As he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’ (Mark 11.16)
Last week, a very dear Jewish friend asked to attend Palm Sunday service with us. As we walked to church, she said, “Yesterday, there was this preacher in the subway saying the meanest things.” Being well acquainted with the type, I said, “Everybody’s going to Hell, right?” She answered, “Everybody. If you smoke cigarettes, you’re going to Hell. If you drink, you’re going to Hell. If you’re gay, you’re going to Hell. He had me on the first two.” Being so close to Walt and me, we laughed he also had her on the third by proxy. As we walked on, it occurred to me since she’d never visited the church, she might be a tad wary of a similar spew-fest. “This won’t be like that,” I promised.
To my delight, the sermon surpassed “not like that” by such a wide margin it poised at the doomsayer’s polar opposite. Even though neither Heaven nor Hell came up, the polarity emerged in its righteous indignation. The pastor began by confessing she’d been in “a Lenten bubble,” and not heard much on the bilious accusation “social justice” is leftist theological code for communism—until a blogger cited the church’s Website as an example. She used this recent outbreak of ideological slander as a contextual bridge to Holy Week. “I am painfully aware that poisonous public discourse… has its place in the unfolding drama of this week,” she said, adding Jesus wasn’t crucified because He healed and fed people, told nice stories and gathered children around Him. “Jesus was crucified… because he was in every fiber of his being advocating SOCIAL JUSTICE,” telling us she’d typed the phrase in all-caps. Her indignation intensified as she debunked this newly hatched myth that compassion and concern are politically minted ideas. They’ve always been Christianity’s definitive markers, she insisted, with plenty of historical documentation backing her up. Near the end, she asked, “What might it mean to live so loud that the impact is felt everywhere we step, not because we are stepping on things or people, not because we are shouting at people, but because the stride in our steps [is] beating down the path toward the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the ones who need Jesus’ SOCIAL JUSTICE?” After the sermon—titled “Living Out Loud”—our friend said, “That was amazing!”
I awoke yesterday with the story of Christ clearing the Temple in my head, as we’re told it’s the first thing He does on Monday. I wanted to write about it, yet outside its overt aspects, I couldn’t figure out what to make of it. It happens so abruptly, without a hint of what lit teachers used to call “an inciting incident,” it doesn’t make sense. After Jesus and the disciples retire to outlying Bethany on Sunday evening, they return to Jerusalem the next day and go to the Temple. Immediately on entering, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” (Mark 11.15-16) We understand why He does it. The Temple has turned into a bazaar, where opportunistic tellers charge fees to make correct change for monetary offerings and wranglers sell sacrificial animals at pricey mark-up. This is common in pagan temples, which also sell meat presented to idols as convenient take-away. So commerce within its courts twice desecrated the Temple by gouging worshipers and mimicking idolatry. But none of this explains why Jesus clears the Temple now.
The commercialization of Temple property isn’t new. Jesus has seen it all His life and never (to our knowledge) reacted unfavorably before. Of all the times to vent His displeasure, none could be worse. The prior day’s coronation parade has ramped up alarm among Temple authorities. Opposing their policies in such a volatile way is political suicide. Not only does Jesus enrage them, He infuriates influential merchants and insiders by disrupting their businesses. Why doesn’t He meekly enter the Temple, don His rabbinical shawl, take a seat, and wait His turn to speak? For some time, He’s been clued into the formulating conspiracy against Him. And there’s our answer. Realizing Sunday’s public acclaim has increased the urgency to be rid of Him, Jesus takes His first chance to correct these intolerable practices because it may be His last chance to do it. Then, after Palm Sunday’s sermon, I have a better idea of the full scope of what He does.
Most of us have heard this episode preached and seen it dramatized more times than we can count. And it’s a safe bet that it’s always been presented as high melodrama. Jesus storms into the Temple, knocks over a lot of furniture, and once He’s got everyone’s attention, bellows a scathing indictment that lashes Isaiah 56.7 to Jeremiah 7.11: “Is it not written: ’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Mark 11.17) His words tremble with fury and the people quake with fear. This doesn’t square with Mark’s report, though. After Jesus overturns the merchants’ stations and halts the flow of merchandise, there’s a cooling off period. Mark prefaces Jesus’s statement with, “As he taught them, he said…” He taught them. That’s the difference between undignified condemnation and righteous indignation, poisonous discourse and constructive criticism, a preacher’s rants and a pastor’s restraint—the difference between harsh judgment and gentle justice.
Jesus was the teaching kind. Discipline and care governed His every word and action. What we witness in the Temple is a Teacher willing to risk His personal safety—His very life—to demonstrate a forgotten principle. What we don’t see is an angry God, frustrated Rabbi, or crazed Provocateur. And we understand Jesus uses this scenario not merely to right an overlooked wrong, but also to teach us how to teach. It’s His last chance, and He does it in the most memorable, atypical manner imaginable. When we trim back the fatty melodrama and cut into the meat, it’s not that hard. If necessary, we must sacrifice personal comfort and safety to demonstrate our point. But we prove it by teaching. Mark ends saying the Temple authorities “feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” (v18) When we’re the teaching kind, the consternation of adversaries and amazement of listeners separate us from every other kind.
All this melodrama layered on the cleansing of the Temple misses the teaching that follows.
Postscript: I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus
Being taught isn’t something we sing about very much. Yet we can’t be the teaching kind without learning from the Master. This popular Latter-Day Saints’ children’s song touches me deeply with its message—so simple on the surface, yet so complex and richly nuanced through and through.
I'M TRYING TO BE LIKE JESUS
I'm trying to be like Jesus
I'm following in His ways
I'm trying to love as He did
In all that I do and say
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice
But I try to listen as the still, small voice
"Love one another as Jesus loves you
"Try to show kindness in all that you do
"Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought
For these are the things Jesus taught."
I'm trying to love my neighbors
I'm learning to serve my friends
I watch for the day of gladness
When Jesus will come again
I try to remember the lessons He taught
Then the Holy Spirit enters my thoughts,
"Love one another..."