It is one of the less celebrated days of Holy Week, just like every week: Tuesday, the day oft relegated to leftovers and drudgery. While the timeline of the Gospels is a little fuzzy, traditional monastic liturgy places Jesus’ visit to the Temple (at least his visit in the synoptic Gospels) squarely on the wholly uncelebrated Tuesday – Tuesday morning to be exact. I can imagine that his closest followers lounging around the breakfast table with Jesus at dawn.
And they ask him, So…. what are we doing today Jesus? Miracles, healings, more of those great stories you seem to always have up the sleeve of your tunic?
He is quiet for a moment, and they begin to have that sinking feeling.
I’m going to the Temple to hold our leadership accountable for the way they exploit the poor, Jesus says, matter-of-factly. Can someone pass the hummus?
Jesus’ followers may have been as surprised by what follows as we still are today. As the story goes, they wanted Jesus to oppose Roman occupation and injustice, but instead, Jesus looks at the injustice that is present within their own community. At the time, observant Jews still made burnt offerings at the Temple as part of their religious observance. To accommodate those traveling a long way, money lenders set up in the Temple courtyard to sell the animals needed for the offering. Of course, this “convenience” came at a mark-up; a mark-up most felt by the poor pilgrims who only came to sacrifice doves. (We know of Jesus’ own poverty, as his parents sacrificed doves on his behalf when he was a baby.)
There are variations on the story. In Matthew, he throws seats as well as tables, and in John, he cracks a whip of cords (!?!). In Luke, he preforms the ultimate power move, and sets himself up to teach in the Temple for the rest of the week.
But in all of the Gospels, Jesus denounces the moneylenders; calling them thieves and robbers, because they acquire wealth on the backs of the poor who have little means by which to resist this exploitation. This story is rarely addressed in Holy Week sermons, with the ostensible reason being that there are already too many profound texts to cover. (Seriously, what didn’t Jesus do that week?) But there also is the matter of convenience. Much of Holy Week lends itself to sermons that describe a peaceful and self-sacrificing Jesus, who loves and forgives everyone, even those who crucify him. This angry Jesus in the Temple is quite a bit more challenging, offering a critique the status quo, and so in most renditions of the Holy Week story, he sticks out like a sore thumb. It is the classic dichotomy between the pastoral and prophetic preaching.
But of course, that’s just one perspective.
For the past six years, I have preached almost every Tuesday of Holy Week at Spirit Cafe. Most of the folks at the service are either our dedicated volunteers, or those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. For the first two years, I simply recycled my Palm Sunday sermon, and offered words of comfort about the Jesus who willingly gives himself for others. As I got to know all these folks better, I instead turned to the story about angry Jesus in the Temple, and listened to what our Spirit Cafe regulars have had to say.
Isn’t that the way it still is? a man asked last year. They nickel and dime us however they can.
He had a good point. Those of us who have never been so poor may not be aware of how expensive poverty can. Having a bank account often requires a minimum amount of money on-hand. If someone is too poor to afford a bank account, they have to pay each time they need to issue or cash a check. If someone is arrested, and too poor to afford put up bail, bail bondsmen will front the money, but at a rate of ten percent. If someone doesn’t have a vehicle to drive to the super market, they have to pay the additional cost of shopping at “convenience” store. What would Jesus say about the mark-up or the overdraft fees? If Jesus were here today, wouldn’t he crack his whip at the entrance of a payday lending site?
I’m glad Jesus is pissed, a woman famously said a few years back. You try having first and last month rent available at the same time. I’m pissed, too.
Every Holy Week, I find myself drawn to this woman’s words. Because she shattered the false dichotomy between the pastoral and prophetic. Angry Jesus in the Temple is only challenging for those of us who feel secure. But for those of us who are on the edge, the moment is incredibly comforting, because when Jesus calls out those who are exploiting the poor, it means that Jesus sees the poor. Jesus knows that there are structures in places that put people on the streets, and that keep people in poverty. And Jesus is saying that poor people are worth fighting for, because poor people are also beloved children of God.
Such an angry Jesus can challenge us. He challenges me for sure. But also, this is the same Jesus who sees us hurting right now. This Jesus is outraged on the behalf of all of those who do not have health insurance, and on behalf of those health care professionals who do not have the proper equipment to do their jobs. This Jesus knows that we may be afraid. This Jesus sees that the United States is so far behind other nations that are leading in the response to COVID-19. And this Jesus shows us that our truth is worth speaking: If our elected officials fail in their task to care for public health, they need to be held accountable. Not so that some of us can say, “I told you so”, but so that all of us can say, “Never again.”
On this Table-Flipping Tuesday, I will be standing in the church parking lot. From a safe distance, I will point people to brown paper bags filled with pulled-pork sandwiches and chips. (And they will be grateful that I was not the one who prepared the food.) I will ask them where they are staying, and if they know anyone who is sick. And then I will ask them to move along, even though I know that they have no where, really, to go.
But I will also be on the phone with other advocates who are working for the welfare of undocumented folks, senior citizens, and others who may be struggling even more than the rest of us during this pandemic. We will not be cracking whips, but we will be sharing ideas, and building consensus. We will be finding ways to work with our elected officials, and to reach out to the people in our community who are presently underserved.
I can’t speak for the other advocates, but my commitment to this work is rooted in the story of this day. And as I read the table-flipping story again, I don’t see a Jesus who is simply angry, but one who is deeply passionate. A Jesus who puts his passion into action, and who dares to proclaim that all is not yet as it should be. A Jesus who sees each one of us, however on the margins we may be, and calls each of us “beloved”.