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Hard-Ass Jesus

Once again, our kind, gentle, compassionate, forgiving, patient, teacher seems almost to have transformed in the same way the Hulk goes from quiet, emotionally reserved Dr. Bruce Banner, into a green giant with gargantuan muscles and a mind of his own when provoked. Suddenly Rabbi Jesus is Hard-Ass Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple.

I think it is fair to say that Jesus was infuriated at what he saw in the temple that day. Honestly, I'm not sure I blame him, because there is not much that really sets me off except the church manipulating people and expounding abusive theology. Thankfully, neither Jesus nor I turn green when it happens.

Why was Jesus so ticked off? Well, let’s think about the situation…

As we enter the scene in John 2:13-22, we find ourselves in the midst of preparations for the Passover – one of the biggest holy days for Jews.  Hundreds of thousands of people made pilgrimages for long distances to be in Jerusalem for the worship and celebrations.  Cattle, sheep and doves were required from everyone for burnt offerings in the Temple. These offerings were made to God for forgiveness and for blessing. Since many people had journeyed a fair distance, they would need to buy animals for their offerings.  However, these could not be paid in regular Greek or Roman coin because of the human image on the coins, and so had to be exchanged for Tyrian currency (the currency used in Jerusalem).  The sale of animals and the exchange of money were necessary if traditional Jewish worship was to continue.

Put in modern terms… say you are flying from the US to Israel and you stop over in Paris, but you are only there for 2 hours, so you can’t leave the airport. You’re hungry, but they will only take French coins, so you have to exchange your money for theirs in the airport at whatever exchange rate they set, and then you are consigned to buy food from an airport vender who can charge whatever they want because you’re trapped. You’re paying $5 for a 24 ounce Diet Coke that would cost two bucks for a six pack at the grocery store at home!

The situation in the temple wasn’t fundamentally so different, and the worst part was that is essentially excluded the poorer people from being able to worship, if they couldn’t afford to purchase the offerings. At the very least, it unduly burdened the families who had less by turning God into a deity who could be bought, bartered with, or bribed!

Jesus himself had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It was a deeply sacred time for him to pray, reflect and worship. But the place he walked into smelled like a barn with all the ox, sheep and doves around.  The noise was overbearing.  People were bartering for the best price for the animals, shouting that the animals weren’t without blemish as law says they should be.  And the prices were too high… how were the poor supposed to take part when the laws and economics placed it out of reach?  Then there were the money-changers… they had set the exchange rate too high for the poor… all they wanted was the profit… this festival had become a chance for the rich to get richer, this was a system of oppression, not a holy place of worship… this had become a den of robbers… this wasn’t what God wanted!

So, the story (at least in John anyway) says that Jesus fashioned a whip out of cords and drove all the animals and people from the temple.  Then he overturned the tables of the money-changers.

Now, it is important to remember that we are in the Gospel of John, written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, written after the Jesus following Jews were expelled from the synagogues (by their fellow non-Jesus believing Jews) in 88 CE, so as to get the Romans off the backs of said Jews. Because of this expulsion it was a time of rising hostilities between the Jews for Jesus (who still really considered themselves Jews), and “the Jews” as the author of John refers to the orthodox party that ruled the synagogue.

This background helps us understand why the author of John placed this inaugural event of cleansing of the temple at the beginning of his ministry. In the other three gospels this event happens at the end of his ministry and is the catalyst for his execution. The intent of this positioning in John seems clear: Jesus is turning over the tables of the old system, he is confronting the abuses of power, he is offering a God who does not require sacrifices or taxes. This God that Jesus knows intimately offers love freely and abundantly and cannot be bought or manipulated.

In John 4, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well about the proper place to worship, in which he basically says, “the time is already here when real worshippers will worship God in Spirit and truth.” He’s now taken the temple out of the equation. He’s even taken the synagogue out of the equation. This was hugely important to the original Johannine community because their temple had been destroyed and they were kicked out of their synagogues. The author of John says, look, God is Spirit. Let go of the trappings, the man-made rules and rituals, the laws that actually divide and create an exclusive community. All that really matters is that we worship in Spirit and truth, opening our hearts to the God of Love.

The Christian Church today is dying.

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults described themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” stood at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

If this trajectory continues, in 20 years only 41% of the US population will consider themselves Christian and those who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” will stand at 44%. 

The irony is that the Jews were looking for Jesus to reform and rejuvenate Judaism, not abolish it. They saw Jesus as bringing life, expanded life and expanded consciousness. But they eventually had to break from Judaism to fully follow Jesus. Over the centuries, the religion that began with him has become all that he didn’t want. Even skipping over all the misdeeds in between then and now (the crusades, the Inquisition, etc.), Christianity is still filled with rigid creeds and rules in many denominations, it is an exclusive ticket to heaven for those who believe the right things, and it is abused by so many pastors as a means for power and money.

For example, why on earth would at least 10 American pastors need private jets valued at hundreds of millions of dollars? Joel Osteen has the priciest one at $86 million, but his mega church couldn’t be bothered to open its doors to victims of Hurricane Harvey. These pastors’ basic response to questioning about this is to suggest that it would be insulting to God to apologize for being rich.

This is the stuff that infuriates me and makes me want to turn over a plane.

This huge institution called Christianity, based on a Jew who never wanted to create a new religion, has now become the temple whose tables need to be turned over so that it can survive. It needs a new perspective which begins by worshiping in spirit and truth, focused on the basics of Jesus’ message: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Love & Light!