A Holy Riot (or, the time Jesus threw down at the temple)

A HOLY RIOT
or, the time Jesus threw down at the temple
by Jenna Pelias
April 18, 2017

There was a lecture I heard once about the time that Jesus made a whip and threw down on the money changers in the temple, declaring that they’d made the house of God a “den of robbers.” I don’t remember most of the lectures I took in during college. Not like this one anyway, and it’s been on my mind almost constantly lately.

Sitting in a stacking chair at a folding table, taking notes by hand as was the custom in the early 2000’s before everyone carried laptops and Starbucks around like status symbols, I found myself unexpectedly riveted. It was a Bible class or I suppose it had to have been. Which class? Which prof? I don’t remember. I just remember the prof explaining this passage out of the Gospels in a way that made it unfold like the opening of a gift, and it’s stuck in my head forever and ever Amen.

So what was going on? It was exactly 5 minutes and 47 seconds after what Christians today know as Palm Sunday – Jesus had just arrived in Jerusalem ahead of the Passover on the back of a donkey to the streets lined with people waving palm branches and praising God. Quite the spectacle, I’m sure. The imagery of this event is similar but also unlike that of his mother Mary arriving the same way into Bethlehem about to birth God made flesh into the world just over thirty years prior. What a parallel with this Jesus arriving on a donkey first to be born with scattered and bewildering fanfare, then later arriving to the praise of the masses oblivious that He’d come to die. Jewish people from everywhere were pouring into the temple ahead of Passover to bring the required sacrifices and offerings to God. That’s where Jesus went first, too. Perhaps He was presenting Himself to the Father quietly as an offering.

This Passover pilgrimage was not taken lightly. Some would bring only the very best of their own animals after careful scrutiny, and others who were coming too far would bring the money to buy the required animals when they arrived. As the people would show their animals to be inspected by the priests to determine suitability for offering, the animals would often be refused for any imperfection the priest could find, forcing business to boom for those selling *pre-approved* animals like credit cards there in the Temple courtyard. But you couldn’t just buy your offering with the silver or gold or copper in your purse. You had to use the Temple currency. The money changers would exchange whatever coin or currency the people had for the Temple currency at such a high exchange rate that they were robbing the people of the ability to bring the appropriate, required offerings to God. Worship was made impossible. Jesus was furious.

This “den of robbers” were the religious leaders who had set up the House of God as a racket, denying the people access to God by putting too many obstacles in their way before they could even get in the door. People who were thrilled, excited, weary, who had waited and saved and brought everything they had to give, who came from near and far – denied. So Jesus braided that whip and unleashed Heaven’s fury, consumed by zeal for the House of God, throwing tables and driving out the sellers and money changers and people who were holding up this corrupt system of selling your soul to the church in order to get saved. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What happened next is incredible.  The blind and lame came to Jesus for healing, unhindered. Children sang out in worship. The chief priests and teachers of the law were indignant. (Matthew 21:14-15) A holy riot turned the temple upside down that day. The next time Jesus showed up at the temple He was questioned about who gave Him the authority, but He shut down their line of questioning faster than they could think of the next rebuttal. By the time Jesus sat down at the table for the Last Supper – the Passover meal – He had exhausted Himself teaching in parables about the second coming, holiness, and salvation. It went right over their heads. The plot against Him thickened.

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My little girl pouring out praise to God with all she has in her, hands in the air, on Easter Sunday.

Jesus knew what He was doing all that time. He called His followers to the cross long before He ended up dying on one, remember. And so as He took His last breath the curtain of the temple He’d just undone, was torn. Heaven was indignant. Worship would never be the same.

All through Easter this story of Jesus flipping tables in the temple has been weighing on me. Because there are people here and now, waiting just outside the church, weary, uncertain of whether they will be welcome to walk through the doors at all, never mind participate in worshiping God or getting to know the Savior known as Jesus. When the Gospel is safely hidden away behind lifestyle agreements, boycotts, political posturing, push back *against* social justice as if that’s what Jesus would ever do, backbiting, and arguments over the rules for conduct and Christian behavior – well there’s no good news in there left for anyone except for those who probably don’t even need it.

So what? Would they like a pat on the back for keeping the sinners and hypocrites and prisoners and forgotten and abused and condemned and weirdos and strays out of the pews? Let’s also not forget the faithful who are waking up to the needs and groaning and pain outside the walls of the church, but being told to sit down and shut up or lose support, credibility, and relationship. Maybe it’s time for some tables to get flipped again. Maybe it’s time for that zeal for the House of God to consume us because the Gospel isn’t getting any younger over here and people are being both actively and passively robbed of the ability to worship God. For shame.

Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’ve been kept away because you live wrong, love wrong, look wrong, ask the wrong questions, have the wrong afflictions, or know right from wrong but keep messing up anyway. “Come to ME,” Jesus says. He says that. I cannot stand in the gap to apologize for whatever racket robbed you and kept you on the wrong side of the curtain, but I can pour some gas on the curtain and burn it if that would help instead. We can warm our hands around that fire and I can tell you about my Jesus. Or maybe you’re in it. You love Jesus and you want everybody to know the goodness and mercy of God but the church, the “Christian Machine” which is a whole thing that isn’t looking good for any of us long term, is telling you to shut up and sit down. Boycotting you. Pulling support. Cutting off relationship. Indignant. That is robbery too.

To all of that, I know one simple thing to be true. God is good. He is never going to stop being good. Jesus didn’t die on that cross and kick death in the face to live again and make a way for us to know the Father, just for *anyone* to start putting qualifications on that kind of miracle. When the people caught up in rules and requirements are indignant while right in front of their own eyes the prisoners are being set free and the sick are being healed and the children are singing out praises to God, well maybe we need to just know them by their fruit and let the Gospel speak for itself. We can exhaust ourselves arguing with the spiritually deaf, or we can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to let zeal for the Gospel consume us. Because nobody should be required to sell their soul to the church to get saved. And maybe it’s time for a holy riot around here to remind us of that.

copyright (c) 2017  Jenna Pelias // all rights reserved

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