A short biblical reflection on Matthew 21: 12-17
During these times of injustice and unrest, I have found the cleansing of the temple as a rich story with a lot of imagery for our chaotic times. It begins with nothing short of what you could call Jesus causing a riot against people who performed a legitimate function in the temple. So why would Jesus cause a riot in such a holy place like the temple? Jesus clarifies his actions in his statement of “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” To call any place a “den of robbers” is to judge it as a place where people are extorted and abused. So why did Jesus riot? It is because what was sacred had been extorted and abused. The Temple was the holiest of places for the Jewish people in 1 century Palestine. And to witness injustice in the place where Jesus and other Jews encountered God, was a very serious violation against God and Jesus’ faith. Later in history, the apostle Paul beautifully describes the human body as the temple of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6: 19). Thus, Paul’s words reminds us that the human body must be treated and cared for as God’s temple. So, the question for us right now in 2020 is why are people peacefully protesting and rioting? Because the voice of George Floyd crying out, “I Can’t Breathe” tells us that human bodies (God’s temple) are being extorted and abused.
However, what is beautiful about this story is what Jesus does after the riot. It is after the riot in the gospel of Matthew that the blind and the lame can be healed. It appears as if the riot turned the temple into a place of healing for all the people who could not enter into the temple previously. The sick and lame who had no privilege to be in the temple, now find the temple is more than just a welcoming place for them, but a place where they can come to be healed. That truly is a beautiful story of what can happen after a riot. But, there is also a sad part to this story because another group who needed spiritual healing, couldn’t accept Jesus’ healing. The religious leaders, the ones who had the greatest privileges to be in the temple, only became angry at Jesus. They only saw Jesus who was healing the lame and the sick as radical, and resented Jesus for changing the systems of the temple. It is truly disheartening to hear that the religious leaders who had all the privileges of being in a religious institution, refused the healing that Jesus offered in a new system of Temple. Their protective anger only resulted in the death of innocent people like the crucifixion of Jesus. And this story of riot turned to healing, and privilege turned to protective anger is one that we as Christians need to hear in 2020. How can we turn a place like America, where black bodies are abused and killed, into the place where black people are healed from centuries of racism? How can we turn a place like America, where racial and economic disparities have always existed, into a place where white people and the rich are healed from centuries of privilege? It certainly is not an easy road. But, for those who are united in Christ, this is the path we must also follow, being the church of healing, not of privilege and racism. God bless a healed America!
James Paul Martin
Special thanks to the awesome New Testament commentary of Michael Joseph Brown and all the other amazing African-American New Testament scholars in the True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. And of course, the unknown author of the gospel of Matthew, Paul the Apostle, a divine 1stcentury Palestinian Jew named Jesus and the “wild child” herself aka Holy Spirit, I couldn’t do life without you!