This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Costly Discipleship.” For more stories on this theme, see the June issue of The Mennonite, available here.
The authority of Jesus has everything to do with the questions we allow his life to pose to our lives. And what becomes clear as we read through John’s Gospel is that Jesus is an economic misfit. His life should make us uncomfortable with money.
Jesus is a Jew, part of God’s people. As a faithful Jew, he takes a trip to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover, the festival that remembers Israel’s slavery in Egypt and God’s salvation from the shackles of bondage, freedom from their forced labor, liberation from their economic exploitation (John 2:13).
When he arrives in Jerusalem—walking through the crowded city, all the streets leading up to the Temple—Jesus joins the throngs of people gathered for worship, for prayer and sacrifices (2:14). Some of the people live in the city and the surrounding villages. Others are pilgrims, making long journeys to get to the city, to the temple, traveling from distant lands, Jews displaced from their homeland by Roman occupation, Jews in exile throughout the Roman empire. Passover is their homecoming. They have come to offer sacrifices, rituals of prayer glorifying God.
The people who live in the area can bring their own animals or perhaps barter with a neighbor or buy from a local friend—a calf, a lamb, a dove, whatever they can afford. But the travelers, the people of God scattered throughout the Roman empire—they have to buy what they can when they arrive, and they have to use the local currency. They depend on the price set by the merchants, the sheep venders, the bird sellers and the moneychangers who set the exchange rate and decide how much foreign coins are worth in Jerusalem (2:14).
If no one watches any of this—the way the buying and selling work out on the ground, the relationship between temple and the economy, the sacrificial system and the local economy—the way all this is set up, this religious arrangement, makes it easy to take advantage of the faithful pilgrims. They would have to pay too much to practice their faith. The system exploits piety. Too many people are making a lot of money off worship—off people like Jesus perhaps. After all, Jesus comes from Nazareth, a town miles and miles from Jerusalem, up north in Galilee.
Jesus is in the crowds streaming through the alleys toward the temple, all of them converging in the temple courts, the area surrounding the temple. When he finally winds his way through the city, up the steps—when he finally sees the temple, he is filled with anger, enraged with holy zeal, furious at the sight of merchants. Watching Jesus, the disciples recall the words of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Holy anger courses through his veins as he makes a whip. Zealous devotion pulses in his hands as he overturns the tables, spilling money on the sidewalks.
He is like the prophet spoken of long ago in the book of Jeremiah: “Has this house become a den of robbers in your sight?” God asks the prophet. Therefore “stand in the gate of the Lord’s house,” God says, “and proclaim there this word [to the people], saying, ‘If you truly act justly one with another, if you don not oppress the alien, then I will dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:1-2, 5-7, 11). Jesus is that kind of Jewish prophet, calling for justice in the household of God—and not just calling for justice but enacting it, putting God’s words into action. Jesus is God’s word made flesh, John says at the beginning of the Gospel. That’s what we see here, in this story, God’s word of justice made flesh, God’s righteousness made flesh—the zeal of the Lord consuming the body of Jesus in this scene at the temple.
What happens in this passage early in his ministry is a very Jewish thing for Jesus to do. He isn’t criticizing the piety of his people as they seek to pray in the temple. He isn’t calling for the end of sacrifices, of worship practices, of the holy liturgies and rituals of his people. Instead he’s angry at the power brokers of the economy, the money-hungry capitalists doing anything for a profit—his anger at the marketplace insinuating itself into the holiness of worship. So Jesus comes with a whip (2:15).
Since we’re a peace church, part of the Mennonite tradition, we should think about what it means for Jesus here, to teach us the implications of our commitment to nonviolence. Jesus weaves cords into a whip, yes, but he doesn’t attack anyone with it. Instead he drives out the animals: “He drove all of them out of the temple,” it says, “both the sheep and the cattle” (John 2:15). He becomes a shepherd, herding cattle. And Jesus doesn’t threaten the moneychangers with death or physical harm; he destroys their tables and scatters their money. Jesus doesn’t hurt people, but he does damage the marketplace, vandalizing property, redistributing animals and coins into the crowds.
I think of Jesus cracking his whip and throwing tables whenever protesters turn their holy rage against buildings—like in Fergusson, Mo., a few years ago now, the people’s righteous hunger for justice consuming the city, their outrage at the racism of the city’s police force.
The challenge in this scene at the temple is to consider what’s worth getting angry about—letting some of that same spirit of Jesus consume us, lead us to overturn tables.
I like what Heracleon wrote in his commentary on these verses in the second century after Christ’s death: “The whip is an image of the power and activity of the Holy Spirit.” It’s the Spirit of God, unleashed in Jesus as he disrupts the marketplace in the temple courts.
And here’s Origen, the great biblical theologian of the third century, explaining the story: “Are there not some money-changers sitting here who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of the small cords, and dealers in small coin who require their money to be poured out and their tables overturned?”[i]
With this confrontation at the temple marketplace at the beginning of John’s Gospel we learn that there’s something wrong with money. It’s a theme that lurks in the background of the story of Jesus, appearing here and there, like with Judas, the betrayer, the man in charge of the common purse. And there’s his confrontation with the woman who spends a fortune on precious oil to wash the feet of Jesus: “Wasteful,” Judas says. But to waste money on others seems to be the right kind of economic exchange, a refusal of wealth’s desire to take over lives, the way the logic of money, profits, greed, wanting more and more sneaks into everything, into all parts of life, even the temple, even worship. In John 2, Jesus is a one-man riot, vandalizing property, redistributing animals and coins into the crowd, a protest against the marketplace creeping into the temple.
That must be what’s at the heart of Jesus’ pious anger—that money (the logic of money, the way money makes us think) has come so close to worship, that buying and selling has wormed its way into how people understand their relationship to God, that the market has colonized the temple.
Economic exchange is all about turning hard work into money and using that money to buy something needed or wanted, or investing finances for a future, for something we want years from now, dreams to work for. And it’s easy for us to think about God this way—to think of worship as payment to God, to think about faith as an investment, faith as buying the life we want, with the currency of morality as the payment our faith makes to God. Perhaps faith is our monthly contribution into a retirement account for eternal life, faith as investments for our future in heaven, to reserve a room with a view.
Economic exchange is our world; it contains our world inside it; it possesses our lives. We can’t escape it—the need to buy this, to sell that, the realities of work and bills, of debts and investments. Money always lurks behind the scenes, always under the surface, perhaps ignored now, but will make its presence known later, in our calculations about jobs and relationships and time.
Money is a power that grabs us, consumes us, colonizes our minds, distorting how we see other people, how we receive or reject strangers and foreigners, and, ultimately, how we understand our relationship with God. Soon we start talking about people as being valuable—this person as more valuable than that person, because of a skill they have, an educational achievement, because of their family name or their wealth. Soon we start thinking about God as valuable—because of what we think God can give us.
And Jesus will have none of this, when it comes to worship, when it comes to the household of God. He makes a whip and flips tables, scattering money and cattle and sheep and doves everywhere. Jesus rejects anything that gets in the way of God’s love—that’s what the temple in Jerusalem is all about, a sign of God’s presence of love. It’s a fierce love, defending the pilgrims, the foreigners, the poor. Jesus, wrecking the marketplace, is what God’s love looks like, love made flesh. The invitation of Scripture is to let this Jesus into your church, into your life, into your budget—and to watch him redistribute our money into the streets, to discover our liberation in the wasteful abundance of grace.
Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Church.
[i] Heracleon quoted in Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 10.212-214, and Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 10.16.
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