John: Jesus Cleanses the Temple

“Driving of the Merchants from the Temple” by Scarsellino

John: Jesus Cleanses the Temple
A Message on John 2:13-22
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
July 5, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

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Today in continuing our sermon series on the Gospel of John we look at a scripture that is somewhat troubling for many Christians.

In reading the Bible we find Jesus to be very loving. He loves those that have been cast to the edges of society at the time, teaches about loving not only our neighbors, but our enemies as well.

We discover that God is love, and Jesus, being God, is therefore love as well.

We develop what I call a “happy-clappy” perception of Jesus

Knowing all of that it can be unsettling for us as we read the scriptures today that tell of Jesus cleansing the temple. Here we read of this man of love, this son of God, who gets upset and is… well… semi-violent, turning tables over and driving people and animals out of the temple with a whip. A whip, for crying out loud! Yikes!

This event is recorded in all four gospels, which makes it very significant. It happens toward the end of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) but toward the beginning of the Gospel of John, which is the one we read today.

In the three synoptic gospels, the scriptures say that Jesus drove out the money changers and the animals but doesn’t mention a whip. Only the Gospel of John does this.

Some people believe that Jesus used the whip just for the animals. I’m not fully convinced of that, however. Here’s why.

Jesus was upset at the people that had set up what amounted to a marketplace at the Temple. The Jewish people were called to come to the Temple at appointed times to bring their offerings and things for sacrifices.

There are five types of offerings in the Old Testament: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the purification offering, and the reparation offering.

Each one of those offerings require giving something to be sacrificed. It might be an animal such as a bull, goat, sheep, or even a dove or pigeon, or bread or grain. But you can’t make an offering if you have nothing to give.

Okay, so now that we have a better understanding of the sacrificial system we can get a better understanding of what Jesus was doing, and why, according to John, he made a whip and I believe used it against those selling things and exchanging money in the temple.

One reason people give for thinking Jesus made the whip for the animals is the wording in John’s gospel: “…he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.”

But I think there is more to it than that. I think he went after the people as well as the animals. One reason I think that is because of the description: a whip of cords.

Now growing up on a farm we used to use whips (humanely, by the way), including bullwhips. Bullwhips are single tailed whips which, ironically, are not used to whip animals. Instead in the hands of a skilled cowboy the end of the whip actually breaks the sound barrier, making a loud “crack” which is actually a mini sonic boom! It is this noise that the animals react to and the cowboy uses to turn or drive animals. The whip never touches the animal.

Of all the whips I’ve seen used with livestock, however, I have never seen a “whip of cords” used on a ranch.

A whip of cords is used on people. Think of what is called a “cat o’ nine tails” kind of whip. I think Jesus is foreshadowing the fact that those kinds of whips will be used on him before he is crucified.

Another thing important for us to remember is the location of where this is happening: the Temple.

The temple was in Jerusalem, and the Jews believed that it was the place on earth where God lived. People brought sacrifices to the Temple. For many of the Jewish people, doing so meant a long trip. For example, if you were a Jew living in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and set out for Jerusalem, you would have a long trip ahead of you.

As the crow flies it’s about 64 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. But the Jewish people weren’t crows and they didn’t fly, they walked. Plus there was Samaria in the way, and since the Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along the Jews had to travel an extra distance to go around Samaria in order to get to Jerusalem.

Those who know such things estimate that such a trip would take somewhere between six days to two weeks. So if you were going to Jerusalem to offer your sacrifices, you had quite a journey ahead of you.

So just think of what you would have to carry with you for such a trip. And if you were bringing your own livestock and breads/grains to sacrifice, you would have to wrangle the livestock and haul the bread/grain all that distance with you.

So instead of doing that, many people made the journey to Jerusalem without sacrificial items and then once there they would buy the livestock and bread/grain for their sacrifices. Not only that, but if they had Roman or Greek currency, anything other than the Jewish currency called shekels, they would have to convert their currency into shekels. And while that sounds all fine and dandy, these “money changers” would charge fees for this, and some of those fees were pretty outrageous.

The ones it hurt the worst, of course, were the poor. These folks couldn’t afford cattle, goats, or sheep, so they would have to either bring or purchase doves or pigeons. (And, to be honest, if I’m poor and actually end up catching a pigeon, the odds are very high that I’m having squab for supper!

So the poor folks, who couldn’t afford bulls or sheep or goats, would bring what little money they had to buy doves or pigeons. (Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, were poor folks as they brought doves to the temple eight days after Jesus was born for him to be circumcised and consecrated.)

And just like buying food at Six Flags or Disneyworld, the prices at the Temple for a dove or pigeon were much higher simply due to the demand. They could charge more because they could get away with it. And if you had some currency other than Jewish currency you had to pay for an exchange rate on top of the purchase of the birds, so the poor folks got a double whammy.

Now let me be clear that this scripture is not speaking against making money. No. After all, the Bible says not to muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain. What this scripture IS speaking against is taking advantage of others in order to make money, and especially those coming to worship God.

So when Jesus sees all this taking place at the Temple he gets upset. Very upset. He gets mad! So he makes a whip and drives both the animals and the people out, turning tables over and causing quite the commotion.

So, did Jesus lose his temper? I think it’s pretty clear that he did. Did his “losing it” count as a sin against him? No, I don’t think it does. Then how does his cleansing the temple with a whip reflect on his ministry and all the good things he did?

I want to introduce you to a term called “righteous indignation,” also sometimes referred to as “righteous anger.”

So, what is it? It is outrage, or anger, that is right and justified. Wikipedia defines it as “typically a reactive emotion of anger over mistreatment, insult, or malice of another. It is akin to what is called the sense of injustice.”

Now a lot of us grew up believing that to be angry is a sin. I’m one of them. If I get mad at someone I need to control that anger because it’s a sin, right? Actually, there are instances when it is not.

Let me give you an example. Say you go to a grocery store, and as you are walking in the parking lot you see someone roughly push an elderly lady down, grab her purse, and take off running.

Would you be angry with the person that did that? You bet! I would be furious!

That is righteous indignation. That is anger towards a person who took advantage of someone much weaker than themself. And such anger is not a sin.

Jesus cleansing the Temple is often used as an example of righteous indignation. He is angered that the vendors and money changers are taking advantage of those coming to worship God. He is mad that the people ripping others off are desecrating the Temple, which is supposed to be holy and where God resides on earth. He is righteously angry, and in John’s gospel he takes things into his own hands–literally–by flipping over tables and putting a whip to those who failed to treat the Temple as holy and reverent.

So how does this apply to us today? Is it okay for us as Christians to be righteously angry? Yes, absolutely!

Our daughter Emily has been with us this past week, and so Friday night she got our TV online so that we could watch the musical, “Hamilton.” I had heard about the play, of course, (I don’t live under that big of a rock.) and I was kind of like “meh” about watching it. But I love history and was interested in how it treated the historical events of the founding of our nation, which we celebrated yesterday with July 4 celebrations.

From my history classes I remembered Aaron Burr as being in a dual and killing somebody, but I had forgotten who. (And if I’m completely honest, a lot of what I know about Aaron Burr came from the original “Got Milk?” commercial years ago where the guy is eating a peanut butter sandwich when he gets a phone call from a radio station trivia contest asking the question who shot Alexander Hamilton. The guy has all sorts of historical memorabilia around about the dual and tries to say “Aaron Burr” but can’t because of the peanut butter sandwich in his mouth.)

In the Hamilton musical (spoiler alert!) Burr and Hamilton face off against each other in a duel. Pistols at 10 paces. At the count of 10 Hamilton turns and raises his hand straight up in the air and fires his pistol straight up, refusing to take aim at Burr. (In actuality Hamilton shot a tree branch high above Burr’s head, aiming there on purpose. That’s what really happened, but you know show business…)

Burr, however, aims his pistol at Hamilton and fires, striking him and mortally wounding him. Hamilton dies the next day.

I found that I experienced righteous anger at Burr for shooting the man that refused to shoot at him. And the musical points out that for Burr, the killing of Hamilton would follow him the rest of his life and leave a stain on his legacy.

Christians should experience righteous indignation, righteous anger.

If someone is treated negatively simply because of the color of their skin, which is called racism, we should have righteous anger.

If someone wants to kill police officers simply because they are police officers, we should have righteous anger.

If someone takes advantage of those who are poor or down and out, we should have righteous anger.

If someone physically assaults someone, or even goes so far as to kill them, we should have righteous anger.

If someone steals money or other items from another, we should have righteous anger.

If one country invades another country just so it can expand its territory, we should have righteous anger.

You get the idea. There are times that we, as Christians, should be righteously angry.

However, (and this is a big “however”), we have to be very careful that in our anger we respond by not saying or doing something that is not Christlike.

In the example I gave earlier of the purse snatcher, we should have righteous anger. But what if as a response to that anger I run the purse snatcher down, tackle him/her, and commence to use my fists to pummel them and just beat the thunder out of them. Is that a Christian response to righteous anger?

I hope you said no. “No” is the correct answer, by the way. Now if you’re like me that might be what you want to do to the thief. But even though our human side wants to do that, it’s not the Christian thing to do. Now I think it would be okay to chase them, to try to apprehend them and hold them until the police arrive. That is a good, Christian thing to do, as well as checking on the elderly woman that got pushed down, but you shouldn’t beat the thunder out of them, even though you may want to.

We should heed the words that the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

Jesus was angry but did not sin when he cleansed the temple. He was mad, there’s no doubt about that, but he did not sin. Being God he could have sent some lightning bolts down and vaporized the people selling animals and the money changers, but he didn’t. He chased them out but didn’t sin in doing so.

So my challenge to you this week is to remember the difference between anger and righteous anger. Remember that it’s not always a sin to be angry, but that we should always respond in a way that reflects the love and grace of Christ.

And if you are eating a peanut butter sandwich and get a telephone call from a radio trivia contest asking the question who shot Alexander Hamilton, be sure you have a glass of milk ready.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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