Monday, March 29, 2010
Monday in the Temple
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
At the end of the procession into Jerusalem on a baby donkey, nothing happens. Or at least that is what appears to be the case. Jesus actually gets his scouting report on Sunday night for how he will organize his protest on Monday morning in the crowded Temple. This is an important point because Jesus' "Temple cleansing" has been read for centuries as a spur of the moment fury of righteous messianic anger. Instead, it was a premeditated act of political protest. Just what exactly happened and why was he protesting?
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’
This is planned chaos, overturning tables and blockading the daily marketplace activities in one small section of the huge court of the Gentiles (3x5 football fields in size). Bible scholars only really agree on two things in this episode: that, indeed, Jesus historically did something in the Temple and that this action somehow lead to his arrest and death a few days later. The scholarly proposals focus on 3 issues:
1. Economic Exploitation by the religious leaders--these powerful aristocrats were using the very dwelling place of God to oppress the peasant class of mostly tenant farmers who would come to the Temple to pay dues, make sacrifices to God and worship. These economic practices kept the bottom 95% in their place.
2. The Violent Political Vocation of Jewish Rebels--Mark wrote his gospel about 40 years after the events of Jesus' life. In about 70AD, Palestine was in a crisis of warfare and chaos as rebels stormed the temple to take it over from the Roman-Empire-collaborating religious leaders. These rebels were turning the vocation of Israel, "the light of the world," into a violent people on the edge of the Empire. In 70AD, the Temple was destroyed by hordes of Roman soldiers who finally put down the rebellion. Jesus cites Jeremiah 7 during his Temple protest. Here are some of the verses leading to the passage he quotes:
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 for ever and ever…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.
Jeremiah 7:5-7, 11
'Robbers' is the greek word lestes which is more accurately translated 'rebels' or 'brigands,' groups of violently resisting marauders. The Temple had become a hiding place for these rebel groups whose violent solutions were contrary to God's original vocation for Israel: a light to the nations.
3. The Substitution of Worship for Justice--throughout the Hebrew Bible, the prophets consistently call on Israel to pledge themselves to social justice for the most vulnerable members of their community. God's people would naturally forsake the real notion of worship [reflecting God's care for the oppressed and marginalized] for the sacrificial system and other worship traditions of the Temple.
The key to interpreting this Temple incident hovers around two aspects of Mark's story-telling genius. First, Mark 'frames' this episode with figs:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it...In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’
Mark 11:12-14, 20-21
In a few instances in the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree is used as a metaphor for Israel. God, through the prophets, was asking whether Israel, as God's agent in this world, would 'bear fruit' or not? If not, they would wither. In this episode, Jesus condemns the fig tree...and the Temple.
Second, earlier in Mark's story, Jesus is first confronted by the Jerusalem scribes in chapter 3, where Jesus offers a peculiar parable about his own vocation:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
Jesus is the one who comes to "bind the strong man," the system that economically-politically-religiously oppresses the bottom 95% of Palestinian society. Just as Jesus, throughout his earlier ministry, 'casts out' demons from those oppressed by the system, he 'casts out' (same greek verb) those oppressors in the Temple in the last days of his life...then the house (temple) can be plundered."
Jesus' confrontation with the Powers-that-be certainly leads to his death as the action heats up in the days ahead. How effective were his prophetic protests? Perhaps it all depends on how messianic communities continue his legacy of protesting all sorts of economic and political injustice today, including the various ways that religious leaders legitimate the oppressive system. The vocation of kingdom citizenship has been passed on to us in all of our diverse locales. How can be muster the Spirit-led imagination to stage protests that illuminate God's new creation in the midst of an old, broken system?