As I write on the Monday of Holy Week, I am reminded of Jesus’ dramatic action on this day. Mark 11 recounts his prophetic action: “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying…” One New Testament scholar has wryly called this his “temple tantrum.” Interpreters of Passion Week suggest that this radical challenge to the practices of the temple was the catalyst for the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. What was at stake?
The temple had a storied, sometimes ambiguous history within the life of the Jewish people. It was the focal place for encountering God; it was the place where forgiveness was enacted through the high priest’s action in the Holy of Holies. In the first century, it was a key participant in a system of domination that allowed Roman rule to dictate the rhythms of worship, which contributed greatly to economic exploitation of the faithful who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus a form of “worship,” legitimated by an unholy alliance of the high priests with imperial forces, had ignored the demand for justice.
The rebuke of Jesus toward the questionable activity of the temple set in motion a new theology of the temple, especially after it was destroyed in 70 C.E. Jesus himself was the place for encountering God; he offered forgiveness without reliance on the sacrificial system; and, he removed all barriers to drawing near—for gentiles and women, in particular.
As I reflect on Jesus’ action, I wonder what he might say about today’s church. Have we privileged a form of worship to the exclusion of justice? Have we erected structures that exclude persons most in need of God’s mercy?