In the post for Friday, the day of the arrest, I asked the question: what was Jesus really praying for in the garden of Gethsemane? On the surface, it looks like he was just praying to be delivered from the terrible fate he saw coming, a reasonable—and quite human—hope.  But suppose God had answered his prayer with a ‘yes’? What would have happened then? What alternative outcome was Jesus praying for?

It was the week of Passover, the festival dedicated to remembering when God delivered his people from slavery under an imperial oppressor with the right arm of his military power. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of pilgrims were in Jerusalem for the festival. Riots, and even the occasional popular uprising, occurred so often during the Passover festival, that every year Rome moved its Syrian legion into bivouac outside the city to help the legion that was permanently posted in the city itself in order to help with crowd control.

Jesus started the week declaring God’s kingship over his people and he’s focused on the radical inbreaking of divine sovereignty through the ensuing days. He’s prophesied the destruction of the temple. And if we accept the structure of the gospels as representing more or less the real chronology of events, Jesus has delivered a long sermon prophesying the last days.

It looks like Jesus was expecting the fulfillment of the kingdom he has been preaching in some kind of visitation from the Father and a cataclysmic overthrow of the existing order. Perhaps he looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah that he had enacted at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

See, our king comes riding to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. . . I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning . . . The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. (Zech 9:9-17)

Perhaps he was also expecting the fulfillment of other prophecies, as well. That he was praying on the slopes of the Mount of Olives tends to reinforce this idea. We’ll talk more about Jesus’ land-based spirituality in a series timed for Earth Day later this month. In that series on the prospects for a religious culture of place, we will look at what I call ‘spiritual ecology’; we’ll ask the questions: where did Jesus go, to do what, and why? The Mount of Olives figures prominently in this series because it figures so prominently in Jesus’ own land-based spirituality.  But we need to preview some of this now.

The Mount of Olives had been named by the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel as a place associated with the Father’s triumphant return to Jerusalem to save his people.

The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. (Ezekiel 11:23; part of the famous vision of the ‘wheel within a wheel’, in which the presence of God leaves the temple in Jerusalem and comes to dwell with the exiles in Babylon, stopping at the Mount of Olives on the way.)

Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east. . . And the Lord shall become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. . . And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord on that day. (Zechariah 14:3-9, 21)

Jesus may have been praying on the Mount of Olives because that’s the last place God visited in Israel before leaving the temple, and because Mount Olivet was the place to which he had promised to return. Perhaps Jesus also believed, as the Essenes did, that God had never actually returned to the temple since the Exile, because the temple had never been properly cleansed.

Only . .  the Father didn’t return that night. Jesus was left bereft. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he would cry from the cross.


Jesus raids the temple treasury

Directly from the royal processional to the city gates, Jesus and his exultant followers go to the temple gates and one of the most extraordinary events in Jesus’ ministry begins: he raids the temple treasury. Picture the scene:

A crowd arrives at the gate of the Temple with their leader at the head. They are singing, “This is the gate that belongs to Yahweh; let the righteous/triumphant enter through it” (Ps 118:20). The demonstrators stream into the Temple court behind Jesus, who advances to the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he grabs the planks and heaves them over.

In a clatter of wings, the doves ascend into heaven from their shattered cages. The four-legged animals get jittery, bleating and lowing nervously and pressing against their pens in increasing panic. Accounting records fall beneath the tables and underfoot, splintering clay tablets, smearing ink, tearing parchment and vellum. Coins splash onto the pavement and roll away. Servants trying to escape with the vessels full of money are intercepted.

Over the shouting and laughing and hymn singing, Jesus harangues the merchants, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah in their faces and literally herding them toward the gates of the court with a cattle whip.

…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 53:7

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

Jeremiah 7:5-11

While Jesus is pronouncing his oracle of judgment against the thieving oppressors of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and dismantling the infrastructure of their oppression—what are his followers doing? When the gospel is for the poor, and the Jubilee relieves debt, and the kingship of God replaces the mastership of Mammon, of wealth gained through thievery, force and privilege—certainly, the crowds are swooping on the rolling coins with a whoop and stuffing them into their pockets. Certainly, the vessels Jesus intercepts are full of money, or they soon are filled with money. Surely, the accounting records are deliberately trampled, just as tax and debt records were and will be destroyed by other peasant uprisings in Israel’s history. Perhaps the twelve watch for the inevitable police intervention, maybe stacking tables in front of the doors, or helping to keep the money-gathering operation a systematic pillage on behalf of the poor and watching that no one pockets a personal take.

Matthew and Mark tell us that, after inciting a riot, Jesus remained in the Temple precincts, teaching the people while the Temple authorities plotted ways to kill him. Hard to imagine, unless the crowd was large and totally on his side. This is easy to imagine. Furthermore, the passage Jesus had quoted from Jeremiah against the rulers explicitly condemned violence against innocents in the temple and many there could personally remember when just this atrocity had occurred during a tax rebellion under Quirinius in 6 CE.

An exorcism

So Jesus stole from the rich and the emperor and gave to the poor. While Jesus’ actions and the Bible passages he uses to support his demonstration emphasize the political and, especially, the economic thrust of the action, Jesus also clearly intends to ‘cleanse’ the temple of its idolatrous and polluting elements; or, to put it more accurately, the two are the same thing: theft from the poor is idolatry, for Jesus, as it was for Jeremiah and other prophets before him.

To reinforce this meaning of ‘cleansing’, the evangelists use the language of exorcism to tell the story. Jesus “drives out” the moneychangers, the same word (ekballein) and the same action as “casting out” unclean spirits. As an exorcism, the cleansing of the temple stands as a hallmark case of our enriched definition of possession as assimilation to Greco-Roman culture and its greed and lust for power (Mt 20:25-28). And “casting out” meant rejecting the way of the world and taking care of each other; it often meant being cast out of temple, synagogue or even one’s own home.

Jesus made the economic dimension of exorcism and the exorcistic dimension of radical economic reconstruction explicit with the story of binding the strong man. As Ched Meyers has pointed out in Binding the Strong Man, this parable and the action in the court against the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists use the same word for the “vessels” of the temple as for the “household goods” of the parable. In the story of the cleansing, these vessels were the coffers used to cart the money into the temple. The “house” of the strong man in the parable is the House of the Lord of Isaiah 56:7.

Jesus told the story of the strong man to legitimize his authority to cast out demons. Jesus casts out spirits by the Holy Spirit as the legitimate head of the true, undivided house of God. The temple, as the illegitimate House of the Lord, is divided—against the poor, especially—and therefore cannot stand.

The cleansing episode describes an act of political-economic liberation. The temple is released from the demonic possession of usurious oppressors—and the money of the oppressors is released to the oppressed from whom they’ve stolen it. The den of thieves has been liberated—by a crowd of counter-thieves. Jesus here acts as a 1st century Robin Hood in the quintessential pattern of the peasant uprising, motivated as was so often the case with such uprisings in ancient Judea, by religion.

But, as with so many of Jesus’ actions and parables, the ‘cleansing of the temple’ expresses a paradox; they turn his religious-political tradition on its head. For if the house of the strong man is the temple and Jesus is the binder, then the Son of Man is the thief. In order to bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those who are bound (Lk 4:18), the anointed one must bind the strong man (the rulers of the temple-state) and cast out the thieves who oppress the poor.

Meanwhile, of course, these money-changers must certainly have run to the rulers of the temple, and the Roman guards on watch from the bastions of the Tower of Antonia must have seen the riot below and mobilized a unit for crowd control.

Matthew implies that Jesus stayed long enough to heal the blind and the lame and to dispute with the chief priests and teachers of the law about the crowd’s (the children’s) acclaims of Hosanna to the Son of David. Yet, with the riot police storming down fortress Antonia’s steps, he could hardly have lingered long. Did he ‘heal’ the ‘lame’ and the ‘blind’ with a lightning strike of direct action, with the Jubilee release-liberation of stolen money? Or did the demonstration convert the spiritually blind and lame, so that they confessed the coming of the kingdom in their lives, given that ‘children’ was both a metaphor and a technical term for new converts to the Way? Or both?

Or perhaps the teeming crowds made it possible for Jesus to slip away into the outer courts in the temple complex, to continue teaching and building the reign of God, despite the dangers. All the accounts agree that he left the city at dusk and returned to his base in Bethany, literally, beth-ani, the House of the Poor.



Some people want a personal and spiritual Jesus who loves and acts above the messiness of the political sphere. But Jesus openly declared his political goal: to establish the kingdom of God. You can’t get much more political than that, especially since a ‘kingdom’ already existed in Judea under the governorship of Rome. You can’t preach and even inaugurate a ‘kingdom’—the kingdom of God—and spend years building a movement around the idea without thinking, talking and doing politics. You don’t actively promote a ‘kingdom,’ however spiritual its central message, when an established kingdom already exists, and not expect political opposition and struggle. You can’t associate with a political dissident who was executed for treason (John the Baptizer) and not have the secret police after you. You can’t publicly (if obliquely) challenge the great imperial power of your time without incurring its wrath. You don’t get tried and then executed for insurrection (Jesus was charged, sarcastically, as “Jesus, King of the Jews” at his crucifixion) by that imperial power unless you are seen as a political threat.

Jesus had been challenging the authorities throughout his ministry. But he had done so in the backwaters of Galilee and the outer corners of the old ideal boundary of Israel, territories not directly under Judean jurisdiction. Against this ‘establishment’, Jesus had, until the last week of his life, wielded only the word and the sign as weapons. Even his most dramatic signs he usually performed on the lost sheep of Israel, not their ‘shepherds’, their religious/political leaders, who almost always rejected his ministry. Against his enemies, he spoke, preached, taught, debated, rebuked or cursed. This ministry of words and signs had tremendous authority and power. But finally, upon arrival at Jerusalem, the time for a ministry of acts had come, a kairos time for Jesus the nazirite.

In the last week of his life, Jesus assailed every one of the functions of the temple state (legal, judicial, governmental, economic and law enforcement) on their home ground with outrageous public acts of defiance. He staged these acts so as to include obvious religious and prophetic elements designed to make his intention clear: he was calling the powers-that-be before God’s bench and proclaiming heaven’s verdict—they were guilty of usurping God’s authority (Rome) and of betraying their charge as shepherd of God’s flock (the Quisling Judean government). The Powers struck back with their own earthly persecution, with prosecution inspired, according to the gospels, by the daemonic prosecutor himself, the Satan. (See the important and fascinating work by Walter Wink on the Powers, here (his website) and here (

So let’s follow the events of Passion Week to see how Jesus directly assailed the powers in Jerusalem and their seat in the temple through a concerted campaign intended to invoke the apocalyptic overthrow of the entire establishment. We’ll start with the signature event of Palm Sunday.

The Inaugural Procession: declaring a new government under God

Jesus deliberately orchestrates his entrance on the stage of Jerusalem’s public life around a prophecy: Zechariah 9:9-13. (Many of the other events of Passion Week also revolve around passages in Zechariah.) Jesus has arranged for a mount, an ass—or two, for Matthew seems to have misunderstood the parallelism in Zechariah’s couplet and taken the second line literally; or perhaps Matthew deliberately harmonizes Jesus’ use of two mounts with the gift of two asses to King David in 2 Samuel 15-16, as we discuss below. Either way, the mount clearly ties Jesus to a claim of kingship, a kingship whose mission is to set free the prisoners and throw off the yoke of Roman/Hellenistic domination.

These arrangements for asses as mounts for the king carry a double allusion to Jesus’ royal status. In the episode just before this one in Mark and Matthew, blind Bartimaeus (or two blind men—the accounts differ) hails Jesus as “Son of David.” This takes place just outside Jericho and recalls an episode that occurred in a crisis moment in King David’s career.

In the little village of Bethphage a thousand years before, as David was fleeing his usurper son Absalom’s rebellion, he was met by Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan, Saul’s son, whom David had befriended after Saul and Jonathan’s death. This Ziba met David on the Mount of Olives with two asses and provisions for the royal entourage’s escape. With this help, David rides away from Jerusalem and into temporary exile.

Now, Jesus, the Son of David, rides into Jerusalem into certain confrontation with the latest usurpers of the throne of Judah, the new Absaloms. Both ‘kings’ receive two asses as mounts for their journeys here at the same spot on Mt. Olivet, in Bethphage, the “house of the early ripening fig.” (Jesus will later curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit, even though it is too early in the season. We’ll talk about this later in the week.)

From Bethphage, the procession gets under way. Climbing to the crown of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple mount, the familiar yet dramatic pageantry of Palm Sunday unfolds. The people sing a hymn—Psalm 118, a king’s hymn of thanksgiving for his delivery from death and for his military victory–or rather, Yahweh’s victory (see Ps. 118:15-16).

Psalm 118:19-29—the source of the procession hymn on ‘Palm Sunday’

Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God; and he has given us light; bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. Your are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord , for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

In the poem, the king’s procession enters the gates of the city, the gates of righteousness, and proceeds to the Temple, as Jesus’ procession will do a thousand years later. In verses 23-27—those quoted by the gospels—the voice shifts from first person (the king) to third person, the people. The poem has close affinities with Exodus 15, the ancient victory hymn celebrating Israel’s delivery from their primeval enemy, Egypt.

As the procession approaches the gates, the crowds bestrew the roadway with branches, in fulfillment of the psalm, and also with their cloaks, perhaps as a sign of their commitment to the economics of the reign of God, since cloaks were used as collateral for debts (Mt 5:40).

The city was filling up with pilgrims arriving for Passover, and this street demonstration may have been just one more event at the busy gates, lost in the surge of urban commerce and goings-on—or it may have caused quite a stir. It may have ignited some buzz in the always politically charged atmosphere of this festival, dedicated as it was to remembering Israel’s deliverance from imperial dominance. We know the Romans were in the habit of bringing an extra legion in from Syria to help with crowd control during Passover week.

But Jesus is only warming up. His next stop is the temple and its currency exchange. There, in the very shadow of the primary legion’s fortress, he stages a second demonstration: the spillage—and pillage—of the coinage of the Temple. But that’s tomorrow’s entry.