The last chapter dealt with the centurion. This chapter deals with the temple incident.
John Dear in Chapter 12 asks, “Didn’t Jesus overturn the tables and chase people out of the temple with a whip?”
Most of the paintings of this incident were done after versions of the Bible were disseminated that translated the word as “whip”. Like paintings of a white Jesus, sometimes these old images continue through a culture, regardless of what a text says.
However, Dear makes it clear that this incident reminds us that “the nonviolent Jesus was not passive. He did not sit under a tree and practice his breathing.” Jesus was very confrontational, and may have seemed angry enough to hit someone or more. It’s no wonder we may think his actions at the temple prove he wasn’t nonviolent because it was so…action-oriented. “His nonviolence was active, provocative, public, daring and dangerous.”
What was this temple incident all about and why does it seem to clash with the image we have of a nice, peaceful, calm Jesus? Well, he was peaceful, but he wasn’t always calm.
The temple was more than just a place of worship that some guys had set up a dove shop in. It was built by Herod and was considered the only place to really worship God. People made pilgrimages to it. “It combined worship, commerce, local government, execution site, and imperial control.” It became the opposite of a holy place, it “housed a national bank, hawked loans, tracked debts” and unjust money charges for ceremoniously cleansing the sins of the poor. It was the world’s biggest rip-off, and they called it God’s temple. That’s why Jesus “went nuts” over it.
We know what kind of worship Jesus wanted. Worship where anyone anywhere with a pure heart could sing and pray to him. You went to God and nobody asked anything of you, nobody made you participate in a scheme, or hounded you. The vision he described to the woman at the well. Spirit and truth is what’s required. Not money, not prestige, not patronizing. Just true, heartfelt worship before God. So we can see why he does what he does.
And what exactly is it that he does? How do we picture it? What Dear calls “the boldest political event in the Bible,” Jesus organizes a symbolic act that is very active, but nonviolent. Dear reminds us that he did not do this on the spur of the moment “in an outburst of anger.” He went away for a night and came back and did this. He meditated on it and then acted the following day.
As far as the “whip” is concerned, Dear explains that it most likely was a rope or a cord, as that’s what the word means in Greek. Ropes were used to guide and separate the animals from the crowds, herding them through. Jesus used this to steer the animals and their sellers out. There is no mention of him hitting or striking any person with it. He could have raised the rope or cord as if to strike in a symbolic show of his anger and temptation to strike them, but the text only says he “drove them out”.
You might say that him flipping the tables proves he was violent. He was violent against matter, but not human life. He even cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit, and it wilted. He has a right to destroy any property in his temple. Well, he even has the right to destroy people because he and his Father created them, but he did not take that path.
You might say that nobody would have left the temple unless Jesus acted violently and forced them. I beg to differ. You can make people clear a room pretty easily if you “go nuts” and get dramatic about it. “EVERYBODY OUT!” Sometimes all you need is a commotion, especially if deep down a lot of these people know they probably shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing there. His actions may have touched right on the chords of shame they had not felt in a while. At least I hope so. And the fact that it really was his temple—this tells me he gave that certain presence before everyone as he shouted that let them know: He was Lord of this place. Get out.
Even so, supposing we could say for certain he did actually hit a couple guys, it cannot even then be proved that it was brutally violent, but maybe like a father would strike a child for discipline. In other words, not the path of violence, particularly of torture and warring.
We must remember that the Father has full right to strike us down before him, but the Son he sent is the embodiment of peace that we are called to live out. He is God in human form, showing us how we should let him operate in us. There is no record of Jesus actually using violence upon anyone.
Dear himself has been arrested numerous times for nonviolent resistance in public, and he could probably tell you all about that experience and what it has taught him, which he does at the end of his chapter.
How have you typically viewed this demonstration of Jesus? What do you draw from the text that tells you this?
What does it mean to you when someone tells you Jesus was violent? What do you qualify as violence? Would you call, for example, spanking a child violence? If not, then can you call whipping an adult with a rope (as one might towel-whip someone) violence?
[next chapter: Doesn’t the book of Revelation give us a picture of a warrior Jesus?]