Jesus’ Final Week: Peace amid Violence?
The Gospels of the New Testament focus on Jesus’ final week, or the “Passion of Christ” more than anything else. “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Confrontation with priests and scribes. Arrest and denial by Peter. Trial, mocking and scourging. Crucifixion. Resurrection.
Sandwiched between these events is a well-known but poorly remembered or understood incident: the “cleansing of the Temple”. That’s the order in which Matthew, Mark and Luke present it. John places what appears to be the same event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (a difference that is more than trivial).
What is the significance of this action by Jesus? What may it tell us about him? Whether we take it as based on fact or only as another part of the larger “Passion” story that is mostly fictional, it seems to say some important things. It also seems to provide the clearest, most sensible provocation for the arrest of Jesus of many reasons offered. That is, if the incident was as major an event as the Gospels, particularly Mark, seem to convey. There it seems to be well beyond the merely symbolic action that many consider it. More like “occupy the Temple”. Literally. For at least a number of hours. (See Mark 15, and my discussion of it here.)
In this previous article I bring out a fascinating, generally overlooked aspect of the Barabbas story. Remember the offer of Pilate to free either Barabbas or Jesus? Barabbas was imprisoned for murder during “the insurrection”. Mark never explains… it sounds as though this rebellion may have been known decades later as a specific event. Perhaps more likely, it may be meant to represent one of the many uprisings we know occurred both in Jerusalem and around the countryside. Or does the term refer to the Temple cleansing by Jesus and his supporters?
Regardless, it is rare in the Gospels that we see any glimpse of the serious unrest in Israel in the time of Jesus. But here is one. One which we tend to read right past. Yet it indicates an insurrection involving at least 3 rebels (by inference, and likely more) and more than one death (see Mark 15). The “thieves” crucified with Jesus were “bandits” (closer translation of the Greek term) who we would call guerrilla fighters or insurrectionists. They must have been captured around the time of the cleansing incident…. Is it possible the action was not fully under Jesus’ control and became more violent than he intended?
If the incident was relatively small and brief the accounts still indicate some amount of force exerted by Jesus, and potential injury. What does this say about what we tend to see as a commitment to nonviolence by Jesus? Especially when combined with statements that at least a few of his disciples were armed and that at least one put up violent resistance at Jesus’ arrest?
I am not one to try to “harmonize” all conflicting accounts in the Gospels or other parts of the Bible. But in this case, consistency may exist. Here do we perhaps see Jesus walking a tightrope without falling to either the violent ways of Empire on one side or to passive acceptance of oppression on the other? If so, this incident may be showing Jesus as a model for approaching and trying to provoke systemic change – it is seldom simple and without cost.
What do you see when you read the passages on this last great action of Jesus prior to his arrest?