That Time When Jesus Started A Riot

The murder of young Michael Brown has grieved and enraged an entire community. Many of them took to the streets in response. Peaceful prayer vigils and protests were met with armed policemen, tanks, and tear gas. Violence broke out. The response has only gotten worse.

As Christians, we are often urged to denounce such demonstrations. This is due to Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus is presented as meek and mild, friendly and full of compassion. And while this is not inaccurate, a vital Gospel account brings this notion concerning Jesus into question. Near the end of his life, Jesus enters into the sacred Temple in Jerusalem.[1] He proceeds to chase people out, block anyone else from bringing anything else into the temple, and flipped over the moneychangers’[2] tables. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus cites scripture to explain his actions. He declares that the Temple is supposed to be a place of prayer, but instead, it is a “den of robbers.” In John’s gospel, the author places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ career (which is the reason why scholars place Jesus’ ministry activity within a one to three year range). John’s Gospel even depicts, Jesus making a whip.


This took place during the Passover, which was a tense time in the ancient city. Roman troops were on high alert, and any hint of an uprising was promptly extinguished. Herod’s palace was attached directly to the Temple, meaning all the vital aspects of the Jewish faith took place under the watchful eye of Roman rule. That, along with thousands of Jews who sojourned there to celebrate the Passover every year, created some volatile situations.

Many scholars debate this account. The discussion is not about whether or not it happened; it is one of the few events that takes place in all four Gospels. This story is problematic because it depicts Jesus as an aggressor. Also debated is exactly why Jesus did this in the first place. Surely he would have known that doing such a thing would have put him and his followers in grave danger. Were Jesus’ actions in the Temple heavenly mandates, political protests, or a little of both? Two scholars, NT Wright and Obery Hendricks serve as a good balance to get the gist of where scholars tend to fall.

NT Wright views Jesus’ assault on the temple as an act of judgment. For him, Jesus interrupting the temple proceedings was an act that demonstrated two things. First, it was an act that proclaimed Jesus’ royalty. Wright notes that it is often missed that it was the kings of the Jews, legitimate or not, that had the chief role in the handling of the temple.[3] In declaring its operations corrupt, Jesus was simultaneously declaring that he had the right to manage the Temple as its kingly manager.

The second thing that Jesus’ act accomplished, was establishing that God was interacting with earth in a new way. For Wright, Jesus served as the nexus of God’s activity while he was on earth, and the literal place where heaven and earth intersected. Prior, this heaven/earth intersection was thought to be in the Most Holy Place found in the Temple. If Jesus is now the center of attention for the meeting of Heaven and Earth, what use is the temple?[4] In Wright’s view, Jesus’ existence renders the temple obsolete.

Obery Hendricks agrees with Wright’s account of Jesus’ temple assault as judgment, but he focuses on the political realities. Hendricks notes “the priests who administered [the temple sacrifices and declarations] had become inextricably intertwined with systematic appropriation of the goods and resources of ‘the least of these.’”[5] That is, the priests were taking advantage of the poor. Jewish scripture required numerous sacrifices and pronouncements for the events in people’s lives, all of which required payment. In times past and during this present time, the temple elites abused their standing. This only became worse when the temple priests became a puppet for the Roman Empire.

For Hendricks, Jesus’ actions in the temple were not a random show of emotion. Noting that the account follows the cursing of the fig tree and the triumphant procession, “Jesus’ protest was well planned.”[6] It also was not merely spiritual. “Jesus was not committing a purely religious act by attacking the money changers and dove sellers…the Jerusalem Temple was not a purely religious institution.”[7] He goes on to explain how the temple was the center of Jerusalem’s economy. It served as a bank. Priests gave out predatory loans with the intention of default so they could forcefully claim people’s property. Jesus was standing up to a system that actively worked to oppress people who had no way to defend themselves.

The question remains: was this a violent act? There’s no evidence of Jesus hitting anyone, but how does one non-violently chase large amounts of people out of the Temple? How do you non-violently brandish a weapon? Also, given the Temple’s size, Jesus’ presumably had help from his disciples. The Temple was a supermarket, a town square, and a bank rolled all into one. Mix that with Roman soldiers and you have to wonder how a person could peacefully shut a place like this down without help and planning. And if you have tables stacked with money being flipped over in the midst of chaos, is it too much of a stretch to believe that the poor people pocketed some of that change? The popular sentiment at the time was that the temple priests cared nothing about the people’s welfare. Looting, contrary to popular belief, is often strategic and a reversal of the status quo. Most scholars believe that it was Jesus’ attack on the temple that led to his eventual arrest and execution. Someone who is politely making a little noise does not often elicit such a response. Nor are they crucified, for that heinous act was reserved for the most dangerous enemies of Roman rule.

If anything, the temple account in the gospels should teach the reader that aggression and direct action is not something that God frowns on. At the very least, Jesus staged a massive demonstration to critique and disrupt the unfair systems harming people that God loves. God is not afraid of anger, and sometimes the only way to create an environment for change is to shut everything down and declare, “enough is enough.” Smiles and hugs do not affect people who hold no regard for others. Many times, messing with someone’s money and flipping their tables is the only option.

Violence and massive disruption should never be a primary option. But one has to ask, what other ways are there for people who have been brutally and systematically deprived of rights for so long? The proper channels and due process do not exist for people in Ferguson, just like they did not exist for Jesus and the people that suffered under the Romans. Destroying property is violent; so is ignoring the injustice inflicted upon those that cannot defend themselves. Asking them to not be violent, without working to produce radical justice for them, is violent. In many ways, the people of Ferguson are “the least of these.” Jesus would be there with them, not in our posh sanctuaries. He would also flip over tables for them.

For whom would our churches and organizations flip over tables for?

Jesus Temple

Copyright Brendan Powell Smith

People are uncomfortable with this Gospel account for the same reason they are uncomfortable with what is taking place in Ferguson. It is not the violence itself, but who is conducting it. Black bodies are already seen as deviant and prone to violence. The “least of these” are not supposed to attack. Empire only approves of violence when it can be used to further its goals. This is also true for the Church. Violence is endorsed every day when wars are sanctioned and harmful rhetoric is preached. Non-violence is bigger than simply not throwing a punch; it is respect and care for life in all ways. The Church may not go around breaking windows today, but she is far from non-violent. She has not been peaceful for centuries.

Racial tensions, economic disparities, and police brutality have gone on in Ferguson for years. The Jews were suffering economically, being occupied by a foreign force, and enduring the brutality of the Roman troops. In both situations, people who had no other recourse took matters into their own hands. Is rioting unpalatable? Yes. Is it respectable? No. But the loss of innocent life and other forms of violence are far less respectable than broken windows and stolen televisions. Is it worth laying aside peace, even for a second, in the interest of justice and freedom?

Jesus seemed to think so.

[1] Mark 11:15-19, Matthew 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16.

[2] In order to buy temple-approved sacrifices from the temple, you could only use temple-approved money. Money stamped with images Caesar or other deities was not accepted.

[3] Simply Jesus 2011

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Politics of Jesus 2008

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

5 thoughts on “That Time When Jesus Started A Riot

  1. Excellent article. I follow a Savior like this, one I don’t hear preached about in the current non-separation of church and state. Meaning, todays church is as corrupt (and bankrupt of authenticity), as our government. I could attend a church that teaches this kind of message. Thank-you, for speaking truth. Americans (In my humble opinion), are brain-washed. They don’t know this Christ (and the way things are going, they never will).

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