The Politics of Passion Week—Casting out the Moneychangers
March 21, 2016 § 3 Comments
Jesus raids the temple treasury
Directly from the royal processional to the city gates, Jesus and his exultant followers go to the temple gates and one of the most extraordinary events in Jesus’ ministry begins: he raids the temple treasury. Picture the scene:
A crowd arrives at the gate of the Temple with their leader at the head. They are singing, “This is the gate that belongs to Yahweh; let the righteous/triumphant enter through it” (Ps 118:20). The demonstrators stream into the Temple court behind Jesus, who advances to the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he grabs the planks and heaves them over.
In a clatter of wings, the doves ascend into heaven from their shattered cages. The four-legged animals get jittery, bleating and lowing nervously and pressing against their pens in increasing panic. Accounting records fall beneath the tables and underfoot, splintering clay tablets, smearing ink, tearing parchment and vellum. Coins splash onto the pavement and roll away. Servants trying to escape with the vessels full of money are intercepted.
Over the shouting and laughing and hymn singing, Jesus harangues the merchants, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah in their faces and literally herding them toward the gates of the court with a cattle whip.
…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.
While Jesus is pronouncing his oracle of judgment against the thieving oppressors of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and dismantling the infrastructure of their oppression—what are his followers doing? When the gospel is for the poor, and the Jubilee relieves debt, and the kingship of God replaces the mastership of Mammon, of wealth gained through thievery, force and privilege—certainly, the crowds are swooping on the rolling coins with a whoop and stuffing them into their pockets. Certainly, the vessels Jesus intercepts are full of money, or they soon are filled with money. Surely, the accounting records are deliberately trampled, just as tax and debt records were and will be destroyed by other peasant uprisings in Israel’s history. Perhaps the twelve watch for the inevitable police intervention, maybe stacking tables in front of the doors, or helping to keep the money-gathering operation a systematic pillage on behalf of the poor and watching that no one pockets a personal take.
Matthew and Mark tell us that, after inciting a riot, Jesus remained in the Temple precincts, teaching the people while the Temple authorities plotted ways to kill him. Hard to imagine, unless the crowd was large and totally on his side. This is easy to imagine. Furthermore, the passage Jesus had quoted from Jeremiah against the rulers explicitly condemned violence against innocents in the temple and many there could personally remember when just this atrocity had occurred during a tax rebellion under Quirinius in 6 CE.
So Jesus stole from the rich and the emperor and gave to the poor. While Jesus’ actions and the Bible passages he uses to support his demonstration emphasize the political and, especially, the economic thrust of the action, Jesus also clearly intends to ‘cleanse’ the temple of its idolatrous and polluting elements; or, to put it more accurately, the two are the same thing: theft from the poor is idolatry, for Jesus, as it was for Jeremiah and other prophets before him.
To reinforce this meaning of ‘cleansing’, the evangelists use the language of exorcism to tell the story. Jesus “drives out” the moneychangers, the same word (ekballein) and the same action as “casting out” unclean spirits. As an exorcism, the cleansing of the temple stands as a hallmark case of our enriched definition of possession as assimilation to Greco-Roman culture and its greed and lust for power (Mt 20:25-28). And “casting out” meant rejecting the way of the world and taking care of each other; it often meant being cast out of temple, synagogue or even one’s own home.
Jesus made the economic dimension of exorcism and the exorcistic dimension of radical economic reconstruction explicit with the story of binding the strong man. As Ched Meyers has pointed out in Binding the Strong Man, this parable and the action in the court against the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists use the same word for the “vessels” of the temple as for the “household goods” of the parable. In the story of the cleansing, these vessels were the coffers used to cart the money into the temple. The “house” of the strong man in the parable is the House of the Lord of Isaiah 56:7.
Jesus told the story of the strong man to legitimize his authority to cast out demons. Jesus casts out spirits by the Holy Spirit as the legitimate head of the true, undivided house of God. The temple, as the illegitimate House of the Lord, is divided—against the poor, especially—and therefore cannot stand.
The cleansing episode describes an act of political-economic liberation. The temple is released from the demonic possession of usurious oppressors—and the money of the oppressors is released to the oppressed from whom they’ve stolen it. The den of thieves has been liberated—by a crowd of counter-thieves. Jesus here acts as a 1st century Robin Hood in the quintessential pattern of the peasant uprising, motivated as was so often the case with such uprisings in ancient Judea, by religion.
But, as with so many of Jesus’ actions and parables, the ‘cleansing of the temple’ expresses a paradox; they turn his religious-political tradition on its head. For if the house of the strong man is the temple and Jesus is the binder, then the Son of Man is the thief. In order to bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those who are bound (Lk 4:18), the anointed one must bind the strong man (the rulers of the temple-state) and cast out the thieves who oppress the poor.
Meanwhile, of course, these money-changers must certainly have run to the rulers of the temple, and the Roman guards on watch from the bastions of the Tower of Antonia must have seen the riot below and mobilized a unit for crowd control.
Matthew implies that Jesus stayed long enough to heal the blind and the lame and to dispute with the chief priests and teachers of the law about the crowd’s (the children’s) acclaims of Hosanna to the Son of David. Yet, with the riot police storming down fortress Antonia’s steps, he could hardly have lingered long. Did he ‘heal’ the ‘lame’ and the ‘blind’ with a lightning strike of direct action, with the Jubilee release-liberation of stolen money? Or did the demonstration convert the spiritually blind and lame, so that they confessed the coming of the kingdom in their lives, given that ‘children’ was both a metaphor and a technical term for new converts to the Way? Or both?
Or perhaps the teeming crowds made it possible for Jesus to slip away into the outer courts in the temple complex, to continue teaching and building the reign of God, despite the dangers. All the accounts agree that he left the city at dusk and returned to his base in Bethany, literally, beth-ani, the House of the Poor.