Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Over the years, the story of Jesus whomping on the moneychangers and the sellers of temple livestock has become one of my least favorite passages of Scripture.

There's a reason for this, of course.  Christians get all temple-cleansy when we're at our most vociferously self-righteous, when we're most eager to toss out the heretics and the unbelievers.   We all want to be Jesus, stomping into the temple and snapping his whip like Indiana Jones, while the Apostle Short Round scampers around around poking' 'em in the knees and generally being annoying.  We particularly want to be this way when we are faced with those who don't see the world the way we do.

I've heard that passage from Mark 11 pitched out by conservatives eager to rid the church of the apostate worldly corrupt influence of liberalism.  Clearly, the moneychangers represent the interpersonal decadence and corrupting influence of libertine culture.  I've also heard it mirrored right back by those on the left who are eager for the church to be rid of the hateful, bigoted voices of patriarchal oppression.  Clearly, the moneychangers represent the reactionary forces of cultural stagnation and capitalism.

It's the primary proof text we go to when we're looking for an excuse to fight, hate, and demonize others.  Given how often I see it paraded around, you'd think it was as important as the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety.  Watching it used as a biblical warrant for scorched-earth hatred on both sides in an intractable church conflict was deeply painful.

But this week, in perusing John's version of this story, I found myself noticing something I can't remember ever seeing before.  Sure, I might have seen it, but maybe I didn't remember.   As John tells it...and John is as ever the minority report in the face of the unified witness of the Synoptics...there was a detail that just sprang out and bopped me on the noggin.  John places the story at a very different place in the narrative, right near the beginning, reflecting the very different purposes of that Gospel.

That wasn't it, though.  I knew that already.

What got me were a couple of details that John has that are utterly missing from the other Gospels.  John is the only story to mention the whip of cords, a familiar image if we're visualizing the tushie-kickin' Jesus lays out.  There is another detail, though.

In John, Jesus does not use that whip to attack the sellers of animals.  Instead, he "drove all of them out," but by all of them, the Gospel writer means "both the sheep and the cattle."   He also poured out the coins and knocks over the tables...both objects, not people.  And he tells those selling doves to "Take these things out of here!"

He gets those dogies rolling, sure.  But what is most markedly lacking in the Johannine version is an attack on the persons themselves.   Jesus assails the system that comprises the ritual economy that has sprung up around the temple.  He actively disrupts it.  What he does not do is go a-whuppin' the people.  He challenges them, sure.  But as John tells it, he does not seem bent on driving them out, too.

That is a non-trivial difference.

We may not like that version as much.  It doesn't satisfy our hunger to put a hurting on those who oppose us.

But there are times when the minority report is worth hearing, just so we don't imagine that every conflict we want to justify is as important to God as we'd like to think it is.