Turning over the tables (and the pews…)

‘He made a whip of cords and drove them out of the temple, sheep, cattle and all.’

Sometimes I’m ashamed of myself because I can reflect coolly on things like hunger and poverty, but then I lose my rag because a driver cuts me up in the traffic queue or I can’t work out how to order something on-line! God has given me the gift of anger and I squander it on trivial things.

Perhaps you think anger isn’t quite appropriate for a Christian – that it’s about losing control and won’t get you anywhere. But Jesus got angry more than once – he shouted at hyprocrites, he couldn’t abide them – he told some people he’d come not to bring peace, but a sword – and one day he went into the Temple, a place where you were searched for weapons before you went in – and he made himself a whip out of some stuff that was just there within reach and he let rip.

Some of the modern translations like to pretend he only had a go at the animals, but I suspect the Greek really tells us that he was laying into the people as well. He got hold of the tables of the moneychangers  and he turned them over, scattering their coins. He turned on the dealers in  pigeons – he turned on them –  this is Jesus! And he ordered them out, shouting at them, ‘Don’t turn my Father’s house into a market.’ Jesus was angry. And this incident in the Temple was remembered and told again and again – it’s there, in different places, in all the Gospels. It was probably a key factor in leading to his execution. Radical theology is one thing – causing a public disturbance in a place as volatile as the Jewish temple in Roman Palestine was probably about as rash as doing just the same kind of thing on the Temple Mount now! Think of that lone protestor standing in front of a tank in Tianaman Square. That was Jesus…

But what exactly was he angry about? There are those who say that Jesus was angry about the whole Temple thing, that he hated that whole way of doing religion. He couldn’t stand animal sacrifices, priests, altars and all of that. He was the kind of Jew who wanted to pull down the temple and have people pray to God in their own homes or in local gatherings – who would have quoted those prophets who say that God requires mercy and not sacrifice – who had no time for ritual, incense, clerical gear, festivals and buildings and all of that. That he was at least half in agreement with those who thought the best thing would be to leave all of that behind and go say your prayers in the desert. It’s a view…

But I’m not quite convinced by it.  I once shared dinner with an inter-faith group and sat next to someone from a Jewish congregation who told me that Jews still have traces of the old Temple liturgy in their worship and, though they never really expect it to happen, would still long to have the Temple restored. And he told me that the Temple was much more than a place for sacrifices. It was mostly important as the place where the tabernacle, the holy of holies was. It was a place of pilgrimage, a place where people gathered for the great festivals. He seemed to me a good and holy man and I couldn’t imagine feeling angry at his description of what sounded like a kind of great cathedral.. And when you look at the New Testament, it doesn’t seem all that clear at all that Jesus simply hated the Temple  – in fact there’s plenty of evidence the other way.  He often went there – he kept the pilgrimage feasts. He sent those who were healed to show themselves to the priests. The disciples clearly carried on worshipping there after his death. And when he got so angry and turned over the tables and whipped the money-changers  and sellers of animals, the disciples remembered a quotation which says, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.  It wasn’t that Jesus hated the Temple – in fact he loved it so much that the abuse of it made him so angry he lost control and let rip. If anything he was zealous for the Temple.

But why was he so angry? Why didn’t he write to the Friends of the Temple a polite letter detailing his complaint? Why not have a quiet word with the money-changers?  Why not get his disciples to make a white band round the Temple – the MakeSacrificeHistory campaign perhaps?  No-one ever gets crucified for that sort of thing after all….  Why was he so angry?

I remember from my childhood the feeling my grandma expressed that the church wasn’t for people like her – a barmaid who lived with a man who wasn’t her husband. I remember once that somebody in one of my churches who came to the equivalent there of Pop-In asked me if I would mind if they came to church on a Sunday. I remember the woman in another of my churches who didn’t come to church some Sundays because, she told me quietly, she had no money left to put in the collection. I wanted to weep. What is it that the church has done to convey to people who are poor or wounded that they might not be as welcome as those who have money, status and confidence? When of course the church should really be for everyone and all of us who are broken and poor and hungry in any way that human beings can be poor in body and in spirit.. I can remember being at a Communion service once in a language I had no grasp of at all – and there was a collection just before communion and it looked for all the world as though you had to pay for the privilege. And I can remember being fired up when I learnt about how Martin Luther was finally moved to risk his life and his reputation by nailing his opinions to the church door – because the Church was selling salvation and telling people that you can buy mercy from God, that you could purchase a few years off purgatory or settle an account at the final judgement with money. I think it was these kinds of things that Jesus was angry about. The money-changers were there so that wherever you came from you could change your coins into the right kind for buying animals to sacrifice – and you can bet your life the exchange rate was not favourable to the pilgrims. The animals were there so that if you’d not managed to bring one from home you could buy one on the spot – no doubt, like ice creams in tourist spots, for a high price. Jesus said, ‘You’ve turned my house into a market!’ And most of all, I think, Jesus was angry about making religion part of the whole divide between rich and poor – as though God wanted only the ‘best people’, the better off kind of people, people with money in God’s house. God is not to be bought! The love of God is free. And Jesus was prepared to give his life to tell people that. God is there for all of us, and perhaps even especially for those who most need God. We’ve had some response on Facebook to our banner outside – a banner that simply says that whoever you are you are welcome here, because this is God’s house. One respondent has been rather rude and said that God is just for the gullible. When Ruth saw this she said that we should add ‘gullible’ to our list. God is for the gullible and the foolish ones, for all of us.

In Coventry Cathedral you can find this note in the pews:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.

We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We’re not that keen on it either!)

We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to the Cathedral.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost on the ring road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!’


We here really want to be an inclusive church, that really welcomes people. And we are planning a re-development that we hope will turn over some tables – or at least some pews – so that the church feels and indeed is more welcoming to the wider community. If it is true that the churches in Britain, except perhaps the Roman Catholic church and some of the migrant churches, have for decades largely not included the poorer people in our land, that has to change. For how can it be that a Saviour who famously blessed the poor has a church from which the poor feel excluded? And how is it that even those of us who come sometimes feel that we have to put our ‘best face’ on in church..?

The writer of John’s Gospel makes a connection between the Temple and Jesus’ body. Before Jesus died he had supper with his disciples and he did something which began a new kind of rite, a new liturgy, that eventually replaced everything about the Temple for those who followed him. He took bread and broke it and said, ‘This is my body’ – and he took wine and said ‘This is my blood’. He was telling them that God was giving them something – not something they had to buy, not a sacrifice they had to make – but a sacrifice that God was willing to make for them, an offering of love beyond price, offered to all who would come – just as Jesus had welcomed sinners, the sick, the poor – anyone to his table. I hope that our celebration of communion here, our life together here, our worship and our witness, our building and our ‘temple’, that all of these would bring Jesus delight. And if anything we do might provoke a righteous anger, then let us change it and quickly. And let us be consumed not only by zeal for the Lord’s house, but by zeal for the Jesus who blessed the children, touched the leper, healed the sick and forgave the sinners. And may our bodies and this building become more fully signs of his wonderful, far-reaching love. Amen.