March 23, 2003
Turning Over the Tables
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
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
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
Close this window.