"13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken."
Growing up, I encountered two kinds of authority figures, two kinds of teachers. One was the kind you’d roll your eyes at when they told you to push your chairs in at the lunch table, the one you’d giggle about with your friends in a tight circle on the playground: this teacher’s ill-fitting wig, that teacher’s too-short pleated Dockers pants, that one time a bee flew up her skirt and she wriggled and danced and hollered like a little girl.
And then there was this other kind. This kind of teacher who commanded your respect. They were quiet. They were patient. They were kid magnets and got you to do your best work. And whom you were terrified to disappoint.
Just one disappointed look from Mrs. Dowling, my fifth grade teacher, and I was a puddle on the floor, a wreckage of shame and guilt, and ready to make it up to her, to do my best so as not to disappoint her again. These are the quiet authorities, the ones who didn’t have to give you detention or make you write lines or assign you extra homework in order for you to shape up. You strove to show how much you loved and respected them by doing your very best - from memorizing your state capitals to studying for the spelling bee - you wanted to do your very best for Mrs. Dowling. I think it’s because I knew she loved me. I couldn’t disappoint her because I knew that she really cared about me.
I like to think of Jesus this way. The one who held his authority quietly, who demanded respect not because he could rain down asteroids from the sky but because one disappointed look from him would crush you, would make you want to try again and do better, prove to him that you could be better. And then even as you tried and tried, he’d still be there, saying, “Jenn, calm down, I forgave you the first time!” But I’d still want to recite my times tables even faster for Him.
And let me tell you, if I saw Jesus in the Temple, overturning the tables and knocking over the stacks of bird cages, I think I might shit my pants. I think I might duck and cover and wait until the rage had passed. It’d be like watching Mrs. Dowling rip up our notebooks and break all our number two pencils into tiny pieces, it’d be that horrifying.
We like to think of the blonde, wavy-haired, blue-eyed, meek and mild Jesus. We hang pictures of that Jesus on our walls, or the Jesus where the kids are climbing all over him and he’s laughing all genial and welcoming.
But this Jesus. Oh snap. They just got TOLD.
We don’t get very many images of a God who’s pissed. And if we do, we write that God off as “the God of the Old Testament” not the God of now - as if there were two Gods, or as if God suffered from a split personality disorder.
It used to be that that kind of god freaked me out. That god was primal, simple, and frightening. That god wasn’t a real god, the one you’d make live sacrifices to, or wear hair shirts for, or hang virgins from cliffs in order to appease their wrath.
That is, until I visited the Kali Temple in Kolkata, India.
If you’re not familiar with her, Kali is one of the most terrifying deities in the whole Hindu pantheon. She is depicted with her tongue hanging out, with a ring of mens heads strung like pearls around her neck, and in one hand, she holds a bowl of blood, a guy’s head in another, a bloody sword in another, and the sign of peace with her fourth hand. To top it all off, she is standing on top of a defeated man - usually depicted as the god Shiva.
This is a god you don’t want to mess with. She is terrifying and is all about getting vengeance. People sacrifice goats to her - the purer and blacker the goat, the better.
Why on earth would anyone worship this deity?
Is it simply out of fear?
I don’t think so. When I watched Kali’s devotees entering and leaving the temple, they didn’t look particularly scared. They looked peaceful. At rest. And they all looked poor, bedraggled, world-worn.
You see, Kali is the god who is powerful for those who have no power. She is the god who kicks ass and takes names. All for the sake of the little guy, of the widow who has been abandoned by her family, of the child born with a disability, of the beggar who wanders the streets all night. People don’t worship her out of fear. They worship her because she is there to save them from the powers and the corruption and the world that has beaten them down.
She is there to kick the asses of the powerful because they have exploited the weak.
And I think Jesus is tracking a little bit of Kali in this story. I think Jesus is ransacking the temple for the sake of the little guy, for the ones who get swindled out of their savings for the sake of the temple tax and to “pay” for the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus is there to demand justice for the poor folks who have walked miles and miles out of religious devotion only to give their life savings away to some guys in purple cloaks waving incense and smearing blood over the altar.
And I think this is awesome. Way to go Jesus! Stand up for the little guy! Way to stick it to the man! I love being a Christian because my God is the God of justice for the poor and disenfranchised. Until…I try to put myself in the story...
Because the folks sitting at the dove booth and selling the unblemished rams and exchanging the coins and collecting the Temple tax - they’re all just cogs in the system. They have been swept up by the whole thing and for the sake of their own survival they have been dragged along by the current.
They thought they were doing the right thing. They thought they were fulfilling God’s commands, in the most practical, sensible way. You needed the moneychangers to exchange the Roman coins with the picture of Nero on them for temple coins that did not claim that Nero was the “Son of God.”
You needed the marketers to offer unblemished animals - people were coming from far and wide to offer sacrifices, and they couldn’t bring their animals with them - at least not and keep them “unblemished.” They were doing their part to keep the system going. And the system is good, they thought. It’s important. It’s worth our life savings.
They have been exploiting the weak. But not in huge, obvious ways. But in ways of quiet passivity.
One day you see that Walmart has apples for half the price of your local farmer, so you buy those. Another day you’re so hungry and your blood sugar is so low you’re shaking, so you stop at the McDonald’s. The clothes on the Macy’s clearance rack are cheaper than the Goodwill, so why not buy from there?
Your baby falls asleep in his carseat, so you leave the engine running, even after you’ve reached your destination. You need to save for retirement, so you put your money in a general 401k, and try not to worry about what large corporation is benefitting from your investment.
I’m the guy exchanging the Roman coins for the Temple coins. I’m the one who buys the dove to sacrifice on the altar for the forgiveness of sins and continues to support a broken system.
It’s my table that Jesus is overturning.
A God of vengeance is great — until we figure out that we aren’t the victims. We are part of a system, we’ve been swept up by the commercialism and the fear and the consumerism and we’re just treading water, trying to survive.
I love what Jesus does, when the temple authorities question him. “Who do you think you are?” they ask. Give us a sign, prove to us that you have a right to do these things, to cause such a ruckus, to overturn this paradigm that we’ve set up for ourselves.
“Give us a sign,” they demand.
And Jesus doesn’t, really. He throws it back on them. He puts the responsibility for change back on them. “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it back up,” he says.
Tear it all down. Tear down everything you thought you needed. Tear down your role in the system, tear down the lies that you’ve bought in to, tear down your participation in the oppression of the poor. Tear down all the things you think you need.
And then I’ll rebuild it.
I’ll rebuild you.
By overturning the tables and whipping the sheep out of the Temple, Jesus is pulling a tiny thread from the system. And this tiny thread is the beginning of the unravelling of the whole thing. This is a major paradigm shift. This is a radical step outside of anything these folks have ever known or imagined.
And it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying that my participation in the system has disappointed Jesus. That he’s going to look at me with that look.
But what are we going to do now?
Will we tear down our old systems of oppression and dominance and achievement and manipulation and let Jesus build us up again?
Do we dare shift our paradigm so completely that we knock down everything we thought we wanted and achieved and earned, and then wait those terrifying three days to see what Jesus builds back again?
I’m at the point in my life now, where I don’t think I have any other choice.
Thanks be to God.