A Provocation: Third Sunday in Lent: March 4, 2018: John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A Question or Two:

  • What sign do you look for if you are trying to understand zeal?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, what’s going on here?

People are selling animals for sacrifice, and changing money so that people don’t have to use the Roman enemy’s money in the Temple, even though they are forced by circumstances to use it everywhere else.  This is not strange and it is not out of place.  Interpreters sometimes imagine that the sellers are being dishonest, but the storyteller does not even HINT at such a charge.  The storyteller only says that they are selling.

The word used, πωλοῦντας, is derived from the root verb, πωλεω, which (again) just means “selling,” but the related word, πωλεομαι, may carry an embedded picture of how the selling was done.  πωλεομαι refers to a “back and forth” action, and that may mean that the selling referred to by πωλεω is the kind of vigorous haggling that goes on in markets anywhere that price is settled as the result of bargaining.  I’ve heard it in Vietnam and it is spirited, to say the least.  My students have heard it in China, and it is loud.

So I suppose that Jesus could be objecting to the volume of the haggling, though that seems a little out of place: haggling would have been part of normal everyday life for him, so why would he get all nervous about it all of a sudden?  Maybe the storyteller wants us to imagine that Jesus’ “zeal for [God’s] house” leads him to demand a holy, charged silence for the Temple that echoes the silence found in the Holy of Holies.  Maybe he doesn’t want it loud like a marketplace.  Maybe.

There are many other possibilities.

One that interests me relates to the psalm that the disciples remember later on:  “Zeal for Your house consumes me.”  The Greek word behind “zeal” is ζῆλος (which is the word from which the English word, zeal, springs), and ζῆλος is a complicated word.  Zeal can be a good thing: it implies fervent passion, and deep commitment, and warm devotion.  But zeal can also be a dangerous thing: it implies fervid passion, and an abyss of unquestioning commitment, and incendiary devotion that is willing to burn the world down for a cause no one else can figure out.  ζῆλος is also the root of the English word, Zealot.  

So is Jesus being portrayed as fervently faithful, or as a fiery Zealot?

The story will bear either reading.  And the link made by the storyteller to the destruction of the Temple suggests that we are to remember that the Zealots were decisively involved in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Temple.  Could John’s storyteller intend to link Jesus to the Zealots, and to implicate both of them in the loss of the Temple, to implicate and to absolve in the same narrative gesture?  Go carefully here.  This interpretive line is about 3/4 inch away from active anti-Semitism, and if John’s storyteller is planning a jump across that short gap, I will not be jumping with him.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ zeal?

I was studying this scene today with some students and some pastors, and one of the students suggested that we ought consider other instances of zeal, instances in the news just now.  What if Jesus’ zeal ought to be connected with the zeal shown by students who survived the shooting at the school in Parkland, FL?  What if one of the keys to understanding this scene is to be found in the #NeverAgain movement?

I think my student might be onto something.

Zeal like that leads to opposition, even to death threats from actual Zealots who want to solve every problem by shooting guns.  Pilate also imagines that the best way to manage a conquered population is to torture and kill.  Interesting.

Zeal like that leads to missteps or to the possibility of mistakes of various sorts.  Missteps, whether from youth or passion, do not discredit zeal.  An event as awful as this shooting stirs a widely shared need to insist: #NeverAgain.  A hashtag is not a legislative agenda, nor is it the last word on solving the problem.  And Jesus drives animals and people out of the Temple at the very beginning of John’s story (and not at the end, as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Perhaps the storyteller simply want us to see his not-yet-managed passion, his energy which may result in the scenes in John in which Jesus is inexplicably harsh.

“Zeal for your house will consume me.”

“Zeal spurred by the poisonous fruit of toxic masculinity will consume me.”

“Zeal will eat me up, zeal that burns because of political frontmen who insist that the only thing that cannot be implicated in gun deaths is guns.”

“Zeal for all the children killed in schools will eat at me until serious people pick up this task and work at it until we begin taking steps to solve it.”  

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