Direct Action, Rev. Fred Kinsey
On our walk the other day, down Milwaukee Avenue – a beautifully clear day, for a change – Kim suddenly caught sight of the skyline downtown. Look, she said wryly, it’s Emerald City! I understood the joke immediately. We haven’t been downtown for, at least a year now, because of the pandemic. Haven’t been on the CTA Blue Line, once. So, it almost seems like the fabled Chicago skyline, is a distant mythological façade. Is it, really, real? We hope so, because, it is, something to behold, and with any luck, we’ll visit again, some day soon!
It also symbolizes, I think you could say, an elite, upper-class life-style, and perhaps even, like it or not, the corruption that plagues our city. Chicago was recently named the #1 corrupt city in our country. Again! But still, it doesn’t cost anything, to gaze at the magnificence of our, Emerald City!
Something like that was going on in Jesus time, in the city of Jerusalem. Both, the outstanding beauty of the Second Temple, recently rebuilt by Herod the Great, and also, in the corruption of Jerusalem’s elite: its Roman overlords, and the scribes and other elites who benefited from their patrons.
If you visit Jerusalem today, of course – which Kim and I did in 2005 – the beauty which adorns the ancient Temple Mount is the 7th century Islamic, Dome of the Rock, with its shining cylindrical gold crown. The Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70A.D., just a few decades after ‘Jesus was killed, and on the third day rose again,’ so that, only the western wall of the Mount was left standing, or what’s affectionately called today, the Wailing Wall, where Jews, and others, go to pray, converse, and imagine how it once was.
And, it was, magnificent! It was rebuilt to the detailed biblical specifications in 1 Kings, and at the time of Herod’s rebuilding project, was the largest Temple in the Ancient Near East. And like the Dome of the Rock, it too was glittery with gold trim, reflecting the sun’s light for miles around, though structurally, in traditional squares and rectangles, instead of the rounds and circles, of the Muslim shrine. (You’d have to ask Rodrigo what the proper terms are!)
Our gospel reading today has long been called the “Cleansing of the Temple,” as if Jesus had come to purify, and scrub clean, the holy building, from any visible form of money, ever again. For a long time, churches seriously prohibited holding Bake Sales, based solely on this passage. But no one – not Jesus, or any of the pilgrims coming to the Passover festival from around the known world wherever Jews lived – was scandalized that you had to convert your local currency into the Temple’s currency, in order to buy your sacrificial animal or jug of oil. Money in the Temple was not the problem. Animals were not the problem. Jesus was after something much deeper and more fundamental. It wasn’t a Cleansing of the Temple. It was a Symbolic Direct Action, on the Temple!
The first clue we get, is Jesus’ deliberate reconnaissance, the day before. If you backup 4 verses from our text today, and read verse 11, you notice Jesus did what all good organizers do in preparation for a direct action. They scout out the building, plaza, or Temple where you’re planning it, and get the lay of the land. When the right people, or wrong people, are around, who controls the doors, what’s considered public, and what’s private, etc. Verse 11 says, “Then Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Jesus scoped it out! He looked around, at ‘everything,’ says Mark. Then, because the sun would be setting soon, he went to Mary and Martha’s home in the nearby suburb of Bethany, with the disciples.
!Not sure how well Jesus slept that night, but the next day, he gathered the disciples and headed right back, to the ‘Emerald City.’ They snacked on figs on the way, and ‘immediately’ upon entering the Temple he began to enact his well-constructed, plan, designed to shock and gain attention, and to show who was in control (God). No people or animals were harmed in this active non-violent, Symbolic Direct Action.
Jesus had two immediate targets: the changers of money who sat at their tables, or “banks,” and symbolically represented the larger banking industry that was profiting off, the mostly poor pilgrims. And, the “sellers of doves,” the sacrificial animals that the pilgrims were required to buy to make an offering.
Jesus had already made clear, back in Galilee, that he was opposed to the exploitation of the poor, lepers, and women, by the religious leaders. Now, arriving on their territory in Jerusalem, at the heart of the cultic system, Jesus demonstrates in protest form, that he is serious, that God is demanding change.
Mark says, “he drives out,” the exchangers of money and the sellers of doves, using the exact same word, ‘drive out,’ as Jesus uses when sending the demons out of people in his exorcisms. This, is the kind of wholesale cleaning Jesus did! And then he turned upside down, their tables and chairs. For this, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “[Jesus] was the most active resister known, perhaps, to history. His was non-violence par excellence.” (Gandhi, Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 16)
I remember the direct action we planned, against Illinois’ richest citizen, at his building in downtown Chicago, presumptuously called, the Citadel. He was the #1 donor to Bruce Rainer’s campaign, that helped elect him. And when Gov. Rauner was refusing to sign a state budget, an unprecedented impasse that lasted over 2 years, our action, with the support of hundreds of local leaders, shut down his idolatrous Citadel, in the middle of the business day.
The media was on hand to capture the dramatic banners and signs, pleading for a corrupt Governor to sign a budget and end the suffering of the poorest of the poor, in Chicago and the state of Illinois. Police arrived in minutes, but it took a long time to cut us out of the PVC pipes linking the 5 of us together, who had agreed to be taken to jail, giving the rest of the team outside ample time to get the message out. A direct action that, planned over some weeks, helped end the cynical budget impasse. Trudy and Michael might remember, being part of this action, too!
When Jesus, literally, and symbolically, turned the tables, Mark says, “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” That is, Jesus shut it down, so that, like in every good action, he could give a defiant speech. Jesus probably went on for some time, but according to Mark, the heart of it was about overturning the corruption of the whole temple system, which 1) was extracting wealth from the poor, to which he used the words of prophet Jeremiah against them, “you have made it a den of robbers.’ But 2) mainly, this temple is supposed to be, “a house of prayer for all nations,” Jesus insisted, now quoting Isaiah, and that the temple was made for growing the movement of believers, and enhancing the lives of people from near and far that loved their Creator, demonstrated by all the pilgrims flooding Jerusalem.
Ideally, the temple was like a Tree of Life, with branches to the sky, and roots entwined throughout the earth, a symbol of God’s life-giving grace for all, on earth, as it is in the heavens. All the pilgrims coming to this Passover festival, came to worship their God, who was a God of promise, deliverance and redemption, and who honored them back.
Jesus’ Direct Action plan was Symbolic of what he wanted to accomplish with his whole life. He was clear that he was not taking over the Temple on this day for more than a few hours. There were temple guards, as he knew, and he was not aiming for a military coup. But he was serving notice that, in the tradition and warning of the prophet Jeremiah, the Temple would be “destroyed” if its leaders did not repent from their idolatrous ways.
And if they didn’t, Jesus was offering himself as a replacement for the temple. It was more explicit in the later edition of the gospel of John. There, the temple leaders ask for a sign, of his sending out the sellers and overturning the tables, and Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And John adds, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
But, where are we to understand that the temple of Jesus body is today, after Jesus rose, and now sits at the right hand of the Father? As Ched Myers says, “The new site [of the temple] is neither geographical nor institutional but ethical; the difficult but imperative practice of mutual forgiveness within the community [is the new site]… The community becomes truly the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ the place of prayer ‘for all peoples.’”
Jesus’ courageous, Symbolic Direct Action, which led to the giving of his life, was orchestrated perfectly, by Jesus – for us. And now, we, all these centuries later, are the direct beneficiaries of his legacy of justice and love. We hold his gift gracefully in our hands, literally, and symbolically, in the bread we receive each Sunday, along with his words, ‘the body of Christ, given for you.’
In this way, we are now empowered, to organize, grow followers, and build a city of God, beyond exploitation, oppression, and exclusion, by which, as baptized believers, the power of the Holy Spirit may wash and cleanse the temple of our bodies daily, that God’s kingdom may be revealed.