Blessed are the peacemakers--but no peace is made by lying. Luke 19:28-47
The Gospel text for Palm Sunday always includes this vivid scene when Jesus entered the Temple precincts during the Passover festival and went about overturning the tables of the moneychangers. It is reported in all four Gospels. In one account, in the Gospel of John, Jesus even fashions a whip of cords to carry out his mission.
The event is of single importance because upon entering Jerusalem, it is first to the Temple that Jesus goes! In one gospel, he stays over several days teaching, interpreting and reinterpreting Jewish law. He declared earlier that he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. And that included scolding the Temple hierarchy throughout his entire ministry into fulfilling their spiritual role. “You have turned God’s house of prayer into a robbers’ cave,” he said as the tables went flying.
Jesus wasn’t objecting to the commercial practices—the commentators all agree—the sale of animals to be sacrificed was necessary for the sake of pilgrims who traveled from afar, and for those coming from other countries, moneychangers were needed to exchange currency. Jesus would be objecting to the dominating presence that crowded people out of the Court of the Gentiles, namely the poor and disabled (are we surprised at Jesus?).
Furthermore, when he complained that they had turned the place into a robbers’ den, this had reference apparently to the fact that thieves often claimed sanctuary but had no intention of observing religious laws. Again, Jesus was not aiming at business practices but at crowding out those who were there for spiritual purposes.
It is a commonplace of Christian teaching that Jesus was attacking the Temple. Christians, especially Protestants, glory in the fact that our Jesus had real emotions and that he directed his anger at the institution of the Temple just as he had at the priests, scribes, and the various Jewish sects throughout his ministry. And, more important, here supposedly was proof that Jesus intended to supersede the Temple with either himself or an alternative religion of his own initiation.
But Jesus was not attacking the Temple, he was defending it. The emotion we should associate with his action is not anger but devotion. You can love something so much that it fires up your indignation and exasperation at its failures. And Jesus was manifestly fired up.
Jesus’ devotion to the Temple was peaceful to his core. He could not have possibly been one of the Zealot Party, as one scholar, Reza Azlan, claims in his excellent book, Zealot. The almost constant combat between the Roman occupiers and the Israelites going back several decades before Jesus’ birth and into his own lifetime had generated many rebellious factions. Jesus did not belong to any of them, other scholars have concluded. However, it is quite conceivable that Jesus got mistaken as one of the insurrectionists who wanted to overthrow both church and state, and when the authorities had a chance to be rid of him, they let it happen, as we know from the end of the story. But that comes later.
Howsoever he may have been perceived at the time, I believe Jesus came willing one thing, and that was the renewal and restoration of the Jews’ faith in God, a faith that was dependent upon the renewal and the restoration of the Temple’s spiritual integrity.
Jesus prophesies at one point, that the Temple would be destroyed and that he would rebuild it in three days. This has been taken to mean he would replace Judaism. What Jesus sought was Judaism’s survival and perfection—he predicted its fall due to the weight of its institutional sins, because he had so much invested in its survival.
The Temple was a place of surpassing beauty, although Herod the Great’s spectacular renovations around the year 20 BCE were irrelevant to the Jews. The Temple’s real importance derived from its being the repository of the Arc of the Covenant and the fountain of moral law. Even more significant, the Temple’s placement on Mount Zion in Jerusalem expressed its mystical association as the meeting place of heaven and earth, so it was not only the moral but the physical capital of the universe for Jews. The Temple sat at the intersection of cosmos and earth. Mount Zion, on which the Temple sits, reflects how God subdued chaos (Genesis 1), referred to in our Psalm today as the seas and the rivers.
Much loved by the Judeans, Jesus loved the Temple, too. In order to even faintly imagine what was at stake for Jesus in the Temple, you only have to recall the many references in the Psalms. Ps 36:8-10: They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 23:6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 27:4: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 132:13-14: For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.
So, there was meaning in that prophecy of destruction, as preposterous a claim as it sounded. Only his listeners didn’t know it. They mistook the meaning that was right on the surface. Everything that impeded what the Temple stood for—God’s mercy and lovingkindness, God’s righteousness—was about to be overturned and overhauled, by God. The Temple as they knew it would be transformed. This was the faith of Jesus.
How should any of this affect our faith in Christ and the way we manage our lives? For one thing, it was another reminder that Jesus did not come to start another religion. If he could have, Jesus would restore the religion of his people. But those in a position of power wouldn’t budge, and the collision would break Jesus.
How is his unpeaceful behavior consistent with the blessing he confers upon all peacemakers as “children of God”? Jesus does bless the peacemakers, but Jesus makes it abundantly clear that lying doesn’t promote peace. Before he even entered Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city which “didn’t recognize the things that make for peace.” Lying promotes temporary peace of an external sort, such as we do to placate someone else in a disagreement—we button our lip. Or, when we enable another person’s addiction—we do so, to “keep the peace.” Or, when we oppose a war, or the suppression of the vote, we may not feel it’s worth getting all stirred up.
Peacemaking should not avoid the truth, it should proclaim it. Speaking truth to power, and speaking truth to a loved one who has power over us, brings the only peace worth having, but it may require turning over some tables, either literally or figuratively—maybe finding some “good trouble.” Because of the travail that Jesus underwent, he made clear the very possible costs. Because of the faith Jesus had in God, he showed us the power of God. There may be two different worlds—the private (personal) and the public (political), but they are just two different locations of the same spiritual fact: truth leads to ultimate peace, whereas lying, deceit and deception lead to violence and destruction. And, believe me, destruction destroys.
For another thing, this Temple scene tells us to regard our own temple and sanctuary with similar devotion. We should feel the same way about our churches, synagogues and mosques. They should not be the objects of worship in themselves but places of devotion and truth-seeking.
So, let us return to Psalm 24 and listen to its answer to the question, “Who shall ascend the hill of God, the hill of Mount Zion?” Only you who have clean hands and pure hearts. Only you who lift up your souls to truth and refuse to utter deceits. Who shall ascend the hill of God--? All of you and the Sovereign of hosts, the God beyond gods. So, lift up your heads, O Temple gates! And be lifted up, O ancient temple doors, that the Ruler of Glory may come in with you, the people of God!