13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
When I had just started my pastoral ministry, this story was my inspiration! All the pastors probably will say “amen!” that they have been through countless committee meetings and hallway conversations, when making a whip and driving everyone out of the building seemed like the only option left. Now, years later, as an outsider, I can see that the Jesus’ actions were not as straightforward as they appear. So this post is not so much a sermon prep material, but more of a reflection on pastoral ministry in general and carrying out changes in our congregations in particular.
Going back to the text, what does it really describe?
- Jesus expresses his negative emotions in a very powerful way.
- Jesus clearly says what upset him.
- When confronted, Jesus had some leverage against the authorities.
- Did anything in the Temple operations change after Jesus’s incident? – No evidence to that.
This is what we find on the surface of the narrative. Since the gospel of John was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and in the midst of complex relationship with Jewish communities, this text served a particular purpose for its original audience. But today I choose to stick with its narrative interpretation as it relates to leaders in our churches today.
First, in his life time Jesus witnessed a huge number of cases of socio-economic injustice, perverted spiritual practices, misguided interpretations of the Scripture, harassment, ignorance and idolatry. He did not live in a perfect society (far from it!!!) and bursting out in anger was not his typical reaction to such things. The gospel describes Jesus as poised, patient, wise, loving, caring, enduring, with a much bigger vision than his community could grasp at the time. My experience in ministry taught me that such default attitude is much more productive in bringing change.
Second, Jesus was very clear about what made him mad, he directed his whip at the people and animals that, he believed, should not have been there. So if we get mad, let’s make sure we clearly articulate (without any whips though, because XXI century) what it is that upsets us so much. Also, as leaders we need to envision in as much detail as possible what the solution to the problem at hand is and how to get there. Once things get heated up and emotions kick in, the leader should bring the conversation back to its productive stage. Yes, constructive conversation is the key. And, as you can see, it is missing from the gospel story. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ attempt at restructuring the daily functions of the Temple failed.
Third, being a change-maker requires leverage. Some of your authority comes from your title and your role in the worship service and other church activities. It also helps to have some team-members to back you up. Jesus had leverage against the authorities, he knew he could raise from the dead after they kill him. However, we see that in that particular place and time his leverage was not obvious to the Temple authorities, therefore his attempt at removing animals and sellers from the Temple grounds failed.
So here is my bottom line. This text is not your customary WWJD, but a rare example of DON’T-DO-WHAT-JESUS-DID if you want to be successful at introducing change in your congregations. Luckily, the rest of the gospel offers better lessons at leadership in the times of crisis and change for us to consider.