Jesus' temple cleansing was a protestBy Tom Airey
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the 12. Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark 11:12, 15-17
At the end of the procession into Jerusalem on a baby donkey, nothing happens. At least that is what appears to be the case.
Jesus got his scouting report on Sunday night for how he will organize his protest on Monday morning in the crowded temple. This is an important point because Jesus’ “temple cleansing” has been read for centuries as a spur-of-the-moment fury of righteous messianic anger. However, biblical scholars such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Ched Myers and John Howard Yoder have presented a compelling case — each independently in slightly different ways — that the temple action was a premeditated act of political protest. If this is so, just what exactly happened, and why was he protesting?
Jesus has choreographed a chaotic demonstration, overturning tables and blockading the daily marketplace activities in one small section of the huge court of the Gentiles (3x5 football fields in size). ALL bible scholars, across the theological spectrum, agree on two things in this episode: (A) Indeed, Jesus historically did something in the temple and (B) this action somehow lead to his arrest and death a few days later. The scholarly proposals focus on three issues:
(1) Economic Exploitation by the Religious Leaders: These powerful aristocrats were using the very dwelling place of God to oppress the peasant class of mostly tenant farmers who would come to the Temple to pay dues, make sacrifices to God and worship. These economic practices kept the bottom 95 percent in their place.
(2) The Violent Political Vocation of Jewish Rebels: Mark wrote his gospel about 40 years after the events of Jesus’ life. In about A.D. 70, Palestine was in a crisis of warfare and chaos as rebels stormed the temple to take it over from the Roman-Empire-collaborating religious leaders. These rebels were turning the vocation of Israel, “the light of the world,” into a violent people on the edge of the empire. In A.D. 70, the temple was destroyed by hordes of Roman soldiers who finally put down the rebellion. Jesus cites Jeremiah 7 during his temple protest. Here are some of the verses leading to the passage he quotes:
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever … Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. — Jer. 7:5-7, 11
“Robbers” is the Greek word lestes, which is more accurately translated “rebels” or “brigands,” groups of violently resisting marauders. The temple had become a hiding place for these rebel groups, whose violent solutions were contrary to God’s original vocation for Israel: a light to the nations.
(3) The Substitution of Worship for Justice: Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the prophets consistently call on Israel to pledge themselves to social justice for the most vulnerable members of their community. God’s people would naturally forsake the real notion of worship — reflecting God’s care for the oppressed and marginalized — for the sacrificial system and other worship traditions of the temple.
The key to interpreting this temple incident hovers around two aspects of Mark’s story-telling genius.
First, Mark “frames” this episode with figs:
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