Can the oppressed nonetheless also be unrighteous?
Are the poor blessed by virtue of being poor, possessing an inherent righteousness, or do they not also need atonement made?
Can a victim of systemic sin still be a sinner in need of forgiveness? And speaking of victims, what about victimizers? If God’s preferential option is for the former, can the latter be justified?
I’m wondering about these questions because in the Gospel lection for this coming Sunday, Jesus pitches his (premeditated) Temple tantrum, whipping the money-changers, driving the livestock out of the sanctuary, and drop-kicking the cash registers. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ violent protest takes place the week of his Passion, but in John’s Gospel, the text for Sunday, the Temple tantrum comes right after the first of his signs, the wedding at Cana.
That the Jewish Leaders respond to Jesus behaving badly only by asking by what authority he has said and done this but do not call for his arrest implies that they likewise recognize the problem at hand. Because Roman coinage bore the image of Caesar and was stamped with a profession of faith to Caesar’s Lordship, it was unclean and out of bounds for Jewish ritual use. Moreover because it’s inconvenient to travel very far with your prized 4-H bull, Jewish pilgrims who came to the Jerusalem Temple for festival days often needed to purchase sacrificial animals after they arrived. So, in the text, the sheep and doves are being sold on the Temple grounds because neither would fit in a pilgrim’s wallet or duffle bag, and the money-changers have their tables set up there too because there’s little point in sacrificing an animal to make atonement for your sin if you’re going to buy that animal with cash that itself breaks the first and most foundational of commandments.
What Jesus diagnoses as a “den of thieves” began as an understandable and well-intentioned system. But, if you’ve been trapped in a movie theater, airport, or baseball stadium, then you can easily imagine how this process devolved into price-gouging poor pilgrims, extorting the faithful for ever greater sums.
That Jesus’ Temple tantrum is premeditated (he wove the whip from ropes) underscores how Jesus intended it as a performed parable. Rather than spontaneous anger, the Temple tantrum is a prophetic demonstration against an unjust and exploitive economic system.
Sure enough, this is how the John 2 text will get preached in many pulpits this coming Sunday. Jesus’ meme-starting moment in the Temple will be used as an example to exhort Christians to go and do likewise, pitching their own Temple tantrums to rage against modern day money-changers.
The righteous anger of the students in Parkland, Florida, for example, is an easy parallel to draw to Jesus’ own fury in his Father’s House and I’d bet a bull and 2 sheep that many preachers will go there. And to connect those dots from the pages of John’s Gospel to the newspaper pages isn’t wrong per se; it’s insufficient, for to employ this passage for imperatives exhorting social justice is to narrow the frame of the text.
As Pope Benedict writes, to ‘cast Jesus [merely] as a reformer in this passage of the cleansing of the Temple fails to do justice to the witness of the passage.’
To read the cleansing of the Temple as a prophetic act of social justice that compels our own similar acts misses what Jesus says in response to the leaders’ questions about his authority- and it misses how his answer differs from the Synoptics’ rendering of this response. In John, Jesus responds to their questions about his authority by saying “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” In the Synoptic Gospels, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, saying Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…” In the latter, Jesus is the agent of destruction but in the former, in John’s Gospel, we are the agents of destruction.
Jesus is the Temple
And the sign of his authority is his Cross and Resurrection
Jesus identifying himself as the Temple where atonement is made echoes how the Book of Hebrews understands Christ’s own flesh as the Temple veil that mediates the holiness of God and the sin of humanity and Christ’s cross as the mercy seat upon which the propitiation of blood is sprinkled, once and for all.
In answering with himself as the Temple, Jesus points out that the system of Temple sacrifice wasn’t only problematic for those who made an exploitive mockery of it, it was problematic- maybe more so- for those who were sincere about it because it could not atone for your sins, once for all.
As common as it is for preachers to interpret Jesus’ Temple tantrum as the impetus for what we do against exploitive systems of injustice, scripture itself- notably, the Book of Hebrews- uses this passage not in terms of what we must do for God but what God has done in Christ for us.
That Jesus is the Temple, his flesh its veil, and his cross its mercy seat shows that the problem humanity faces is more systemic than the problems about which we prefer to preach
The New Testament, indeed all of the Bible, points to a far deeper and far graver source of human misery than injustice and oppression. It’s popular to the point of cliche to insist that God stands on the side of the marginalized and dispossessed and while that’s certainly true, it’s insufficient for, according to scripture, the marginalized and oppressed with whom God stands are also sinners in need of forgiveness and mercy.
To put it another way:
Liberation is not Salvation.
The emphasis upon social justice in the Church, whose premise is that what defines God’s redemptive activity is liberation from oppression, displaces the centrality that belongs to Jesus Christ alone as Savior of the world. What defines God’s redemptive activity is not liberation from oppression but from the Powers of Sin and Death, for the sign of God’s redemptive activity, so says Jesus, is Cross and Resurrection.
Liberation from oppression, standing up against social injustice, solidarity with the marginalized- those are all faithful frames and postures but they are not sufficient for what scripture names by ‘salvation’ because the oppressed still require atonement for their sins.
The dispossessed do not posses an inherent righteousness.
As my teacher George Hunsinger notes, referring to Karl Barth‘s work:
“The New Testament message, as I understand it, is that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we are helpless to save ourselves, and that our only hope lies in God’s gracious intervention for us in Jesus Christ. There is only one work of salvation. It has been accomplished by Christ. It is identical with his person…
Victim-oriented theologies, such as we find among the liberationists, fail to do justice to this central truth. The fundamental human plight is that of sinners before God not of victims before oppressors.”