The Good Trouble of Economic Justice

Dear friends,

This Sunday in Sanctuary Worship we are continuing the seven-part series Jesus the Good Troublemaker. Jesus’ behavior was scandalous. He was a troublemaker. He brought about change wherever he went. He broke the religious laws for a higher priority. He refused to make God’s grace fit the small box people always try to put it in. He associated with the wrong sort of people. He shocked people. He challenged them to look at the world and to live life in a different way. He challenged religious and secular authorities. He made them angry. He upset the routines.

Our gospel reading for Sunday recounts an event that happened in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus went into the part of the temple that was an outer courtyard called the Court of the Gentiles. Anybody could be admitted there.

There he saw the “money changers.” Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of a half shekel. That tax had to be paid near the time of Passover. About a month before Passover, booths were set up in various towns and villages and the tax could be paid there. But after a certain date, it could only be paid in the Temple and it had to be paid in a certain currency. The function of the money changers was to change unsuitable currency into proper currency. For this, a fee was charged — a kind of handling fee for their service. At issue was not the existence of the handling fee but the amount. Some of the handlers took advantage of the time, the place, and the season as an opportunity to gouge the masses.

And then there was the selling of doves. For most visits to the Temple, some kind of offering was expected. Doves, for example, were necessary when a woman came for purification after childbirth (which is why Mary and Joseph brought a couple of young doves with the baby Jesus, “at the time of her purification”). It was easy enough to buy animals for sacrifice outside the Temple. But any animal offered for sacrifice must be without blemish. There were official animal inspectors at the courtyard gates and it was not uncommon for inspectors to be “on the take” so that they would reject animals purchased elsewhere, thereby forcing persons to the stalls within the Temple itself.

No great harm would have been done if the prices inside the Temple matched the prices outside the Temple. But the price could double once you passed through the Temple gates. It was economically abusive and the fact that abuses had gone on for years did not excuse them in Jesus’ eyes. That’s why Jesus reacted so violently and caused such trouble. It was good trouble. He “threw out all those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.’”

Jesus’ anger was kindled by the knowledge of the economic abuses and injustices taking place in the Temple. I remember well seeing the picture in my children’s Bible of Jesus cleansing the Temple. It was based on the Gospel of John’s version, so in the picture he has in his hand a whip of cords he made to whip the money changers. There is all kinds of commotion. Cages are broken open and birds are flying everywhere. The tables are tumbling, coins are flying and rolling everywhere, people are alarmed and running, the look of anger and fear on their faces. It made quite an impression on me as a small child! Jesus upset the tables, for sure, but he also upset those with a vested interest in the system. Undoubtedly, they were part of the crowd that would demand his execution a few days later.

Jesus prophetically critiqued the injustices of the Temple system and its elite leaders (Think about the story of the widow’s mite, which must be understood in its immediate context of Jesus’ critique of Temple officials, who “devour widow’s houses,” and his saying on the destruction of the Temple; see Mark 12:38-13:2). Jesus questioned the Temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). He caused good trouble in the tradition of the symbolic acts of the prophets, by overturning the tables of the moneychangers, which represented the economic injustices of the Temple system (Matt. 21:12-13).

The story of the “cleansing of the Temple,” as it is called, raises the question of what Jesus would “cleanse” today. What would Jesus say about the way we do things?  What would Jesus change?  What would he have us do?

Isn’t there something about social and economic justice that makes us uncomfortable? Or is it just me?

Sunday, we’ll be challenged by Jesus as we think together about the issue of economic justice — an issue that Christians and other Abrahamic faiths find themselves struggling with. What is the biblical concept of justice and how are we to live it out in our modern-day world?

Grace and Peace,

Dr. Tim Bruster
Senior Pastor


Matthew 21:10-16

10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

12 Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer.  But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.”

14 People who were blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and legal experts saw the amazing things he was doing and the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were angry. 16 They said to Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Haven’t you ever read, From the mouths of babies and infants you’ve arranged praise for yourself?


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