Turning Tables

Matthew 21:12

And Yeshua entered The Temple of God and cast out all of those who sold and bought in The Temple and upset the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.

Jesus drives out the merchants - John 2:13-16

Jesus drives out the money changers

I am quite regularly irked by the ubiquitous response engendered by most any declaration of Yeshua being a loving presence in the world. Go almost anywhere online, where people of various theologies intersect, and you will find someone eventually points out this scene from Matthew’s Gospel as proof positive that Jesus had a violent streak, so why shouldn’t we? I’ve seen this story used to defend everything from the Occupy Wall Street movement to radical assertions of the writer’s Second Amendment rights. I am irked, but not surprised.

The predominant approach to scripture, at least in the culture of the United States, appears to be a literalistic, shallow, and unrelentingly superficial one, leading to an often unavoidable and unconscious cherry-picking of texts used to support a deeply eisegetical rendering of the scripture. Context, historical background, mythic proportion, language, metaphor, and voice are all jettisoned in favor of a quick, cheap, proof-text. Jesus went ballistic, therefore I can too.

An even slightly less literalistic view of this text will tell us that this was a consciously prophetic act, not an episode of road rage. This was much more of a #BlackLivesMatter moment of civil disobedience and much less a “He just made me so mad that I shot him,” kind of thing. This act, which you really have to admit is out of character for the Yeshua in the synoptics, is calculated in several ways. First and foremost, where it’s placed in Matthew tells us that this was a significant part of the Holy Week itinerary. Some would even say, and yes, I’m one of them, that Yeshua was goading the authorities into making an example of him. He was hardly on anyone’s radar until that last week when, at the height of usual Passover mishigas, he first rode into Jerusalem from Bethany on the back of a young colt (redolent of conquering emperors who have so vanquished their enemies that they no longer have need of a war horse), and then directly tweaking the noses of the Temple authorities by busting up the market place.

Additionally, Yeshua had a very specific complaint to launch against the Temple as a representative of YHWH on earth. He was vividly demonstrating the profound hypocrisy of the authorities. You see, the job of the money changers was to facilitate the trade in unblemished sacrificial animals by offering exchange services to all those people, from all over the Empire, who brought with them coins minted of various metals, with various skill, and of variable value. Many, if not most, of those coins held the graven image of a deified Emperor on at least one face. It was blasphemous on the Temple grounds, but tolerated in the spirit of expediency. Not only was blasphemy a charge that had occasionally been leveled at Yeshua himself, but it was these same Temple Authorities who regularly appeased the Roman hunger for bloody examples by leveling a charge of blasphemy at someone to justify their complicity. Not only was the commercial arena of the Temple driving much of its excesses, it was protecting itself from Roman predation by turning against its own people, throwing them to the wolves, and forcing even the poorest denizens of the Diaspora to participate in the system.

Yeshua was not simply giving in to his inner angry child, he was pointing out, in dramatic fashion, a disturbing truth about Temple religious practice that those in charge would rather have kept under wraps. It was an act of tremendous courage, not an act of anger or violent aggression. It got him killed.

We do not respond well when someone publically points out our deepest hypocrisies, shines a light on our darkest secrets, or holds a mirror up to expose our most glaring faults. Yet, that is exactly what happens in the company of Yeshua. It happens in love, and without intentional violence, but it isn’t possible to walk very far on the spiritual path before Yeshua begins to turn over the tables in our carefully constructed temples.

About revjtomgough

In the more than 30 years I have spent in parish ministry, I have held a wide range of related interests and theological foci. From Process Theology, Creation Theology, and Liberation Theology, to spiritual practices, Celtic Christianity, and World Religious Traditions. I have learned a great deal about a very few things. Otherwise, I'm not especially interesting.
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