The Son of Man as Thief

August 4, 2010

No one can enter a strongman’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first binds the strongman. Then he can rob his house. (Mark 3:27)

Jesus did not just rail against the rich with curses, prophetic oracles and forceful teachings about the dangers of going in through the wide gate of wealth. And he did not just promise the poor—with blessings, prophetic oracles and hopeful teachings about what lay beyond the narrow gate—that their fortunes would be reversed, that he had “good news” for them: he would cancel their debts, relieve their suffering and provide for their needs. He actually put cash in their hands—cash he had stolen from their rich and powerful oppressors. In at least one instance, Jesus stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Son of Man was a thief.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)

Jesus had already demonstrated in concrete terms what he meant by this cryptic warning about judgment. In this concrete instance, as in the more eschatological sayings about the ‘Son of Man’, the “strongman” was Satan, and also his minions—the priests, scribes and lawyers who ruled Judea as collaborators with Caesar. The “house” was the temple. The “theft” was the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple.’

After the triumphal royal procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week, Jesus’ first royal act was to enter the temple complex, go to the foreign exchange office of the treasury, and stage a raid.

Going into the temple, he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple; and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and he did not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of brigands.” (Mark 11:15-17)

Imagine the scene: The tables topple, the jars of coins crash to the pavement, the money spills in piles and rolls out into the court, some officials desperately seize what jars of money they can save and try to make it out of the court, but Jesus and his followers intercept them, people are scooping the money up from the floor into sacks, hauling off the jars they have captured. All the while Jesus is shouting above the cries, the bellows of the cattle, the mewing of the sheep, the flutter of wings, the laughing of his followers: you have made this a den of thieves! Ever the master of prophetic irony and sarcasm.

It is a small victory. The poor are very many and even this Robin Hood raid will not see to all their needs. But it is real money, after all. And its symbolic power is tremendous. The Son of Man delivers.

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:18)