I have a verse tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: James 1:19-20. If you look it up, you’ll read this: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. But sometimes God’s righteousness produces anger. “We boil at different degrees,” said Clint Eastwood, and apparently Jesus reached his boiling point in the temple’s outer courtyard, the Courtyard of the Gentiles, as he moved among the moneychangers and people selling livestock for sacrifices, and all kinds of other things. He made a whip of cords and drove the cattle and sheep out of the temple courtyard. He told those selling doves, the offering for poor people, to take them away. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers. And as he did all this he yelled, “Stop! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
It can’t have been a surprise to Jesus that all this commercial enterprise was happening at the temple. Animals were needed for the sacrifices and it was impractical to expect pilgrims traveling from far places to bring their own with them. Salt, oil and wine were also needed. Torah required these things.
A large open space like the Courtyard of the Gentiles would have seemed like a perfectly logical place to set up a marketplace to provide the things necessary for the rites of the temple, and as long as you’re selling those things, why not sell other things, too?
In fact, it was well known throughout Palestine that the temple was in business for business. There was nothing unusual about that. It was the same at every temple in the ancient world. Between supplying the needs of the sacrifice system and catering to the pilgrims who thronged there, the Jerusalem temple provided employment for a wide variety of people including curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, animal handlers, and dung removers. And nobody seemed too bothered by it because the people in the ancient world didn’t make the same distinctions between secular and sacred that we make.
So why is Jesus so upset? Is it because all this commerce is somehow tarnishing the holiness of the temple? Or was there something else going on?
Remember that for Jesus, the real concern in any situation is always first and foremost people. It’s hard to imagine that he really cares all that much about the temple per se, but you can bet he cares a lot about the people who come to that building to worship and pray.
All this commotion happens in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the one place in the temple grounds where Gentiles are allowed to be. This is where they can catch a glimpse of some of the beauty that lies deeper inside. This is where they can have instruction from rabbis and learn about Israel’s God and God’s Torah. This is where they can become proselytes or converts. This is where they can pray. But it’s hard to do any of that in the noise and crowd of a marketplace with sheep and goats bleating and bulls bellowing and people dickering over prices or exchange rates.
So Jesus is probably concerned for the Gentiles who are being squeezed out of the one place designated for them. But he’s also concerned about something else. He’s concerned that the whole system is bleeding the life out of every day Judeans and Galileans and pilgrims from the diaspora who come to the temple out of obligation as the law commands. He’s concerned because they’re the victims of racketeering and price-fixing.
Many of the commercial interests being conducted at the temple belonged to the family of Anas, the high priest. Josephus, the first-century historian, called Anas “the great procurer.” What Anas and his family don’t own directly, they license, driving up the prices of every item or animal sold.
And then there are the moneychangers, the ancient equivalent of bankers. Not only did they exchange Greek or Roman money for Jewish or Tyrian coins, the only kind that were acceptable in the temple, they also dealt in general currency transactions and secured notes for properties. These temple moneychangers were street level representatives of powerful banking institutions whose interests, in many cases, went far beyond Jerusalem. You could think of these tables that Jesus overturns as little marketplace kiosks for Chase, or Wells Fargo or B of A.
We like to think of this angry episode as Jesus displaying a surprising moment of religious zeal. Certainly there is an element of that and we’re steered in that direction in John’s gospel by the disciples remembering the words of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” However much we might want to think of this as a religious or spiritual act, however, the fact remains that Jesus is making a powerful political and economic statement with his actions. He is hitting the power structure of the temple right in the pocketbook, a structure that is allied with the political structure of Jerusalem. The temple is good business and Rome won’t like this disruption any more than Anas. This action will have consequences. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, anger is only one letter away from danger.
When Jesus said, “Stop!” he was in perfect alignment with the prophets who had been saying the same thing for centuries. Isaiah said it as he stood before the doors of the temple more than 700 years before:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Micah repeats the same message:
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The prophet Hosea was even more pointed in his condemnation of Israel’s failed stewards of authority:
Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house.
I will love them no more; all their officials are rebels.
All of these words of the prophets were surely in Jesus’ mind as he cleared the market out of the temple. They were surely in the minds of the rabbis, priests and scribes, too, which might be one reason why they didn’t arrest him on the spot. Instead they asked for a sign. He was speaking and acting like a prophet. And prophets perform signs. It didn’t occur to them that they had just seen a sign that was perfectly in keeping with the prophetic tradition. Still, Jesus gave them another sign. An enigmatic sign. Tear down this temple, he said, and in three days I will raise it up again.
Bede Jarrett, the Dominican Friar and author once said, “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” Sometimes I think that’s right, but as Aristotle said, “Anybody can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.”
Jesus was angry. But he was angry in the right way at the right time and for the right reasons. And, well… he’s Jesus. When he said “Stop!” it was the voice of God saying it.
Jesus was trying to stop a religious, political and economic triumvirate that was reinforcing ethnic, caste and class divisions and squeezing the poor into perpetual poverty. God had been speaking to that system for centuries, telling them a day of reckoning was coming. In the year 70 that reckoning finally arrived and the Romans destroyed the temple.
From time to time, God says to those who know how to listen, “Stop.” Stop. Look at what you’re doing in my name and how you’re doing it. Look at how you’re living. Listen to what you’re saying. Listen to how you’re saying it. Listen to the words you’re putting in my mouth. Stop.
Sometimes God says it through angry prophets. Sometimes God says it through the sweeping movement of politics as the Babylons and Assyrias and Romes of history sweep across God’s people.
Sometimes God says it with a whip made of cords while driving poor, dumb animals out of the temple courtyard and pouring out the money on the ground.
And I can’t help but wonder if God hasn’t said it to us… with a pandemic.
Jesus, in the aftermath of his anger was still trying to teach.
Tear down this building, he said. The Holy One is not in the lovely building. The Holy One is in the people who gather, in a body, a building that forever rebuilds itself. The acceptable sacrifice is not the poor dumb animals or the bread and wine, it is justice and equity. It is food for the hungry. It is a people who care for each other. It is kindness.
Maybe this past year has been God’s way of telling us to Stop… to leave our house of worship where we hope and expect Christ will come to us, so we can more fully embody Christ and follow Jesus out into the world.
 Isaiah 1:11-15
 Micah 6:6-8
 Hosea 9:15