Why did Jesus wreak havoc on the trading floor?

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder John’s account of Jesus’ wreaking havoc on the trading floor of the Temple in Jerusalem. The passage is in the Gospel according to John, chapter 2, verses 13-22.

Most readers miss the shock in the first verse, verse 13. It reads:

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”

Readers miss the shock because when they read it, they don’t cast themselves back to the time when the events described in it happened.

It was a time when the aggressive and exploitative conquerors, “the Romans,” occupied Israel. It was a time when the streets were daily filled with abusive, brutal, bloodthirsty soldiers.

It was a time when the elites among the Israelites bought patronage from the Roman occupiers and used it to enrich themselves. It was a time when there was no middle class, only the very poor who made up 97% of the population, and the very rich, who made up the remaining 3%.

People had lost their lands due to taxes and debts they couldn’t pay.

That is why they were hungry, and Jesus had to feed them when they came to listen to him for long hours. That is why they were sick, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and Jesus had to heal so many, so often.

That is why Jesus spoke of workers who didn’t own the land they worked on. That is why Jesus spoke about what to do when a debtor came and demanded payment. That is why Jesus spoke about taxes. That is why Jesus included petitions for food and debt-forgiveness in the prayer he taught his disciples, the prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer: [1]

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, …” (Matthew 6:11,12a)

The people of Jesus’ time were as oppressed and as much in need of a saviour like Moses as they were when the first Passover was celebrated.

They had to cook food quickly, and to eat fully dressed, with shoes on, ready to flee from their oppressors. Immediately after their celebration, God struck dead the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, their oppressors. You can read about it in chapter twelve of the book of Exodus.

The immediate aftermath of the Passover was the destruction of Pharoah’s army, by drowning, in the Red Sea. You can read about it in chapter fourteen of the book of Exodus.

The Passover was designed to concentrate people’s minds on being freed from oppression, and on the defeat of their oppressors. The Passover injected minds with thoughts of escape, of protest, of revolution. This is why the Romans brought in thousands of extra troops during Passover.

Why did the Romans allow the people to celebrate the Passover? There are two principal reasons:

One, the people would’ve rebelled if the defining festival of what it meant to be a Jew was forbidden.

And two, the Passover festival yielded great profit for the elites who, by buying the patronage of the Romans, got to monopolize the trade in Temple goods, and the business of providing food, shelter, and other needs for the tens of thousands who visited the Temple in Jerusalem.

God established the Passover festival to remind the people that he hates oppression and injustice and will save his people from such slavery. The Passover was a call to faith, a call to dignity, a call to freedom.

But the rich, the elders and the priests, the landowners, used the Passover to enrich themselves. This is why Jesus wreaked havoc on the trading floor of the Temple. This is why John gave an account of what Jesus saw and did and spoke when he entered the Temple. John wrote:

In the temple [Jesus] found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the moneychangers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Through his acts of feeding, healing, and exorcism, Jesus pointed to the failure of the government to meet the people’s needs for food, health, and security. Through wreaking havoc on the trading floor, Jesus pointed to patronage and the resulting monopoly practices as the root cause.

Zeal for God’s house did consume Jesus. It led to his death. In a most shameful way. By crucifixion.

What are the monopolies in our nation today? How did they become monopolies? How do they remain monopolies?

What are we zealous for? What are we willing to die for?

Peace be with you.

[1] This prayer is also known as the Kingdom prayer, since it includes the words “Your Kingdom come.” As I said in “Don’t pull out the weeds?,” Bible scholar Bruce J Malina tells us “The word ‘kingdom’ by any estimation is a word describing a society’s political institution. It is, in origin, a political term.”

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