This is a disturbing passage, not just for the words but for how those words have been used (out of their larger context) to justify violence and war down through the ages. These words seem to contradict the idea of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. They seem to contradict Jesus’ command to love even our enemies and to return good for evil. These words shake us up and should cause us to ask, “What’s going on here?”
What, indeed, is going on?
Most of our images of Jesus, whether in paintings or film, depict him as so peaceful you might begin to wonder how much medication he was on. His nearly monotone, soothing voice is meant to comfort and cause us to sense the peace of God within him. But Jesus came to disturb the comfortable.
After Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we find him in the temple overturning tables and driving merchants from the temple courts (Mark 11:15-19). Imagine for a moment, arriving at your church only to find it filled with people hawking what I non-affectionately call Jesus junk.
T-shirts with cute sayings like the one with white Jesus in dark glasses with the phrase, “I’ll be Back!” underneath. Or the shirt with a silhouette of an AR 15 rifle with the caption, “And Jesus said, ‘If you don’t have an AR15 sell your coat and buy one.’” (misinterpreting Luke 22:36).
As you glance around you spot a rack filled with bumper stickers: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”, “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet”, and then you spy one with a big US flag that says, “Onward Christian Soldiers”. These are all real T-shirts and bumper stickers!
Mixed in are a few funny bumper stickers, like “Jesus would use his blinkers.” And “Are you following Jesus this closely?”
On the back wall there’s a shelf full of coffee mugs with a cross superimposed over the American flag. As you leave the foyer and head toward the worship space, you’re accosted by venders selling special prayer cloths promising personal blessing, and a little ribbon you can place in your purse or wallet to bring financial abundance. To your right, there’s a giant offering plate with these words inscribed above it: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Another misuse of scripture, from Malachi 3:10.
This is a modern-day depiction of what I imagine Jesus encountered as he entered the temple that day. The animals being sold were required for sacrifice and were overpriced. Adding insult to injury, you had to use the temple currency to purchase these animals, and that money had to be changed in the temple at great loss. This courtyard area, meant for Gentiles and women, was filled with commerce and made no room for worshippers already pushed to the margins of the temple program. For most who entered, this system was nothing short of extortion. Jesus was furious!
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it a hangout for thieves!”
No placid Jesus here!
Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” This is precisely what Jesus is doing in the temple, and he’s calling out religious leaders for their complicity in these systems of exploitation and oppression.
When Jesus declares, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” the context reveals that he is not speaking about a literal sword but of speaking the truth in a world filled with lies. It is the sharp edge of a prophet that divides truth from lie, true righteousness/justice from the appearance of righteousness that leads to oppression. Jesus consistently calls out our personal and religious complicity with empires and our petty, self-serving motivations.
Jesus is here to shake us out of our slumber:
- No longer is it acceptable to participate in systems of injustice and oppression. Instead, we are to expose them.
- No longer are we to favor the rich and powerful over those on the margins. Instead, we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and become friends with the marginalized, to become true neighbors.
- No longer are we to accept the way things are as if we have no power to confront injustice our world or our own complicity that lurks inside ourselves. Instead, we must open ourselves to God’s Spirit that empowers us to speak and act with courage.
Jesus has come to turn over tables:
- tables like the Doctrine of Discovery that made possible the labeling of Native peoples as savages so we could steal their lands – a table that still stands today as we use western courts to proclaim just and legal the taking of even more lands and the desecration of sacred burial grounds for the building of oil pipelines and border walls.
- tables of carefully crafted crappy theology to justify the dehumanization of Blacks so we could commodify, enslave them, and consider them chattel – a table that still stands piled high with the bodies of People of Color shot by police and wrongfully convicted and sent to their deaths, the disproportionate number of Blacks incarcerated in our for-profit prisons – per capita numbers that are outstripped only by those of Native Americans.
- tables in our places of worship piled high with prejudice, abuse of power, sexism, and greed.
Jesus, the Prince of Peace and in whom God is reconciling all things, first will confront us about our lies. Peace cannot come when falsehoods are the foundation. Reconciliation cannot come without first coming clean about the abuses and corruption that have benefitted a few on the backs of the many.
We love Easter, and we like to celebrate Palm Sunday as if we’re one of the crowd that day, oblivious to what’s really going on. “Behold your king, humble and riding on a donkey.” “Hosanna to the son of David! Save us! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Those words alone should make us squirm.
The season of Lent is designed to help us get our focus back. It’s a little shaking up of our routines and, hopefully, a reprioritizing of our lives. What I’m suggesting here is that we need more than a little shaking up; we need some tables overturned! But unlike the guy with the log in his eye while he was trying to remove the speck from his neighbor’s eye, we need the courage and humility to look inside ourselves before we act. What are the tables that need overturning in me?
A friend of mine recently stated, “Wealth in America isn’t a ‘blessing.’ It would be a blessing if it flowed from heaven rather than from exploitation of land and labor.” That’s a knife that cuts me. I know my family lived on land in the Black Hills stolen from the Lakota during the gold rush that began in 1874. I know my family’s successes throughout the generations would not have been possible if we were Black or Native or Mexican. Although most in my family were not overt racists or exploiters of the poor, we do have slave owners in our past, we have wealthy bankers in our line, and we all have profited from a system geared to benefit the white European over all others. I can’t just acknowledge these truths; I need to see what it looks like for Jesus to topple these tables.
When I met recently with members of a local Hispanic church for a Know Your Rights Workshop, there was an obvious fear and unease over what’s happening to immigrants in our country today. I was invited up by the pastor to say a few words, and I could sense the relief as this white guy not only declared, “Somos Uno!” but went on to apologize for the bad theology that has created division and hate within the family of God. Then I noticed excitement as I proclaimed the theological truth of what it means to be one in Jesus. I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. This was by invitation of the host pastor and was only a meager beginning. We who have benefitted from the exploitation and oppression of others must act on what God is showing us about ourselves.
There’s not time to go into what that might look like in each case, but here’s what I know; we must begin by admitting that, like the merchants in the temple, we have benefitted from the suffering and exploitation of others. We need to spend time looking deeply at our lives, asking for God’s Spirit of revelation to show us those areas we are unable or unwilling to see. Then we must begin to correct what has been broken.
And here’s one of the more difficult areas I’m trying to accept; my power and privilege convince me that, once I’ve become aware, I will also know best how and when to go about making those corrections. To do this only piles more pain onto the backs of others. I must listen, learn, and step back so that those who have experienced the negative side of my abundance can take the lead.
There is so much more to all of this, and I am only a beginner. But I know that Jesus came to bring a sword to sever the lies I hold as truths. I know that this process will be painful, and I will rebel against it. I know that there are a lot of tables in my life Jesus wants to upend because it’s the only way to heal what’s broken. And I know that if I’m uncomfortable with this, so others will be as well.
As we look forward to Palm Sunday, let’s take time to ask ourselves:
- What are the tables God may be wanting to overturn in my life?
- If the Great Physician were to wield that surgical knife in my life, where would he cut first?
Open yourself to this God of holy disruptions. Open yourself to this God who desires to set things right by first uncovering what is wrong. We should feel uncomfortable about this. We might be a bit angry about it. We will likely protest and self-justify. But in the end, if the Jesus of Palm Sunday can’t enter the temple of our hearts and stir things up a bit, we might want to ask ourselves, “Why not?”