There’s a scripture that is really out of place, and its placement contains a message for a churches that are strong on inclusion, activism, and speaking out.
Recently, I was reading the Gospel of John, and it says this short story about Jesus cleansing the temple. The text for a few verses in John 2 reads:
“Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. So Jesus made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make God’s house a place of business.”
It’s a good story, if anyone ever says you should be like Jesus, it’s good to know that that includes turning over tables and kicking things. Good to know!
But the part that shocks me the most is where it is in the Bible.
Where and When
Did you see the reference above? It’s in chapter TWO of John…wait, what?
In the other three Gospels, this scene is during Holy Week at the end of their gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19). It is after Jesus has built his moment into a movement. After Jesus has done all the miracles and the healings and the teachings, got a big TikTok following, started the revolution that would change the world on end. After Jesus enters Jerusalem with this huge crowd behind him (or just the disciples), then he goes in and then he disrupts the relationship between the Empire and the religious authorities.
So it is really shocking in the Gospel of John to see this story so close to front of Jesus’ ministry…what is this story telling us? I mean, it’s like Jesus just arrives and immediately causes trouble. He does a wedding a few verses before turning water into wine, not a very divisive act, probably pretty popular at the party. And then he turns tables and sets the empire and the authorities in his own faith tradition against him. He put himself out there, standing alone, before he built a movement.
Why is this story so different in John than the other three gospels? What is the author of the Gospel of John trying to tell us by saying “when” it happened is so much earlier than the other Gospels?
The John Method of Seizing the Moment
The difference in “when” gives us great insight into what it means to be prophetic and to speak truth to power, even those times when you are speaking against powers in society and powers inside our own faith traditions. Jesus shows there’s two ways to do it.
The first way is in John. Jesus has barely arrived on the scene. And already is causing trouble before he has built a movement. Before he has gathered up people. Before it was the Jesus movement, it was just Jesus. And that’s a really lonely place to be.
It can be lonely in your community when you’re the first one who has really spoken out against something. When you see a sin in society and you want to name it, you think your friends are going to be with you. But they either aren’t or they haven’t done the work to think about it. Or worse that the sin is inside your group, is inside the circle of people, and you’re the first person to name it as a problem of racism, sexism, homophobia, something in your group and you’re the outlier that names you’re uncomfortable with it.
Being prophetic sometimes means putting yourself out there for a justice issue before you’ve gathered people around you or are part of a community. To see the moment and not to let it slip. And that’s okay if that’s your thing. Do it. Name it and claim, sibling in Christ. It is really lonely and dangerous at times, and you wonder if you are doing anything at all.
The Synoptic Method of Building a Movement
But there is more than one way to be prophetic. This scripture is late in Jesus’ ministry in the other three Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels, named because they have similar stories and dates) because of its importance at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When he’s built his movement, this is what the movement will do: challenge unjust partnerships between religion and empire. When there’s people power behind it, it will be hard to ignore.
This speaks to the fact that, for many of us, we want to form our relationships so there’s something that will endure the other person being called in—or for us to be called in on our failures.
In this other way of being prophetic, of speaking the truth, the relationship exists before the challenge. But again and again, and especially in places where the majority culture is filled with *isms, we struggle with relationships of difference. It would be fine if it was just difference of opinion, but it’s not fine when one person’s opinion is to deny the humanity of the other person because of their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
James Baldwin, an African-American writer and activist, said
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Relationships are complicated indeed, and those who wish to speak truth in their contexts need to decide what type of relationships to have, and if you need them before you seize your moment and build your movement.
It might be helpful to see someone who I think embraced both of these.
John Wesley was an Anglican priest in England who started the Methodist Church, and he started it with a mixture of both these types of being prophetic. John Wesley was known for drawing a crowd and standing on milk crates and condemning slavery and other evils of society, for sure.
But it was also about small group accountability. About dividing the church into smaller groups where they can watch out each other in love and where they can grow in relationship to each other, and where they feel this connection and the shared value system is strong enough then they can open up that they can share these things they are struggling with, these *isms in their minds, or others can point out and name when they’ve fallen short.
This type of structure allowed preachers and laity to speak truth, and simultaneously continue to seek growth and relevance, turning Methodism into a dominant force for social concerns for a time—though they lost their way and suffered the same attrition as other denominations.
For whatever social justice goal you are pursuing, find outlets for both the moments and the movements, for both those who are ready for up front and those who are building the back-end.
In short, sometimes when you read scripture, it’s helpful to think about where a story is in the book, because where it is placed reminds us that being prophetic can happen before we’ve gathered a movement, or it can be after we’ve formed the relationships. It’s never too early or too late, it just takes wisdom to figure out when to act.
The Call is from Inside the House
Finally, a chaser idea when it comes to the justice issues in this story of the table-turning as necessary especially when it is one’s own faith tradition that is acting unjustly.
Pastor Tiffany DeTienne in Spokane, Washington, recently reflected with me that outside the temple was an outer court where non-Jewish people, called Gentiles, could worship and pray because only Jews were allowed inside. These are gentile Sympathizers to Judaism who observed the worship and practices of Jews even though they were not allowed to be full members. Pastor DeTienne says this:
“I was struck by how this money-changing market was probably in the worshipping area of the gentiles.There was an outer court where they could worship, but the Jewish leadership set up shop in their worship space! I’ve read this text a million times-but it really stuck out to me this year. Who are we pushing out of a worshipful space, a place of belonging by the business or rules of church?”
So it wasn’t just about the collusion with the empire to profiteer blessings. It was also about exclusion of those at the margins of one’s religious tradition. Jesus turned over those tables who were pushing out those who yearned to be part of the faith, but were kept at arm’s length. Long before the higher minimum wage was unattainable due to parliamentary rules (shucks!) or an entire denomination like The United Methodist Church can’t break up or fix unjust policy because it can’t gather during COVID, the church has left out folks by our business and rules that are born out of fear, ignorance, and prejudice.
Our actions to seize the moment or build the movement (and those are not exclusionary—both can happen concurrently!) are to correct those times when our own faith practices exclusion. The powers inside and outside the church will conspire to cast you out, but that’s the call to discipleship in the name of Jesus.
My hope is that in your areas of justice work, my encouragement is to move either to the up front support of those who are doing the work, which we call solidarity or advocacy, or the slow work of gathering a coalition of people that can agree on this support. Both draw us out of the mushy middle to the fire of the beginning or the smoldering collection of many flames further along.
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