to carry out their religious duties.

This, I think, may be a central message of Jesus’  Temple rage. It was an anger aimed at the patrons of privilege, the rich, the priests, the scribes who lived off the sweat and deprivation of the poor. Jesus entered the temple in the name of the 99 percent who had so little and swung ropes at the agents of the 1 percent who had so much.

Jesus had a weak spot for the poor and so, usually, does the church. But, truth be told, the church also has a weak spot for the rich. For many congregations, the tithes of a humble membership are not sufficient to keep the pastor in comfortable accommodations. For many denominations, for which the Great Recession of 2008 never stopped, congregational mission giving falls short of supporting missionaries, staff and important ministries. Budgets and staff have been slashed to the bone, and some church bodies are in danger of fading away completely.

That’s why the churches love rich donors, who we prefer to call “high net worth friends” because “rich” sounds so tacky. 

Unfortunately, there are few biblical anecdotes to suggest God ordained the rich as the savior of the church. Jesus said – with apparent humor and gentleness – that it will be easier for a camel to slide through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven. Dorothy Parker said it less charitably: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” Parker also spoke for most of us when she said, “I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.”

Most of us don’t know much about being millionaires and, I suspect, most millionaires don’t know what it’s like to live one job or health crisis away from poverty. I have interviewed a billionaire heiress, for example, who complains that people don’t understand the heavy burdens of privilege or appreciate how very rich women are not admired for their talent or intellect. Most people listen politely to her grievance (people are often polite to the very rich), but when the woman steps out of the room they shake their heads and say, “Boy, I wish I had her problem.” 

None of this is to say, of course, that rich people can’t be good souls or faithful Christians. American Baptists and much of American Protestantism owe much to the largesse of the Rockefellers (I daren’t suggest that the Robber Baron John D. Senior might have been buying himself a few indulgences) and there are scores of philanthropic enterprises that put even the dirtiest of fortunes to good use. 

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who devoted her life to the world’s poorest people, understood that the rich and poor have a common denominator: their humanity. “Even the rich,” she said, “are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.”

If you replace the word “rich” with any other category of human, Mother Teresa’s insight grows more profound. Even nihilists are hungry for love. Even robber barons need to be cared for. Even despotic autocrats need to be wanted. Even money changers in the temple need to be cuddled.

Perhaps one of the things that enraged Jesus when he entered the Temple was a system that established barriers between the rich and the poor and deprived both groups of the fundamental humanity that made them one people.

Barriers in the temple between the rich and poor, and barriers anywhere in society, are godless devices that prevent us from acknowledging that we are all the same, that there are no “others,” that God has called us to love all our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s the barriers that prevent us from suspending judgment about other people until we can imagine what it might be like to walk in another’s shoes or live another’s life.

When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem, he expected to see a system that welcomed all the faithful to blessed encounters with the loving God.

Instead, he found the money changers standing in the way of the people God loved the most, the poor, the women, the widows.

The situation deprived everyone, money changers and widows alike, of their common humanity, and Jesus reaction was swift, righteous, godly and quintessentially human.

He picked up a whip and flailed away.


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