“Was Jesus Ever Controversial?”

Lent 3

March 8, 2015


Text: John 2:13-22


          It has come to my attention that some people do not like it when controversial topics are addressed from the pulpit, especially when I take a position on the matter. Now I can understand why people might have a concern about this. After all, we live in a highly divided, polarized society that tends not to handle disagreements well. Thus there is a real fear that controversial topics could cause conflict, division, and strife amongst us.

          In addition, most people place a very high value on peace and stability, and don’t like anything that is perceived as “rocking the boat.” One of the things I am learning in my current Continuing Education is that all systems—families, churches, organizations, corporations, communities--highly value peace and stability. However, peace and stability is not always healthy. In some systems the things that perpetuate “peace and stability” for the system can be unhealthy, even abusive, for some of those involved in the system.

        Was Jesus ever controversial? In reading the Gospels, I find that Jesus was frequently embroiled in controversy, often of his own making. He constantly challenged the religious leaders and their authority. He challenged the wealthy and influential to change their ways. His teachings and healings often upset the status quo. He was so known for causing controversy that those who opposed him sometimes asked him a question hoping he would say or do something controversial they could use against him. Of course, Jesus was also very wise--he invariably saw right through their motives and found a response that left them speechless.

          Today’s Gospel lesson tells of a time when Jesus waded headlong into controversy. Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.   He went to the Temple, and when he got there he observed that there were people selling cattle, sheep, and doves. People could buy these animals and offer them as sacrifices in the Temple. There were also currency exchange people present. Only money from Tyre could be used for making monetary offerings at the Temple or paying the Temple tax because Roman money was considered sacrilegious, and the Jews were not permitted to mint their own money. Many of the pilgrims who came from places away from Jerusalem had only Roman currency with them, so they would go to the currency exchange people to obtain Tyrian currency.

          Now this marketplace was set up in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. If a Gentile, a non-Jew, came to pray at the Temple, the only place he or she was allowed was the Court of the Gentiles. Can you imagine trying to publicly pray in a busy marketplace? With the crowds present for the Passover, I think it would be a lot like trying to publicly pray in a busy shopping mall right before Christmas. Jewish people could find a somewhat quieter place to pray in the three inner courts of the Temple. But Gentiles weren’t allowed there—and in that time there were Gentiles who trusted in the Jewish God and held many of the tenets of the Jewish faith but had not chosen to convert to Judaism.

          Jesus objected to what was going on in the Court of the Gentiles. He didn’t like his Father’s house being used as a marketplace. He believed the Temple was meant to be a place of prayer rather than commerce. So he made a whip, drove the animals and those selling them out of the Temple, and overturned the currency exchange tables, sending coins flying everywhere. He shouted, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a marketplace!”

          The Jewish leaders promptly confronted Jesus and demanded to know where he got the authority to do that. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

          The religious leaders scoffed, “This temple took 46 years to build! You think you can raise it up in just three days?” Of course, they didn’t understand that the temple Jesus was talking about was his own body.

          It is understandable why the religious leaders didn’t like what Jesus did. The animal sellers and money exchangers undoubtedly did a good bit of business, and provided additional revenue for the Temple. They likely thought they were also providing a valuable service for the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to worship. I suspect that if they had conducted this business outside the Temple courts, Jesus probably would not have had a problem with it. But since it was going on in the outer court of the Temple, which Jesus regarded as a place for prayer and worship, he objected. He believed it was a wrongful use of God’s house.

          Jesus did not shy away from controversy. It seems to me that as followers of Jesus, neither should we.

          That said, however, I also believe that as followers of Jesus we need to make sure that we enter into controversy with the attitude of Jesus. I do not for one minute believe that Jesus hated the people who sold the animals or exchanged the money. I do not believe he hated the religious leaders with whom he disagreed. Yes, the Bible said he used a whip, but I believe (and there is good scholarship supporting this) that he used the whip on the animals, not on people. I believe Jesus loved all with whom he disagreed.

          The problem with the way disagreements are handled today is that people often come to hate the people they disagree with and seek to destroy them. But this is not a Christlike attitude. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies, even those who have an active desire to harm us. Certainly he would teach us also to love those with whom we merely disagree.

          So I dream of a church that is not afraid to discuss sensitive and controversial topics. I dream of a church that seeks to live God’s way in the world, not only in the positions we take, but in the way we treat people. I dream of a church where people can love and respect one another even as people disagree with each other, where people can disagree without being disagreeable.

          That is the journey I am on, by the grace of God. I invite you to join me.


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