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March 23, 2003

Turning Over the Tables of Injustice

(John 2:13-25)

Many of us would probably prefer if Jesus were more like Buddha and the Dalai Lama, sitting in the lotus position, telling us that God loves us, and leaving it at that, but Jesus I think goes much farther. He serves the poor in Galilee, and then marches to Jerusalem, and when he gets there, according to Luke, he breaks down crying saying, "If today you had only understood the things that make for peace," and then, he walks into the Temple, turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out the oxen and sheep in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, this nonviolent direct action results immediately in his arrest, trial, torture and execution.

John places this episode at the beginning of his Gospel, describing Jesus as a troublemaker from the get-go. For the rest of his life, the authorities are out to kill him.

Why does Jesus make such a scene and what does this mean for us his followers?

The Temple system was the ultimate imperial and religious institution of injustice; a huge building like the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol, White House, and National Cathedral all rolled into one. Jews believed that God lived there, so once a year at Passover, you had to go there and offer sacrifice to God.

But the Pharisees and scribes, working with the empire, had a total scam going, and made a fortune off the poor in the name of God. Each year at Passover, the population of Jerusalem jumped from 50,000 to 180,000. 18,000 lambs were slaughtered in the Temple. The poor had to buy expensive doves if they wanted to offer sacrifice to God, but because the Roman coins had the face of Caesar on them, the authorities set up a bank so that people could change their idolatrous Roman money into Temple money, then buy the expensive doves and worship God correctly.

Jesus will have none of it. He simply cannot tolerate injustice, especially in the name of God. He can't stand oppression of the poor. He cannot allow unjust structures and institutionalized violence to rob and kill people, so he confronts this unjust structure head on.

Jesus does not merely want lower prices for the poor. He's not trying to help us get a good deal on doves. He does not try to reform the Temple. He overturns the tables of the money changers, gets rid of the animals and calls for an end to the entire cultic system. He is upset that God's house has become a Walmart. This is the boldest political statement in the entire Bible, the culmination of his lifelong obedience to God and civil disobedience to imperial and religious injustice.

When I studied John's Gospel in theology school, the professor said that, according to the original Greek, only John describes Jesus making a cord of ropes, but that this type of cord would have been typical when driving out cattle, sheep and oxen. The actual word is that he "expelled" them from the Temple.
I do not read in the Gospel that Jesus hurt anyone or killed anyone. We certainly cannot conclude that because Jesus expelled the moneychangers, we can wage war, drop bombs or make nuclear weapons. Jesus is still the same person who said he is "gentle and humble of heart," "the way, the truth, and the life," who calls us to love one another and love your enemies. I don't envision Jesus yelling, screaming and getting angry. I see him like Dr. King, peacefully, calming walking into the park in Birmingham, breaking the segregation laws, getting arrested, and bringing down the system of segregation; or Mahatma Gandhi, peacefully, calming, walking to the sea, picking up the illegal salt, breaking the salt laws, getting arrested and bringing down the entire British Empire and its unjust rule over India.

Jesus is definitely not passive or quiet or apolitical in the face of institutionalized injustice. He is active, challenging, daring, provocative, scandalous, a total troublemaker, who engages in illegal, criminal activity. If you do this kind of thing, you will be arrested and killed. This is the guy we follow!

If Jesus is so zealous for God and God's house and God's justice, if he is so disturbed about injustice in the Temple and gives his life marching to Jerusalem to confront unjust structures which oppress the poor, what does this mean for us his followers?

I think it means we have to try to seek justice and publicly resist injustice. There a million ways to pursue justice, and we all have to get involved and publicly pursue justice for all people, and confront the structures of injustice and institutionalized violence.

New Mexico is the poorest state in the United States so that might mean calling for better salaries for our teachers, better schools, free healthcare for everyone, good jobs, affordable housing, and a cleaner environment.

New Mexico is also number one in nuclear bombs and military spending, and I think Jesus would be turning over tables at Los Alamos and dismantling weapons here in New Mexico and everywhere, so we should call for the closing of Los Alamos, Sandia and Kirkland, and the Pentagon as well.

Certainly this passionate, zealous, nonviolent Jesus would be against our unjust, evil war on the people of Iraq, this sad, insane, demonic bombing of the poor people, which on Friday the Vatican called simply a crime.

I think this troublemaking Jesus, like the Pope, would be on the side of the millions of protesters around the world taking to the streets, speaking out against the U.S. bombing of Iraq, condemning such injustice and we should too.

The last thing to note is that when the authorities start objecting to Jesus, he alludes to the resurrection. It makes me think that Jesus always has the long haul perspective of eternal life in mind, that he keeps God's house, God's reign, God's justice, God's peace first and foremost in his mind, so he acts regardless of the consequences here and now, regardless of what people think, regardless of what might happen to him personally. He is determined to be faithful to God and God's reign and God's justice and peace, come what may, because he keeps his eye on the resurrection. That should be our attitude too as we follow him in seeking an end to this war and every form of injustice anywhere and everywhere.

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