Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to focus on. Scripture gives lots of commandments. And these commandments are good, useful and worth God’s time to teach to God’s people. Christians have a complicated relationship with commandments, though. Some are clearly important to us, others less so. This week’s passages help us understand the relative importance of God’s commandments.
Jesus took a very strong position on commandments, saying that they all should be followed and that anyone who tries to do away with any of them will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 5:17-19). Moreover, Jesus had a thoroughly Jewish (obviously) and expansive view of commandments. When he was asked what the most important commandments were (Matt 22:35-40), Jesus answered Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 – not any of the ten commandments.
The ordering of the commandments in order of importance was a matter of serious dispute at the time, notably between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai. Jesus squarely sided with Hillel, as does Jewish law more generally because of Hillel’s school’s gentleness, modesty and willingness to teach even the positions of those who disagreed with him (Eruvin 13b). The ordering and numbering of commandments is still an issue of some divisiveness, however. As an example, even apart from the discussion of which commandments are most important, different religious communities do not agree on what are the ten commandments of Exodus 20.
Here’s a little chart with different groups’ grouping of the words of scripture into different commandments to clarify how the same words can be interpreted and valued differently.
It was certainly a disagreement about relative importance of God’s words that led to Jesus’ rampage in the temple courts in John 2. The money changers and animal sellers were not technically doing anything wrong. They were aiding those who tried to keep commandments. Roman and other coins that contained images of autocrats, gods or even animals violated the prohibition on creating images of living things. The money changers sold properly observant coins that did not violate commandments in order to keep people from having to buy sacrifices with idolatrous coins.
In the same way, those selling animals were helping people to observe commandments. The “other” or “ritual” ten commandments of Exodus 34 demand that no one appear before the Lord empty-handed (Ex 34:19) and that three times a year all men have to make a pilgrimage to the temple to sacrifice (exodus 34:23). It would have been bedlam and chaos if everyone brought their own animals for sacrifice, not to mention that not everyone kept his own animals in an age of economic specialization. So they had to buy sacrificial animals around the temple to make the sacrifice that God had commanded.
So why was Jesus so angry? The synoptic gospels (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46) recount that Jesus alluded to Jeremiah 7 in saying that the temple had become a den of thieves. As Jesus spent time making a whip of cords that he found (John 2:15), he was angrily recalling God’s word through the prophet:
Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:2-11)
God, according to Jeremiah, was not upset at anything that was happening in the temple, per se. Rather, God was furious about what was happening in everyday life (this place) that then people thought they escaped from the consequences of when they went into God’s house.
I don’t think Jesus was specifically upset about people doing business to try and help people’s God-ordained sacrificial process. True, Jesus overturned tables and told people not to have a market, but scripture does not indicate that trading in the temple was prohibited. Why did Jesus not want a market? When Jesus formed the cord, he drove out the animals – not the people [“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” (John 2:15)]. The thing that Jesus attacked was not the system of keeping commandments, but the notion of cheap grace for habitual sins, including acting with injustice, oppressing the foreigner, the orphan and the widow, shedding innocent blood, and going after other gods (Jeremiah 7:5-6). Driving out of animals and overturning coin tables made it impossible to offer the sacrifice.
If we make Jesus attack mere economic practices here, we let ourselves off too easily. That is not the only point. Jesus is not riled up simply by people charging money for sheep or making money off of forex. Jesus is furious because we keep on oppressing folk and then waltzing into God’s house like it is no big deal and we can be easily forgiven for our sins. NO! Jesus says that you do not have the opportunity to be right with God before you are right with your neighbor. By driving the animals out, Jesus cut off people’s ability to make sacrifices to atone for their sins. By overturning the tables, he was cutting off people’s ability to hide their collaboration with empire and the idolatry of power by changing their sinful money into “clean” money. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). Jesus was squarely in line with the prophets before him who condemned the idea of offering sacrifices while committing habitual, oppressive sins (Isaiah 1, Amos 5, Isaiah 58).
Let me pause to say that I am reading the book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. In it, though I’m not sure this was the author’s intent, I read a scathing critique of the U.S.’s lack of transparency and adherence to international law, our own constitution and universal human rights, especially as it concerns foreign citizens and innocent civilians killed as “collateral damage.” I feel especially convicted for my own roles in advocating and supporting violent conflict that has committed exactly the sort of habitual sin that God and Jesus condemned repeatedly.
God is serious about commandments and wants them to be obeyed. Not messing with idolatrous images is a good idea, as is fulfilling the requests for sacrifice that God makes in our lives. According to Jesus, much more important than those commandments, however, is treating our neighbor as we would want to be treated. We cannot oppress our neighbor – especially our foreigner neighbor, our widow neighbor or our orphan neighbor – and then go to the house of the Lord and think that we have a chance of being easily forgiven without repenting and making things right with our neighbor FIRST. Jesus’ actions in the temple vividly portray that those who steal justice from their neighbors have no sanctuary with or from God.
Lastly, not all scholars agree that the driving out of animals in John is the same event as in the other gospels. Since John’s account of the incident is fairly early in Jesus’ ministry, and the other accounts occur toward the end, I like to think that Jesus made an annual tradition of rampage around the holidays to keep making the same point: repentance – that is, the making of restitution for sin – is necessary before forgiveness.