The artistic renderings of the Jesus “Cleansing the Temple” (John 2:13-22) are not pretty pictures of Jesus, or the Temple or the people in it. Maybe they are not accurate either.
Jesus was a Temple-goer.
The Temple played an important role in the life of Jews like Jesus. It was, as Jesus said, God’s dwelling place. (Mtt.23:21.) It was a place for public prayers and various rites of purification, consecration and dedication. Above all, it was the place to offer the many forms of sacrifice which were required by the Law.
As a baby Jesus was dedicated in the Temple. (Lk. 2:22-23) As a twelve-year-old Jesus overstayed the family’s pilgrimage visit and was found in the Temple with the rabbis. (Lk. 2:42-46.) As an adult, Jesus healed a leper and told him to present himself at the Temple and offer the appropriate sacrifice (Mk.1:40-44.) And Jesus taught others to hold off on offering their sacrifice until they had reconciled with their neighbor. (Mtt.5:23-25.) He taught in the Temple himself. (Lk. 19:47.)
The local economy depended on the Temple.
Although many Jews lived far away from Jerusalem, in communities in Babylonia and Egypt, they still valued their spiritual connection to the Temple. Some paid an annual half-shekel tax which, in Jesus’ day, was a main revenue stream for the Temple. Many made pilgrimage to the Temple, giving rise to annual culturally-diverse festivals in Jerusalem and an economy founded on meeting the needs of thousands of pilgrims.
Was Jesus a critic?
Any institution as massive and central as the Temple is going to have critics. Arguably, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was criticizing the priests who managed the main business of the Temple – the sacrifices -- for having an overdeveloped sense of when to prioritize their ritual purity. In fact, it was their job and calling to maintain that purity, and a lot of other jobs depended on them doing theirs properly.
So, Jesus may have had criticisms, but he did not denounce the Temple or commerce in general or the Temple’s sacrificial system in particular.
Did Jesus threaten to destroy the Temple?
Probably not. In John, he speculated as to what would happen if someone destroyed it. In Matthew and Mark, he was falsely accused of the making the threat during his appearance before the Chief Priest and the priests’ council, (Mtt.26:58-61 and Mk. 14:55-59.) In fact, it was probably the Chief Priest and the priests’ council who Matthew and Mark falsely accused of accusing Jesus.
Did Jesus drive out animals and overturn tables?
Maybe. In light of the enormity of the Temple operations, such an act would have been little more than a symbolic protest. Maybe he was protesting. And maybe he just lost his temper.
Forty years after that day in the Temple, in 70 C.E. the Roman army destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in order to end an armed insurrection had begun four years earlier.
The better way.
Once armed conflict begins, it takes on a life of its own. Violence is unmanageable. It destroys what we love along with what we hate. People. A Temple. A government. That’s worth remembering as we listen to right-wing gun-lovers play at or prepare for violent revolution.
It may well be that Jesus lost his temper in the Temple on the day he turned over the tables. If so, he apparently learned a lesson from it. He didn’t lose his temper again, even when confronted with the power of the Roman state and on trial for his life. He was following what Howard Thurman would later call the way of unarmed resistance.
The way of unarmed resistance requires that one master the quality of one’s own inner life.
“If a [person] knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet [s] he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then [you] can always [be kept] under subjection.”
As Jesus said, the realm of God is within us. That’s where the work is too.
“You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea – Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy...”
Thurman was writing in 1949 to African-Americans and all those who stood with their back to the walls – “the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” Today, whether we are Black Americans facing down job discrimination, police brutality and voter suppression or White Americans learning to see our reliance on White Supremacy, it is still the case that the work of transforming the world begins with the work of transforming our inner selves.
It is no small task. It is not an easy calling. And today, as in Jesus’ time, it still takes faith to believe that it is the better way.
Art: Scarsellino, “Driving of the Merchants from the Temple,” 1580-1585. Google Art Project, Public Domain.