Subversive Jesus

Subversive Jesus

John 2:13-22 (NIV) When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.


The word subversive comes from Latin. “Sub” means from below and “vertere” means to turn. So, to subvert means to turn things upside-down, especially the established system or the status quo, from below.

In today’s story, Jesus turns tables upside down, but what he is effectively working towards is turning the entire economic and political system upside down.

The root for ethical behavior for the Israelite people was that God liberated them from slavery, and now their task was to do the same for others. God chose these people to be a light to the nations – to teach them the ways of God. They didn’t have a great track record, as you might already know. So, hundreds of years later, Jews from all over Israel were required to return to Jerusalem on the festival known as “Passover” to be reminded of that covenant promise. That promise was that God would be their God and they would be his people, and that they were to share this good news of a loving God with the rest of the world.

As an observant Jew, Jesus would have joined the 300,000 people who had crammed into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. According to all gospel accounts, he enters the temple, sees the activities being performed there, and he gets angry!

In the temple courtyards, there’s a market of cattle, sheep, and other animals for sale. These animals have to be bought with the right kind of money – local currency, not Roman. Roman money has the face of the emperor on it, and the emperor calls himself a god. So to use Roman money would be idolatry for them. So there’s moneychangers there for that. And every one of them is trying to make a fast buck. All of them cared far more about how much money they could make and cared nothing for the people who were being ripped off, or for the temple as a shelter for their God, or the purpose of the Passover festival. Their focus wasn’t all that different from some people today, who care more about getting rich than helping their neighbour.

The animals were sold for the offerings made at the temple. That was the tradition. People were required to make sacrifices for a variety of festivals and rites. If you were wealthy you gave a large animal, like a cow or ox. If you were poor, you gave doves or pigeons. However, to ensure “unblemished” animals, you had to buy your animals at the gate of the temple where the prices were higher than in the countryside. And, as is typical, the costs tended to be felt more by the poor than the wealthy. To purchase one pair of doves outside the temple was the equivalent of two days’ wages. But the doves had to be inspected for quality control just inside the temple, and if your recently purchased animals were found to be in fact blemished, then you had to buy two more doves for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages!

The moneychangers were needed to change the money into usable local currency. The money changers were the banks in first century Palestine. Moneychangers were also corrupt and charged more than they should.

So a one day stay in Jerusalem during one of the three major festivals could cost between $3,000 and $4,000 dollars in today’s money, and Jews were required to attend at least one of them each year. None of it was illegal. They were business men operating within the law. But it took Jesus and a few radical rabbis to point out that the law itself was unjust. Just because it was legal didn’t make it right. Does that resonate with any of you?

Jesus entered Jerusalem expecting, or at least wanting, to see a celebration of what God had done during the Exodus – freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Instead, he saw a corrupted system that maintained the economic caste system where the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Jesus had come to bring good news to the poor and that just isn’t good news. Naturally, his message was radical and unpopular with the rich.

So Jesus lost his cool. This account is the only violent act of Jesus that’s recorded in the gospels. It reminds us that there’s no “business as usual” with Jesus. He came to make the wrong right and that more often than not meant upsetting the status quo. His stated mission was to bring an upside-down Kingdom that would be good news for the poor and the oppressed (Lk 4:18). This Kingdom was not just a place to chill out in heaven after we die – but something that would come on earth as well (Mt 6:10).

The temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.

The goal was purification of the temple to restore its sacred purpose, as a place of prayer for all people, without manipulation or exploitation by the religious gatekeepers. We have religious gatekeepers in some churches today too– wearing the right clothes, behaving properly, your children being well-behaved, giving enough money into the offering, being involved in church groups, etc.

The cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against every false sense of security — against every nice-n-neat box we try to stick Jesus into for our own comfort. Jesus comes to challenge rather than to reinforce prejudices and illusions. He comes to make strange what religion makes safe and cozy. He never once says, “Understand me.” He says something far more radical. He says “Follow me.” People talk about Christianity being a religion. To me, religion is a set of rules you have to live by for God to love you – like going to church on Sundays and saying bedtime prayers. But that is not what Jesus/God wants – little robots who go through the motions. God wants to have a relationship with us as real people who love God and show that love by loving others. Jesus loved others. He said “Follow me.”

Jesus is not comfortable. Jesus always challenges. Always away from the status quo, away from comfort, into the messiness of life. Jesus says follow me – because he is already there in the mess, waiting for us to join him in the mission of making things right, of helping the poor and bringing down the rich, by ending oppression and laws that are unfair to the marginalized. We all have a role to play in that, no matter how small. We are called to follow Jesus into the messiness of life and to do something about it. Sometimes that includes getting angry, as we have seen Jesus do in today’s story.

What might this look like in your life? What is unjust in the system that you live in? What can you do to help change it? Where can you increase the love in this world? We all have a sphere of influence – what’s yours?