In John, one of Jesus’ first dramatic acts is to cause a riot in the temple:
Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
In the other three gospels, Jesus waits until his final week to riot in the temple. In John, he kicks off his ministry with this protest.
Caveat #1: This tends to be a go-to story for authoritarian Christians who really like the image of Christ using a whip on sinners. You can tell a lot about someone’s theology by the context in which they deploy this story and whether they ever connect it to other kinds of public protest: Black Lives Matter, for example, or Occupy Wall Street. If someone uses this story to illustrate “how much God hates sin,” then you know they see Jesus as a riot policeman with a baton—not a revolutionary of love. Tellingly, the text never says he used the whip on people, but only on sheep and cattle. He did pour money on the floor and flip tables, but the action he takes toward people is speech: “Take these things out of here.” He never hits anyone.
Caveat #2: These were not kids trying to raise money for a mission trip by holding a bake sale at the door of the church. It helps to know some context. Members of the priestly class could rent space at the temple to make money on the side. Because the priests also judged which animals were worthy to be sacrificed, it was a bit like going to a movie theater or a ball game where no outside food is permitted. In that context, you know your favorite watered-down carbonated fizzy drink will be five dollars, and a candy bar will require a second mortgage. Sacrificial animals could cost ten times the fair rate. So, no, this is nothing like fundraising for the youth group. I’ve heard adult congregation members complain about youth group fundraising by using this scripture, and it makes me want to use a whip on the adults.
This text is a warning about the the way our religion becomes institutionalized: Religious profiteers will certainly try to hijack your mission and distort your values. They will take your focus off of love of God and love of neighbor in order to make a buck. The proper response is to make it impossible for them to do business.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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