The events of Jesus’ passion are the most significant moments in not just the history of our faith, but all of human history. We position these events, traditionally, in a week-long celebration known as “Holy Week” or “Passion Week.” No matter how the week is named, the purpose is the same and that is to celebrate and commemorate the moments that lead up to Jesus’ arrest, death, and resurrection.
When we come to Holy Week, however, we mostly focus on just a few moments within that week, especially towards its end. We focus on Jesus procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We dine with Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room and pray with them at the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. We mourn at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. Those are, traditionally, the moments we focus on, yet there is vastness of experiences throughout the week that we rarely talk about.
Among those moments we rarely talk about, how can they lead us to a deeper faith? What within those moments that don’t get the attention can help us to understand how Jesus went from a heralded king on Sunday to being treated as a traitor and blasphemer by Thursday? Those two questions, and others, are what we are going to use to center ourselves throughout Lent. We will examine these events that transpire early in Holy Week and contemplate upon how they advance the narrative of the conflict between Jesus and the religious elites. As well, we will see how they enable us to experience what Jesus was doing in the world and our lives today.
Our journey with Jesus through Holy Week begins with one of the most intense moments in the Gospels. It was a moment initiated by Jesus in response to something he saw when he entered the Temple. Yes, we are talking about the time Jesus flipped the tables and cleaned house in the Temple. It is one of the places that challenges our idea that Jesus was always mild-mannered. (That is what we desire of Jesus, by the way.) What took place and why should it matter to us today?
For starters, this is one of those significant moments in Scripture that all four Gospel writers describe. This tells you that this moment is important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention it in the context of the aftermath of Jesus entering the Temple. John, however, puts it early in his account. Why the difference? First, none of the Gospel writers are giving us a straight chronological account of the events of Jesus. John places this scene early in his account to make a theological statement about Jesus’ authority and purpose in the world.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus in on what Jesus is doing in the Temple and how it sets the stage for what is to come. It took place during the Passover celebration. The Passover was one of the required festivals for Jews to go to Temple for prayer and worship. It celebrated how the Israelites were redeemed from Egyptian slavery by God through Moses. Jerusalem, a city that, then, would have been about the population of Wheeling near 25,000, would have swelled with pilgrims in the town. The Passover also had political connotations to it, which connected to the idea of God redeeming people from oppressive rulers. This is why Rome would increase the number of soldiers in Jerusalem during the Passover.
When they came from the Passover, among the activities was to worship and offer sacrifices in the Temple. This was the center of religion and worship of God and was where you went to pray, to worship, and to offer a sacrifice to God to redeem your sin and the community’s sin. The Temple, which was under a reconstruction project that was begun by Herod the Great, was a vast structure with several gates and inner courts. When you walked in through one of the gates the first court you entered was the Court of the Gentiles. This was the most outer court and the only place where non-Jews could freely worship God.
It was likely there that the Sadducees and other religious authorities established a Temple market place. The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who were charged with maintaining the practices of the Temple. These markets were established by the religious leaders, perhaps under Caiaphas’ orders, to sell animals for the sacrifice. This included pigeons, which was an alternative option for people who could not afford a lamb. These markets were in competition with those on the Mount of Olives and offered a little more convenience for pilgrims. Of course, it came with a steep price, often higher than expected, in order to provide for the needs of the religious leaders.
Jesus sees these markets. He sees the money changers exchanging foreign coins with idolatrous imagery into coins acceptable in the Temple. He sees the people selling items to the poor at high costs. He sees this all take place where there should have been prayer, worship, and devotion to God. What Jesus sees is commerce, commercialization, and consumerism in the house of God.
It gets him, rightly, upset and angry. What does he do? He cleans house. He flips over the tables. He kicks out the marketers. He is cleansing the temple from the filth of market motivations. To put this in modern terms, Jesus took a baseball bat and broke everything that did not have a purpose in the church for the worship of God.
Why did this happen? The passages of Scripture Jesus quotes give us a clue. He quotes Isaiah 56:7 that announces how God’s house should be a place for prayer for all who seek the Lord. He also brings in the judgment of Jeremiah 7:11 to focus in on how the practices of the Temple’s leaders had turned a house of prayer into a “den of robbers.” Jesus is cleansing the Temple, because it was not being a place of worship, prayer, and reflection on God’s holy love.
I wonder if you are like me and think about if Jesus was walking, physically, on earth today where he might do something similar. What practices in my life or within the church, today, would Jesus question and call us to reconsider? That is what he is doing with the Temple elites then, and today. Perhaps we need to contemplate upon the places in our lives and church that fall short of where Jesus calls. Perhaps we need to contemplate on how we are more consumed with our politics than our walk with Christ. Perhaps we need to contemplate on the places of consumerism and business-first ideals that dominate the church. Perhaps we need to consider how we prefer being a club for our own people and not a mission agency that reaches out to new people. Perhaps we need to consider if we look like the church Jesus creates or a representation of the world.
We should never presume that simply because we say we follow Christ that everything we do and say, even in the community of faith, is in line with Jesus’ desires. Any place or activity that is not fully committed to a life of discipleship, worship, prayer, and mission should be questioned as if it is truly holy and necessary. That is what Jesus is saying to the priests, then, and to us today.
Jesus is not just flipping tables over. He gives all who would follow him a reminder of what we should focus upon. Jesus turns his attention towards those who need God’s presence and healing touch. This includes the blind and lame, who were not allowed access into the Temple. They were considered sinful people and unworthy of being welcomed in the house of God. Jesus had other ideas. He healed them and did so in the Temple. He welcomes those excluded and gives them a place in God’s kingdom.
Jesus does this, perhaps, to remind us of what the house of prayer should be about. Communities of faith should be about prayer and seeking the face of God. They should be about giving our lives in adoration to the holy name of God. They should be places of welcome and grace extended to the rich and poor and the welcomed and outcast. They should be places where all gather to reflect the very character and love of God.
All of this, from the cleansing of the Temple to the healing of the blind and lame, get the attention of the religious elites and the priestly leadership. They are upset at Jesus. He has upset the status quo and the way things have always been done. It has made them uncomfortable. They ask Jesus to reconsider and, essentially, to knock it off. What we see is the first major moment of tension between Jesus and the religious elites in Jerusalem. They can take that he is a preacher and healer, but what they cannot accept is Jesus challenging the traditions, practices, and places of power and privilege. Maintaining order, power, and making everyone happy, especially Rome, was their main concern, and not necessarily doing the things God had called them to be about. Jesus responds by not giving in to their demands. He will continue to push and call the people to the deeper life of God as the week continues.
As we start this season of Lent, maybe we need to spend time contemplating upon how we would respond to what Jesus is doing. If we were in the shoes of the religious elites, what would we say to Jesus? When we are challenged by the demands of Christ, when it welcomes those we think should not be welcomed, when it upends our consumerism and self-focus attitudes, what do we do? Do we accept it for the mission of God? Or do we respond like the religious elites and complain that order is not being maintained, that things are changing, that things are too uncomfortable, that this isn’t what church should be about? Do we get in line with God or do we complain?
I have to think that, if you’re like me, we probably complain more than we accept the realities of Christ. That we would rather have things stay the same than allow Christ to call us to deeper expressions of faith and life. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by insisting it happens on our terms and in protection of our own values. It happens when we surrender ourselves to the life of Christ and the way Christ is at work in our lives, in our world, and, yes, in our church.
And as we prepare to come to the table, maybe today is a good day to contemplate on where we have made the mission, the faith, and the church be what God never calls it to be. Maybe today is a good day for us to move in the direction that Jesus is seeking of deep grace shared with all and for communities that are built upon prayer, worship, and mission.
It will not be without its challenges. As we will see as we moving forward, the revolutionary life Jesus calls us to is not one that is lived into without letting go of old practices in order to experience the new life in Christ. Are we willing to see what Jesus is up to, why he upends the status quo, to see something powerful come alive in us and our church through what Christ is doing?