We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.
Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests. Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim. I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office. I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture. Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet. Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.
Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.
This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running. I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system. The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system. That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary. If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought. Stay tuned.
Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood. The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus. The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians. It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.
A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria. If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders. After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew. Amazing! Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.
The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple. Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13). Passover is one of the high holy days. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.
Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far. When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes. He sees the moneychangers at work. They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels. And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off? Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.
Jesus goes ballistic. He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop. He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip. Does he actually flog those fellows? St. Augustine thought so. He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.” When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.
On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war. “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”
Others have a more nuanced perspective. After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice. There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.” James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices… Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”
Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle. This all might have been premeditated. Maybe it was to make a point. That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character. And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent. No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area. The Romans had their own security measures.
As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”
That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding. (A lethal weapon, it was not.) Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system. The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”
He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.
Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals? In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.
He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).
To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth. There isn’t much there about killing animals. Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness. God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.
We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16). Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah. It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord. The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies. On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred. What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).
Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary? The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?
Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope. Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system. In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18). The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone. It shows that God is behind this.
They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.
The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11). His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54). So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.
Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). Aha! One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard. He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again. He’s threatening to blow up the temple!” Of course, they misunderstand him. He’s referring to the temple that is his body. This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.
I hope we realize that we all are temples. As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God. That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity. In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.
The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25). Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans. It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God. People fail. People fail us, and we fail them. It’s just reality. Jesus puts his faith in God.
On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide. We subconsciously want each other to be God. Our love falls short.
On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?” It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love. He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.
Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system. He goes in with eyes open. It’s not that he hates the system. He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way. He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better. Jesus wants them to risk being more. He dares them to be more. He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.
Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions. The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system. That in itself is a very good thing. Systems are good.
Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system. Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens. We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary. We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society. It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.
Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other. They become harmful and not helpful.
That’s when the prophetic spirit is required. It challenges; it seeks to go deeper. As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system. However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.
The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system. What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.” Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either… Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”
Think of it. Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?
Being in the system means having learned how it operates. Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it. It means not being able to visualize something new, something different. Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath. He healed people on the Sabbath. He was working! Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.
May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not? There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that. I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place. There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.
If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?” It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking! It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Love exacts a high price. Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.
What is it about our temples that need cleansing?
Are we carrying on with business as usual? Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans? All of that is part of the work of God. All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.
May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.
 Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.