Whips and Overturned Tables: Negotiating the Christendom Hangover

Whips and Overturned Tables: Negotiating the Christendom Hangover
Photo by Christian Ojala / Unsplash

The cleansing of the Temple is a story told in all four gospels. There are slight variations in the telling, but we can be certain that this story was understood as critical and formative for the early Christian communities centred around Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is a favourite tale of internet meme-makers, showing images of the usually docile and helpful Jesus brandishing a whip made of cords, flipping tables, and cursing at money-changers.

Jesus knew how important the Temple was. He knew what the proper function of money-changers and animal-sellers in the Temple was. He also knew how this system of religious practice had been corrupted by the Romans during their occupation. He knew he was making a scene, especially in the preparation leading up to Passover, that would draw attention and have unpleasant consequences. But Jesus thought it worth doing just the same.

Changing money and selling animals were not, in and of themselves, problems. In fact, they were quite necessary to the functioning of the Temple. Animal sacrifices were one of the major functions of the place and it was far more efficient to buy your sacrificial animal at the Temple, rather than try to drag one with you all the way from home, wherever that might be. And it was necessary to change Roman currency into Jewish money which was acceptable for paying Temple taxes. These businesses were meant to assist people arriving in Jerusalem to perform Temple duties, especially at major feasts like Passover.

Judea had been an ally of Rome since the second century BC but had only become a Roman province—occupied territory—in 6 AD. With a Roman government came Roman laws and ideas. The Jewish religion was allowed to continue without forced conversions to the civic religion of Rome because of Judea’s long allyship and because the Romans were impressed with the antiquity of the religion. But, even with this favour granted, the Temple now operated under Roman rules. 

Roman officials now appointed the High Priest of the Temple, ensuring that the institution would work to their benefit. The money-changers and animal-sellers were charging usurious rates to pay their own Roman taxes. The Temple treasury, once a source of genuine welfare for the destitute, had become a loan office, trapping people in a cycle of debt from which there was no escape. The House of God, meant to be a place of sacrifice, atonement, prayer, and charity, had become a place of oppression and exploitation. So galling to the people of Judea were these practices that, in the First Jewish-Roman War begun in 66 AD, one of the first acts of the Jewish rebels was the burning of debt records in the Temple archives.

According to John, Jesus has just demonstrated his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana and then, on his first of three pilgrimages to Jerusalem, confronts the corruption in the Temple with a whip, overturned tables, shouting, and condemnation. Jesus, who elsewhere in John’s gospel is often the gentle, self-sacrificing Lamb of God is, at once, drawing attention to two important truths: He is confronting the injustice of the Judeans who collaborate with the Roman government and reminding them that this is not their way. Unjust civil law that creates profit by denying the humanity of others has no place in their society. Jesus is also prophesying about the changing dwelling-place of God, no longer fixed to a particular building, but now active and mobile, dwelling in humanity: the Word made flesh.

In Lent, as we contemplate what it means to be followers of Jesus and daily conform ourselves to be more like him, these revelations are important considerations. How do we understand what it means for our bodies to be temples where the Holy Spirit lives, as St Paul says? Just as important, what does it mean to know that the people sitting beside us and who we meet on the street are also the dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit? If every interaction is not only a conversation between two individuals, but also two people who share the same divine spirit, there is much to consider in how we treat and think about one another.

More present in our news and conversations these days—more concrete and definitely more anxiety-making—is the question of what to do when the tenets of our faith rub against our civic laws and customs with more friction than we’d like. What do we do when civic and religious life have aims that are not complementary? The threat of Christian nationalism is certainly looming very large in a frightening way in the United States these days, but we are not immune to its miniature forms in Canada.

Why were so many Canadian politicians present—by invitation through their elected office and not their parish membership—in Anglican churches to celebrate the coronation of Charles III? Why do Anglican clergy serve as provincial government officials at most weddings where we preside? Do we have different expectations of elected officials who are our siblings in Christ than those who are not Christians? How does a Christian practice law, for example, in a legal system that often does not prioritize the values most important to our faith?

These questions are not about legal arguments over religious freedom, though those are also important. These questions are about how we negotiate trying to live, faithful to our promises to God in a world that is no longer a Christendom, but where both the Church and our secular institutions are living with the hangover from that 1,700-year bender.

There are no easy answers and managing what it means to be a Christian—a little Christ—in this world is a fresh challenge every single day. As we pray for those to be baptized at Easter and as we prepare to renew our own baptismal vows, they are questions we must wrestle with. It is tradition, at confirmation liturgies, for the bishop to slap the newly confirmed, reminding them that a life following Christ is not always easy and sometimes even painful. The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is a reminder that to be a Christian sometimes means speaking unwelcome truth to power and challenging the unjust status quo, even when we might lose something in doing so.

Jesus does not call us to go anywhere that he has not gone first, nor anywhere that he is not willing to go again with us. We may strive to be the prophetic voices of God’s justice, like Jesus in today’s gospel. We may try our best to stay out of the way, like the gawking crowds as Jesus drove the merchants out. What is certain is that, when Jesus comes again, we do not want to be found seated beside the Roman collaborators. This is part of our Lenten discipline and preparation: reflecting on where we stand and, as necessary, taking steps to move closer to God. Amen.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant and Treaty 3 Territory