God in the Marketplace
As Holy Week unfolds we are reminded of the events that led up to Jesus’ death, one of the most prominent being the Cleansing of the Temple. Recounted here is the version appearing in Mark 11:15-18:
“They came to Jerusalem, and on entering the temple area he began to drive out those selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area. Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”
The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it and were seeking a way to put him to death, yet they feared him because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.”
When I was a child and heard this particular part of the Gospels it never really hit home how outraged Jesus must have been upon seeing the money changers and those who were selling doves. At one point someone told me that Jesus was angry because the doves were not the ritually pure animals required for sacrifice, but instead lower quality birds that weren’t suitable for an offering. That idea is, of course, reading into the text quite a bit. No, Jesus was shocked by the mere fact of commercial activity taking place in a holy space.
I think what really confused me was that in America, specifically in American Christianity, everything is for sale. Christianity is rife with marketing trends and schemes, from WWJD to Fireproof. Not only that, but we want to buy things because they are marketed as holy or pure. PureFlix exists, as does an entire genre of music, books and movies; all vying for the dollars of American Christians. There are even churches where you can buy coffee in the narthex (perhaps this is actually common, if it is, more’s the pity). Everywhere an American Christian looks there is stuff being sold in the name of God, so when the Son of God walks into the outer courtyard of the temple and sees money changing hands and animals being sold his overturning of tables seems like an overreaction. But perhaps looking at it from another angle will put it into perspective. This is a clip from the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar:
In this scene we see all kinds of wrong going on at the temple, all condoned by the Caiaphas the Chief Priest. We see quack doctors, drug dealers and whores. All of them are singing about what you can get there, what’s available for sale.
Watching the pushers and the prostitutes look for business is a little unsettling the first time you see it. It feels all wrong to see such activity in a place that is supposed to be holy, and the camera work revels in the gratuitousness of it all. All this excess is the real focus of the temple during the busy season, the God-thing is just secondary. When Jesus flips out and begins flipping tables you can sympathize with his feelings. While there were no drugs for sale in the temple the sense of revulsion elicited by the movie is perhaps a taste of what Jesus felt. I first saw this movie as a child and every time I think of the Cleansing of the Temple I come back to it. Buying and selling in a holy space is a big deal, something that can profane the sacred and sully the pure. This movie was able to cut through the fog of our selling obsessed culture and get the point across. Jesus wasn’t overreacting, not by a long shot.