I have to tell you that the story we read today from the Gospel of John is not one of my favorites. Jesus making a whip to chase out the animals and merchants, and turning over the moneychanger’s tables in the temple courtyard seems out of character to me. Until now I have avoided preaching on this story, which is a little hard to do, since it appears in all four gospels (See Matthew 21:12-27, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-48.). And so here we are.
How many of you have heard the question, “What would Jesus do?” In the 1990’s people wore WWJD bracelets to remind themselves to act like Jesus. Did you know that the phrase originated over a hundred years ago . . . in Kansas? A minister in Topeka named Charles M. Sheldon published a book titled, “In His Steps What Would Jesus Do?” Of course, the idea of imitating Christ has been around since the time of the original disciples, but Sheldon coined the phrase.
As we consider what Jesus would do, we see from today’s gospel reading, that flipping tables is something that Jesus would do, whether we like that idea or not. I grew to like it a little better this week when I saw someone post that this story is why they believe Jesus is real, because “a made-up all-wise Jesus would certainly not be getting angry and flipping tables.”
So why is Jesus doing this? And what does it mean for us today?
Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, one of the major celebrations that brought big crowds to the temple from all over Israel and beyond. Preparation for Passover included making animal sacrifices for purification. If you lived too far away to have brought an animal, then you had to buy one. If you couldn’t afford a bull or a sheep, there were the lesser expensive pigeons and doves. Also, everyone had to pay a temple tax, and it had to be paid in the local currency. The moneychangers are there to exchange foreign currency in order to pay the tax.
When Jesus chases everyone out and flips over the tables, he says, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (John 2:16) In the other gospel accounts, Jesus also shouts, “You’ve turned this place into a den of thieves.”
Selling these animals had become a major source of income for the city. The sellers were able to charge more than the animals were actually worth because the people needed to make the sacrifices or they would be unable to participate in the Passover celebration. If people will pay more, sellers can charge more, and so they do. And this activity had taken over the court of the Gentiles, the only part of the temple that was open to everyone. Commerce had co-opted worship.
So when Jesus flips the tables and clears the temple, this is Jesus restoring purity to a holy place, and this is also Jesus boldly standing up for the left out and the least, the outsiders and the poor who cannot afford to pay so much. This is Jesus getting angry about church leaders putting up obstacles between people and God.
I’ve got a trivia question for you. Who holds the high jump record in the Bible?
Jesus. He cleared the temple.
I used to think that the table flipping was Jesus showing his humanity, but actually he’s showing us his divinity. We’ve seen God do some table flipping.
- Two weeks ago we read the story in Genesis 6-9 in which God sends a flood to wipe out everything and start over because the sinfulness of humanity was too great. That sounds like table flipping to me.
- In the book of Numbers, when the Israelites first crossed the desert after God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, they sent scouts into the promised land to get a first look, and the scouts came back with scary stories about giants. The people succumbed to their fear instead of trusting God. God said to Moses, “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them” (Numbers 14:11).
But Moses talks God out of destroying them, and so God changes his mind and makes them wander in the desert for another forty years, saying,
“No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see [the land I promised to their ancestors]” (Numbers 14:23). God did some table flipping there, didn’t he?
- In Acts 12, Herod Agrippa makes a speech to the people, after which they praise him, saying he has the voice of a god. “Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. So he was eaten by worms and died.” (Acts 12:23) God flipped the tables on Herod.
So when Jesus flips the tables, what we’re actually seeing is that Jesus truly is the Son of God. I find that comforting, because we’re also seeing that God is not some distant entity who created the world and then left us all on our own to work things out. God is still very much involved in our world, and God cares how we live and how we treat each other.
In Acts, when Peter and the apostles are put in jail for telling people about Jesus, one of the pharisees advises the council to let them go, saying, “If they are doing these things on their own, it will die out, but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39)
Mennonite pastor Hugh Hollowell says something similar: “Every time we use religion to draw a line to keep people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.”
If Jesus were to be here on earth today, what tables would he be flipping?
I wonder if Jesus would have been standing with Greta Thurnberg when she made her speech about climate change to the United Nations in 2018. Her words are quite convicting. She said:
“…The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. . . right here, right now, is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”
Greta did some table flipping that day.
I wonder if Jesus would have been in the streets with the crowds who were protesting after George Floyd was killed. A study published this week has found that these protests have made a difference in the cities where there were protests. Many of those cities adopted the use of body cameras and revised their policies, resulting in reduced killings by police officers. That’s some table flipping that got some results.
Like it or not, Jesus flips tables because he’s not just soft, gentle, Jesus. He’s our savior who fights for us. We see this in Isaiah 61 which was the reading yesterday in our Lent devotional. Verse 2 says that God “has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.” To tell those who mourn that God will fight for them against their enemies.
In those days Israel was vulnerable to attack by larger, more powerful countries – Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia. Without God’s help, they were powerless to survive.
Today, we may not understand what that was like because we are one of those powerful countries. We aren’t entirely immune to attack, as 9/11 and Pearl Harbor demonstrated, but we don’t generally live in fear of attack. That’s not true for everyone in America, though. If we don’t live in fear of our neighbors or of enemies, we should give thanks to God for that privilege, because there are those in our country who do.
- Black Americans live in fear of attack and harassment, as do other people of color.
- Asian Americans are being harassed even more lately because some have said that China is the reason we have this pandemic.
There’s no reason to have any animosity against Asian Americans. And yet they are being attacked as they walk through the subway in New York, and spit on as they go to stores in Southern California. In the Northern California Bay Area, older Asian Americans are afraid even to go outside because they are so likely to be harassed.
God calls us to fight against this hatred. Jesus flipped tables because Jesus cares about all of us, especially those who are living in fear and being harassed and attacked. We, as followers of Jesus, need to stand up for those being harassed and make it clear that this is not ok. We can help counteract the misinformation that has fueled the increased racism.
Jesus cares about what’s going on in our world, and in the church. When Jesus flips tables, he’s chasing out merchants who are inside the place of worship. Jesus says, “Stop turning God’s house into a marketplace.”
Stop making faith transactional. In a transaction, someone has to give something to get something. People had to give money to get animals for their sacrificial offerings. People gave their offerings in exchange for forgiveness and purification.
We might say that was then, this is now since we don’t require temple taxes and animal sacrifices anymore. But we sometimes make faith transactional without even realizing it.
- We try to earn God’s favor by doing more good things, or by giving more money, or by being good enough.
- We try to make other people earn their way into the church by behaving a certain way or looking a certain way or saying certain words.
When someone comes to the church asking for help, one of the first things they tell me is that they will come to church if we help them. Usually they don’t, I don’t expect them to, but experience has taught them that this is required, that grace is transactional. It’s not. Grace is free. We demonstrate that whenever we help someone with no strings attached.
When Jesus cleared out the vendors and the moneychangers, the Jewish leaders demanded a sign.
“All right,” Jesus replied. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
They didn’t realize that when Jesus said “this temple,” he meant his own body. (John 2:18-20)
When Jesus died on the cross, he became the once and for all sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. No other transaction is required. Forgiveness and salvation is for every single one of us, through faith and by God’s grace alone. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it. It’s a done deal.
What would Jesus do?
Long before we were even born, Jesus had already died for us.
Throughout history, Jesus has stood up for the lost and the least.
We are to do the same with no strings attached, and to make sure that nothing we do becomes an obstacle that keeps someone from knowing God’s unconditional love and free grace.
If Jesus were to come flip tables today, what would he tell us to change?
What would Jesus really do?
 RAQUEL ST. CLAIR LETTSOME, Jarvis, Cynthia A.; Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Gospels–John, Volume 1. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Stephen Bramer, The Bible Reader’s Joke Book, Kindle edition