Holy Unrest Can’t Be Quelled

a sermon based on John 2:13-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 8, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in turbulent 1960s and early 70s. Civil rights and peace movements were going, like the march of Selma that took place 50 years ago this weekend on large scale, but smaller things too. My mom did things like join NAACP and send C.A.R.E. packages to the poor in the deep south, she even wrote letters to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

I don’t, however, recall my parents going to the public protests that seemed to saturate our part of the country, and I was too young to go on own. But like most adolescents of that time and that place I yearned to take on what we called “The Man” and be involved. I wanted to be an active part of what I understood to be unrest aimed at transforming the world.

I know it is not everyone’s thing, but at the time as a kid I would loved to have participated in the public protests and non-violent unrest. Not having an adult to drag me to the happenings I was left to my own devices and became involved in environmental efforts and I tutored younger children. I even rode around with bumper stickers upright on back of my bike rack. And of course, I also wore peace and ecology buttons, and argued and debated with others on war and civil rights issues like I think a lot of folks (including my mom) were doing .

When I became a college freshman in the mid 1970s the era of unrest was ending but lingered still. In college I finally felt empowered to do a bit more. I worked on weekends entertaining children at health stations in migrant worker camps and I did volunteer work tutoring children with reading concerns . . . and I still rode my bike everywhere with the bumper sticker.

But my biggest memories from my freshman year have to do with some unrest, a public protest, that I staged. You may disagree with me–many folks have– but as a Feminist I felt that the selection of a homecoming beauty queen at my college was a very sexist tradition that needed to be challenged. So I checked the rules and discovered no one had thought to limit contestants to women, so I caused a ruckus by applying and running for the Homecoming Queen of San Jose City College. My simple point was that if we wanted Homecoming representatives for our college they should NOT be selected based on a sexist beauty contests–which I was protesting as I supported gender equality.

There are two things I remember most . . . First, is the hostility and hate my protest engendered. As I sat in the room with the other contestants I endured the ugliest, meanest, taunts and anger I’ve ever encountered. I had prepared myself with Feminist points for the judges, but I was not ready for co-contestants scowling at me.

The second thing I remember is that in the weeks leading up to the contest I met the most beautiful person I’ve ever encountered – Nancy– and she not only knew from the newspaper that I was running for homecoming queen , but she became a dear friend and supporter at the time–which months later led to our dating– and well, you know the rest of that story.

In the interest of full disclosure, despite my brilliant performance in front of the judges–and obvious good looks– I did not win and become the 1976 Homecoming Queen of San Jose City College. I did not expect to win, I did it as a symbolic protest. I ran – even though some folks found it a bit disturbing that I did. It wasn’t a Slem large size protest.

Here’s the thing I am hoping you’ll remember, whether you agree with my ideals or not, I still caused a little unrest with the point eventually being heard on a pretty big campus even though my protest occurred in a small part of the college in front a panel of a few judges.
(And parenthetically, of course, I got the best consolation prize ever, a life long partner and pal and love named Nancy).

I mention the small unrest I staged because a lot of us listen to the Lectionary lesson from John about Jesus disrupting the Temple and don’t think of it as staged, but as Jesus lashing out in a rather disturbing fashion. The “turn the other cheek, love your neighbor, love your enemy and forgive everyone Jesus” does not seem to be in the lesson.

Non-violence and love and peace seem to have been set aside in Jesus’ actions. We tend to hear Jesus as getting so upset and downright angry in the Temple – a sacred space– that he loses his temper and rages about thrashing the temple and threatening the well being of animals and humans.

That’s what the story in today’s reading and the painted images and even dramatic re-enactments ever since suggest happened . . .but this morning I want to suggest that’s not very likely what happened. What’s likely is that Jesus staged a bit of unrest, a protest in the Temple and it was heard and remembered. But it was not recorded in writings until more than a generation later – and by then the story had layers of embellishment added and spins put in it.

Something happened in the Temple, a protest, but what was it? What was Jesus up to?
Last year on Palm Sunday we discussed how Jesus’ rode in on a humble donkey as a protest. Pilate on that day rode into Jerusalem as a military leader on a horse in a parade of soldiers representing Rome’s power sent in to quell unrest with violence or the threat of it. Rome used violence to crush unrest — to bring about “peace.’ 1

On the other side of town Jesus rode into Jerusalem in a likely small parade of palm bearing peasants representing God’s power on a humble donkey, as a Spiritual leader among ordinary people causing unrest with non-violent love to bring about justice and ultimately real peace . . .Shalom.

Palm Sunday was street theatre-like. Earthly power (looking like earthly power always does, violent) clashes with heavenly power (looking like it always does with the God of Jesus at the helm, non-violent). The Heavenly empire uses non-violent unrest to get peace. The Earthly empire violently crushes unrest to get peace. Can you hear the clash?

Jesus on a donkey with a message of unrest to obtain humble peace wins the clash. God can be dramatically seen with him and the throngs. Gleaming weapons and breastplates, pageantry and “violent might” to stop unrest do not give a message of love. That message of love is found in the guy on the donkey who represents God creating unrest with the way things are, to get to peace, the way things ought to be.

Jesus’ Palm Sunday street-theatre demonstration was a brilliant protest portraying what cosmic power looks like, no shinny armor and blades needed, just seeking justice, loving kindness and traveling humbly with God wins. Every time. 1

That was the Palm Sunday protest. It can be heard to be about symbolically standing up to an earthly empire’s army sent to quell unrest during Passover. The Temple protest where Jesus creates more unrest is thought to have occurred after it, probably the next day, on Monday. 2.

Pilate’s entry into Rome with military might that Sunday was to police the Passover week as pilgrims arrived and the threat of protests– unrest– increased. On Monday Jesus defied that might creating a bit of unrest in the Roman controlled Temple. Now, had Jesus literally done what we picture and John suggests in the Lectionary reading, Pilate’s army garrison overlooking the temple would have swooped in on Jesus and arrested him THEN –if not killed him – THEN– on the spot. 3

Violently wielding a multi-thong whip while chasing “ALL” the merchants and money changers and animals out of the temple, and scattering coins and overturing the tables would have surely caused the policing military to immediately and unmercifully pounce on Jesus. The scale of his reported actions in the Temple–as John tells it– would have brought in the Centurions, maybe even quicker than such behavior in a mall would bring in squads of police today.
That Jesus was not arrested at the Temple evidences that his actions were, as Marcus Borg put it, “sufficiently limited so as not to incite intervention. It was not intended to be efficacious, but was a symbolic act.” 4.  In other words, it’s not likely Jesus went into the Temple and lost it one day having a fit of violence against the buyers and the sellers throwing all the tables over and violently chasing everybody out with a whip. In fact the physical lay out of the Temple belies this could have occurred. The Temple area covered 35 acres and was big enough to fit in 34 football fields. 5 . During Passover it was very busy with thousands of people. So this wasn’t like chasing a few people out of a store downtown. It would have been more like chasing out multitudes at a big city mall the weekend before Christmas.

All of this information evidences it was physically impossible for Jesus to run around with a whip literally doing all the stuff John reports he did in our lesson today. And John’s violent Jesus, of course, does not comport with the actions of the forgiving loving Jesus who teaches and urges love and justice and peace. Jesus could certainly have spoken critically or harshly and even turned tables over and let loose animals in civil disobedience, to symbolically disrupt the Temple, but nowhere else in the Gospel stories does Jesus wield weapons or hit people or animals– and he preaches the opposite.

So John’s report, or at least how we hear it, with an angry violent Jesus does not gibe with physical reality, nor with what we know about Jesus.

All four Gospels, however, do report that Jesus did something in the Temple, some sort of protest that was remembered. Mark the earliest Gospel records this somewhat less violent version of story:

[Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mar 11:15-20 NRS)

That story in Mark has impossible events going on too, like “not allow[ing] anyone to carry anything through the temple.” Literally that could not be accurate, and again it is hard to picture a non-violent loving and forgiving Jesus driving out people– in the sense of threatening them, especially since we are told the whole crowd was spellbound, not angry– with his teaching.

And if he had done any of that stuff–even as Mark records it– again, surely the Roman guard would have quickly stamped his effort out. But they didn’t. And Jesus left the Temple, strongly suggesting that the Gospel accounts exaggerate Jesus’ actions. But Jesus did enter the temple and he did do some sort of protest there. And that protest would have been a direct challenge to Rome’s way of doing things, Jesus was challenging Rome’s control and its quelling of unrest; AND the Temple leadership and the worshipers letting themselves be quelled.

That challenge, perhaps coupled with his Palm Sunday protest and a reputation as one criticizing Roman authority and Roman appointed authority led to Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution. See . . . the temple protest may very well have been the last straw.
All of this though still begs the question: What was Jesus protesting?

Going to the earliest version of the story in Mark we can hear that he is remembered as protesting the Temple as having been “made a den of robbers.” That is actually a quote from Jeremiah (7:11). But the word “robber” is better understood as someone who commits “any form of resistence to established control.” 6

In Jeremiah 7 that Old Testament verse was referring to Temple leaders and worshipers who resisted God’s control making the temple their den, as in a lair– a hideaway from doing God’s work. See the Temple at times was seen by prophets, as behaving, well . . . like a lot of churches in history behave, as a Holy place to go and be led to act and say pious things, but to leave and go out in the world to commit, or allowed to be committed, un-Holy acts like oppression of outcasts and poor. They, in other words, are not being the places that they should be causing Holy unrest out in the world to get God’s work done

The “den of robbers” saying is not about the Temple vendors being robbers, the merchants and coin exchanges were not the issue. The issue was the Temple being used as a hideaway where God’s established control was resisted. Instead of God’s Holy unrest being carried out, Rome’s quelling of that it was allowed to occur. 7. It was Rome in Jesus place and time that spearheaded the resistance to God by controlling the Temple allowing it to only do what Rome wanted.

Jeremiah 7 and the use of it in the Synoptic Gospels by Jesus can be heard to be akin to the Micah 6 text on the wall behind me. That text in Micah is surrounded by the prophet’s criticism of “worship-ie” things in the temple not being followed by seeking justice and loving kindness and religious humble walking. Oppression of outcasts went on unchecked.
In Jesus’ day Rome’s not only oppressing outcasts, but not allowing the Temple to stop it. What Rome sought was the utter domination of Palestine and it’s inhabitants. Rome used the Temple as best it could to that end– so much so, that Jesus’ challenge of that Temple was a challenge of Rome. And Rome did not take kindly to challenges.

Micah, Jeremiah and actually all the prophets and Jesus were trying to stir up in people an unrest against the way things were. The status quo was being shaken. They promoted unrest, even as the earthly powers sought to stop it. And sometimes they protested the earthly powers outside the Temple and sometimes they protested it as a part of the Temple. John the Baptist actually did both, he called people into the Jordan River as a symbolic re-conquering the Promised Land from the Romans. And he was also out there in the water offering repentance and forgiveness something the Roman controlled Temple was alone allowed to do that. 8

Jesus may well have been following John the Baptist’s blueprint, protesting both Rome and the Temple. Only he brought the protest from the countryside to the city, Jerusalem. On Sunday of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Jesus can be heard as protesting an earthly empire’s army sent to quell unrest during Passover. On Monday of Holy Week, Jesus can be heard as protesting the quelling of the unrest by that earthly empire.

Through Jesus the empire of God clashed with the empire of man, Rome. Rome took a violent swipe at Jesus, killing him. But God non-violently swiped back with a long lived resurrection. God joined in on the protest of Rome’s violence and quelling– stopping– of justice and kindness.

One important lesson in the Gospels is that Rome couldn’t stop God’s unrest with injustice. Jesus created that unrest in the way he taught and lived and protested. Our job as Christians is to keep that unrest going so that one day earthly empires’s ways rule no more. So that God wins. So that Love wins. So that Jesus wins. So that we all win. Holy unrest, you see, must not be quelled– indeed it ultimately cannot be . . . That is good news!   Amen. 9

1. Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week, p 31-53
2. Ibid.
3. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p 182.
4. Ibid. At 183-184
5. Funk, Robert, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, p 121.
6. The Last Week, p 51
7. Ibid., at 52-53.
8. Tatum, W. Barnes, John the Baptist and Jesus, a report of the Jesus Seminar, p. 20, 123-124, Crossa, The Historical Jesus, p 162-165
9. I utilized a number of writings as I researched this sermon. There are many ideas about what happened during Jesus’ protest in the Temple, and why he did it. The books I consulted do not necessarily all square with conclusions in this sermon, but they did help lead me to them. The books included Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, and The Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan; Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg; The Last Week, by Borg and Crossan;The Misunderstood Jew by Amy Jill Levine; The God of Jesus, by Stephen Patterson; Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2; The Acts of Jesus and The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say by Robert Funk and Jesus Seminar; John the Baptist and Jesus, a report of the Jesus Seminar by Tatum, W. Barnes;, and The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. The book by Crossan and Borg, The Last Week as I read it, draws a similar conclusion as to what Jesus was protesting and I relied a lot on that as well as their discussion of Palm Sunday which made me think the “Temple Event” was likely a related staged protest.