Mark 11 & 12 (Wednesday)
Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, the timeline for Mark slows down significantly. While the first half of the book takes place over almost a year, the second half occurs in about a week. Mark is letting us know that this is what his gospel and Jesus have been preparing for. Mark 11 and 12 takes a closer look at the first 3 days Jesus is in Jerusalem.
While there’s a lot that we could cover here, I’d like to focus on Jesus’s experience in the Temple and how we can better understand a well known story that we may misinterpret.
On Jesus’s first day in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry, he enters the Temple and “looks around at everything.” (11:11). He leaves for Bethany outside of Jerusalem – using it as a kind of safe spot – instead of staying the nights in the city. On the second day, he goes back to the city with his disciples and enters the Temple again. However, instead of just observing, he begins to cause a scene. Mark tells us that he starts “to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and over-turned tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves; and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple.”
Whoa. That’s a pretty radical departure from the Jesus who didn’t want anyone to talk about the miracles he was performing. It’s as if the shy kid from the back of the class suddenly started burning textbooks in the auditorium screaming “You won’t do any more homework while I’m around! Ha ha ha!” It’s a little weird. And, the principals would be rightly concerned about what was going on (like the chief priests and scribes).
So, what is going on? First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about what the Temple looked like. We may think that Jesus was clearing out the Temple area because the vendors were causing problems for the act of worship. That doesn’t really fit with what we know about the Temple. First, the area where Jesus is clearing house is HUGE. I mean really big. It’s approximately the size of 11 soccer fields. That’s massive (about 704,000 square feet). There weren’t enough vendors in all of Israel to fill that space.
Another idea is that Jesus was fed up with the temple system completely and was overturning the model that the temple existed on. This tends to emerge when we think that Jesus is somehow trying to move beyond Judaism and create his own new thing. Well, Jesus isn’t. He was and is a Jew. Mark’s gospel itself undermines this idea in chapter 12. On the third day, Jesus returns to the Temple (where he wrecked it the day before) and sits across from the treasury. A widow comes and puts in her 2 pennies. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that she is being scammed out of her pennies, that she should do something better with her money, that it isn’t right for her to give to the current system, or that she’s being robbed by the temple. No – he says that what she’s done is more than everyone else AND it seems to be a great thing! Even today, this widow is meant to be a role model for us.
So, what is Jesus trying to do? Let’s look at the text. After he drives out the merchants, he says that the temple had “become a robber’s den.” (11:17) Was the temple robbing people? No – a robber’s den isn’t where robbers actually rob people. It’s a place where robbers can go and be safe. It’s a hideout where they don’t have to worry about the law coming after them. I don’t think that Jesus was calling out the merchants or the temple system, but rather the leadership in the Temple for their willful blindness to injustice and sheltering those who do injustice in their midst. His criticism of the Temple isn’t for how it works or what it does, but rather for what it isn’t doing. I think that Jesus is taking up the call of Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isa. 1:17)
This is where I think we can find a message for our lives and churches today. Would Jesus level the same criticism against us today? Not that we have vendors in the church, but that we allow ourselves to become a den for those who rob others? Jesus’s problem with the temple wasn’t directed at the merchants or vendors but at those who were complacent in the face of wrong-doing, injustice, and evil. Standing against injustice – especially when we find it in our own house, community, and ideals can be scary and seem life-threatening. But, I think, like the widow, we are called to give what we have – “all that [we] have to live on” – to offer hope and justice to those starving for it.