Today’s reading is Mark 11:15-18:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
If we follow Mark’s version of Jesus making his way to Jerusalem, we can continue to profit from a multi-dimensional perspective by comparing and counter-checking his account with the way the other gospel writers describe – or leave out – the same incidents. When Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, an incident occurs that many historians consider a critical turning point. Apparently the four gospel writers agree because, unlike some other events in his life, all four include an account of Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple. I place “cleansing” in quotation marks first because the word does not appear in the text, but more importantly, I agree with those who maintain that it was much more than a mere cleansing. It was, in fact, a temporary occupation not unlike those staged by the recent “Occupy” movement.
The Temple narrative is one in which the findings of biblical scholarship are especially valuable. For many years the standard Sunday sermon interpretation of this event was that Jesus felt offended by the merchandising going on in the Temple court and wanted to purify it of such a commercial taint. One preacher even used this text to thunder against bake sales in the church foyer. But this is a serious misreading. As a first-century Jew, Jesus accepted the sacrificial worship conducted by the priests in the Temple, and even advised the people he healed to “go show yourself to the priest and make an offering.” (Lk 5:14 and 17:14; Mk 1:44; Mt 8:4). Then why did Jesus exhibit such anger and even, whip in hand, turn over tables?
He gives the answer himself. “It is written,” he says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Jesus became enraged not that the Temple courtyard was being used to sell things, but that innocent people were being fleeced. Jesus was in no sense railing against Temple worship, as some misinformed Christian commentaries have suggested. He was not even chastising all the merchants who sold the sacrificial animals. He went after the crooks. Notice that Mark specifically says he overturned the table of those “who sold doves.” As historians of the period have shown, the pilgrims who bought doves were the ones who were too poor to buy sheep or cattle.
Jesus was demonstrating what, centuries later, liberation theologians would call a “preferential option for the poor,” and numerous Christians who read this passage have been inspired to follow Jesus’ example. They were sometimes labeled as troublemakers or subversives. The four churchwomen who were raped and murdered in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the six Jesuits who met a similar fate, all in El Salvador, paid the price for what their understanding of the message of Jesus seemed to require of them. Their deaths drove the underlying insight of liberation theology home: discerning the Kingdom of God in our midst is not, as Jesus said, a matter of mere “observation.” It requires a degree of raw personal exposure to the message that goes beyond objective arms-length examination.
History yields many examples of temporary disruptions of a sanctuary in the cause of justice. Protests and reforms often begin in religious venues. When an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his complaints against the papacy and the indulgence system in Wittenberg, he tacked them up on the door of the cathedral itself. The Scottish Reformation started in Edinburgh when an angry woman hurled a stool at the head of a preacher who was “praying out of a book.” The early New England Quakers interrupted church services to make known their peacemaking message. The colonial authorities treated them harshly. Some were hanged. But today they are universally admired for their efforts to advance reconciliation. Gandhi led nonviolent bands of “untouchables” into the Hindu temple precincts from which the higher castes banned them. Then in 1960s America hundreds of black Christians staged “pray-ins” in segregated churches.
Consider a recent instance of this. On February 21, 2012, five young Russian women, members of the group called “Pussy Riot,” staged an unannounced performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their song took the form of a prayer to the Mother of God, beseeching her to rid their country of Vladimir Putin, whom they considered a dictator. Church security officers hurriedly stopped the prayer-in-song, but the women claimed that they had aimed their protest not at the Orthodox Church itself, but at its leaders’ support for Putin during his election campaign.
Three members of the group were arrested and tried for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They were sentenced to two years in prison. In the late winter of 2014, however, Putin commuted their sentences in a public relations gesture before the Sochi Winter Olympics. But had these young women been guilty of inciting religious hatred, as the court held? Or were they continuing the tradition of using dramatic gestures in sacred sites to communicate a serious message, a practice that goes back to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus himself in the Temple courtyard? It seems that the honored practice of a brief interruption of the serenity of a holy place has continued since Jesus himself and that his example continues to inspire.*
*This brief statement is a shortened version of a longer interpretation that appears in my new book How to Read the Bible, which Harper San Francisco will publish in April 2015.
Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard