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Jesus, God’s Wrath and the Merchants of Truth (John 2)

“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 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. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14–16)

The Temple

In our text this morning, Jesus bursts onto the scene of passover and gets all civil disobedient on the crowds.

This is not your typical buddy Jesus here and it makes us a little nervous doesn’t it? Rough and rowdy Jesus is not the Jesus we’re used to.

What is this all about?

This scene has often been referred to as the “temple cleansing” which gives you a lovely picture of Jesus with some warm soapy water and a bristle pad scrubbing off graffiti from the temple’s stone walls.

Except that’s not what’s happening here.

The root word here is the same word we use for “exorcism.”

As in, “I’m going to exorcise the demons!”

It means “throwing out.”

So Jesus shows up to the temple and starts to throw people out.
Great.

Try and imagine this scene with me if you will:

From Palestine to every other corner of the Ancient world, People travelled up to three times a year to Jerusalem for prayers, giving of their tithes and offering sacrifices (WHB).

The most holy of all the holidays was the passover, which was a time when a lamb was sacrificed to remind the people of when God God passed over them and later led them out of the Egyptian empire.

During passover it is suggested that the population of Jerusalem drastically bulged from around 50,000 people to 180,000 people (WHB, 83). This would be a lot for any city, but in the ancient world, it teetered on the edge of chaos.

Jews were required to come to the temple and offer sacrifices for their sins. Because there we so many people traveling at such a distance, many would not bring their own animals to sacrifice. So a system was set up where people could purchase animals to give to the priest to sacrifice for them.

So there is this whole exchange being set up within the temple.

Money for animals. Animals for sacrifice. Sacrifice to account for my sins and to appease the requirements of God.

And in the process of so many animals being bled out, the temple priests found themselves standing knee-deep in sacrificial blood (Truby).

So here we have this very elaborate system set up and a huge crowd of people waiting in lines every where, sort of like Disney World on Spring Break.

And in fact, the temple was probably more like Disney World than a holy site of worship by this time. The temple had become a marketplace for truth.

The temple was off track to say the least. Or as Meister Eckhart put it, “Truth does not long for any commercial deal.”

But what truth were they selling? Why must all this blood be shed?

We Want a Sacrifice

It has to do with who they believe God is, right?

I believe that this system of sacrifice is based on a view of God as angry and needing to be appeased by some deed, belief, or sacrifice.

This image of God isn’t very flattering: Here is this god who is a loving father one minute – so long as you are being good and doing what you’re told – but if you break the rules, or step out of line, wham! You’d better watch out because God has a bit of a temper and you will pay for it.

I heard a sermon not too long ago that made no qualms about talking about God as a divine abuser.

Okay, maybe they didn’t use those words but here are some of the things they said:

“God is the one who is assaulting you.”

“God beats us up so he can break us and then bless us.”

Really? What kind of God is that? Why believe or follow a God who is going to assault you? Who is such a loose cannon?

The kind of God that assaults you, that beats you up, that conquers you, is an angry and violent God is the one who can only be appeased through blood sacrifice.

And here’s the thing – this is still a very popular view of God today, isn’t it?

I wonder how many of us have heard this kind of teaching before, or even believed it for ourselves.

“If I don’t do this, Wham, God is going to come after me.”

“Things are going really bad at work, God must angry with me again?”

“Everything is going wrong in my life right now, why is God punishing me?”

It is easy to fall into this. It is hard to believe in the power of love when we don’t see it or experience it ourselves. It’s hard to love ourselves, let alone others, let alone a God we are afraid of.

But this is the kind of thing the merchants of truth sell.

Because there is good money to be made on fear, doubt, and hatred.

But “Truth does not long for any commercial deal.”

Overturning tables

With a whip, Jesus confronts this cycle of exchange.
Yes, he’s ticked.
Yes, there’s room for God to get angry.
Yes, there is actual evil in the world that must be dealt with.

But Jesus isn’t interested in “kicking butt and taking names,” to get revenge for God.

Like the repo man who comes to collect for your debt.

Instead, he wants to overturn these destructive stories and reveal a different story about God, creation and ourselves.

God is not angry. God is not the one who requires sacrifice. The blood spilt out and overflowing is not done to appease the anger and violence of the Father, it is poured out to appease our own thirst for violence. It is not God who requires sacrifice, we are the ones who require it.

God did not create the cycle of exchange. Humans did. And at every point along the way God has tried to dismantle this system and free us from it.

From the book of Genesis to Revelation, God through the prophets and Jesus and others is showing that:

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

Yet we have always leaned on a scapegoat, just think about what happens in Genesis 2:

“God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:11–12 NRSV)

Jesus throwing everyone out of the temple, announcing its closure, and replacing it within his own body, is how he tries to show us that all this sacrifice, all this violence and fighting and all this constant exchange is not being done for God, it’s not what God wants, it’s what we want and what we use to structure society in ways that are unjust and unloving.

  • We have not only misidentified God, we have built entire religious systems around that misidentification.

  • We have not only viewed God as angry toward us, we have written and told stories to reinforce these ideas with others.

  • We have not only viewed God as violent towards us, we have used God to justify untold atrocities towards one another, and towards the earth.

These are the tables that Jesus overturns.
These are the destructive stories that Jesus overturns.

Instead Jesus shows us that Truth, God’s truth, doesn’t need sacrifice. Truth doesn’t need an angry God. Truth doesn’t need victims.

“If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:31-32).

Merchants of Truth

Jesus overturned the story that only some have access to God, and instead showed us that everyone can hear God and be transformed by God’s love. No one is outside the reach of God.

Jesus overturned the story that you must go someplace to see the temple instead showed that the temple is replaced by the body. All are holy in the site of God and all are a holy site of God.

Jesus overturned the story that God was angry with us, violent and must be appeased, and instead revealed that it is humanity that needs to be changed for we are the ones longing for sacrifice.

Jesus overturned the story that you’re not good enough, you deserve to be “assaulted by God,” or that you are good enough and therefore deserve to be on the top as opposed to others. Instead he revealed that your relationship with God is not dependent upon you being good enough or bad enough – all are equally loved and equally called to a life of faithfulness.

Finally, Jesus overturned the story that animals and creation are to be used as our own source of sacrifice and instead showed us that we use God’s creation to cover up for our own sins. Whether it was a lamb in ancient times or it is land, and trees, and water in our own. The earth has become another one of our scapegoats. This is not the intention or appropriate use of creation.

  • Where are these temples and merchants of truth today?
  • What are they selling people?
  • And what are the stories we tell about ourselves that Jesus wishes to overturn?
  • What are the stories you believe about God that Jesus wants to overturn?

Image:

Jacob Jordaens’ “Jesus Drives Merchants from the Temple”

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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