John 2:13-25: Talking about Tables

January 16, 2022
Joanna Harader

This morning, I want to talk about tables. Exciting, right? Tables.

First, the pool table in the basement of Crozer Theological Seminary where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent many hours shooting pool and discussing God with his fellow students. And pool tables across the country where King hit a few balls as he organized for racial and economic justice.

Also, the kitchen table where King had a heart to heart with God about his fear and exhaustion in leading the Montgomery bus boycott. As the boycott extended into months and posed a serious economic threat to the white community of Montgomery, King was getting up to 40 death threats each day.[1]

Late at night, on January 27, 1956, King was teetering on the edge of despair after another such phone call: “Leave Montgomery if you have no wish to die.”

He made a cup of coffee and sat down at his kitchen table. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King shares how he was desperate at at the end of his powers. Sitting at that kitchen table, he prayed to God and felt God’s presence in an incredible, tangible way. This encounter with the Divine at the kitchen table strengthened King for the hard work ahead.

The kitchen table was an important place for King. And the pool table. And, of course, the table King mentions in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: “I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Tables. Exciting, right?

Tables are important to Jesus, too. Last week we read about Jesus at the wedding feast where, we assume, he sat at a table for at least part of the time. There are lots of stories about Jesus partying around tables.

Last week we gathered around the (virtual) communion table in remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.

The last supper may be the most famous scene of Jesus with a table—thanks in no small part to Leonardo DaVinci. But I bet this week’s scripture reading is a close second: Jesus sweeping stacks of coins off of tables and flipping tables over.

Martin Luther King grew up in a fairly strict Baptist household where pool-playing was not condoned. So King’s time at the pool table in seminary marked an important shift for him away from the legalism of the religion he was taught as a child and toward a more open, thoughtful, and complicated understanding of who God is and what God is about in this world.

It strikes me that Jesus and the temple court tables can be understood in much the same way. Jesus flipping the tables indicates that he is not—to put it mildly—fully on board with the traditional religious practices of his community. We can’t say for sure why Jesus turns over the table, but there are two main theories.

The first theory is that Jesus was mad because the money changers and animal sellers were exploiting the pilgrims.

So here’s how this temple thing worked. There were three festivals each year for which Jewish people were expected to worship in the temple at Jerusalem. Passover was one of those festivals, and many people travelled for miles, for days, to be in Jerusalem for the event. According to Josephus, a first century historian, the population of the city would surge from its normal 50,000 to 180,000 during Passover. That’s worse traffic than Lawrence on a KU game day.

All of the pilgrims coming to the city needed an unblemished animal for sacrifice. But it didn’t make sense to bring an animal on a long journey. Even if you started out with an unblemished animal, by the time you made it to Jerusalem the cow could have gotten scratched or twisted its ankle, the ram could have broken a horn or died of exhaustion. So pilgrims needed to buy animals in Jerusalem.

But wait. Jews were not allowed to use money with the image of a human or god on it to buy their holy sacrifices. And guess what? Lots of money in the Roman empire had images of humans—usually the emperors—and gods—or even human emperors as gods. So lots of people needed to first exchange their Roman coins for appropriate temple coins before they could buy their animals before they could go further into the temple to worship and offer sacrifices. This is all laid out in Deuteronomy–somewhere.

Jesus was angry, say some, because those who were exchanging coins and selling animals were charging exorbitant fees to people who had no other options of how to obtain the items necessary for worship. This sense of economic exploitation is suggested more strongly in the version of the story presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) where Jesus quotes Isaiah (54:7) and Jeremiah (7:11): ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” John’s version doesn’t say anything about “robbers.” But it’s still within the realm of possibility to imagine that people exchanging coins and selling animals inside the temple court were jacking up their prices a bit for the tourists.

Other people suggest that the issue wasn’t so much the price being charged by these vendors, but their location. The temple was set up with various courts. In the very center was the Holy of Holies where only the priests were allowed, and as you move out from the center, different types of people are allowed in different proximities to the Holy of Holies. The money changer tables are located in one of the outer courts, which is the court for women and Gentiles. Women could not get any closer than this to the center of the temple. Gentiles could not get any closer. So potentially, the problem here is not the content, but the location of the transactions. This isn’t just the gift shop as you exit Chartes Cathedral; this is actually a part of the temple where some people are trying to worship.

Whether Jesus’ objection here is economic exploitation, racial prejudice, sexism, or all of the above, Jesus’ actions here show that he does not intend to just go along with the religious program. Like King, he is thinking about his faith in ways that go beyond the basic rules of religion that he was likely taught growing up.

In John’s gospel, this story of Jesus flipping tables is near the very beginning of his public ministry. It sets the tone for Jesus’ identity and message. Which makes sense. It also, though, makes sense that the other three gospels place this story during Holy Week. In those narratives, it becomes the spark that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion.

After all, however we spin this story, it is a story about money. Coins flying through the air, expensive animals running away, the disruption of the entire temple economic system—and the temple was a major—the major—part of the Jerusalem economic system.

We should note that the death threats against Martin Luther King began rolling in at the point where the Montgomery boycotts were starting to have an economic impact. And that King was assassinated while he was actively working on economic issues: the Memphis sanitation strike and the Poor People’s Campaign.

Jesus wasn’t killed for sitting around the table with his disciples—or even for sitting around the table with people “offensive” people—like women, Gentiles, and tax collectors.

King wasn’t killed for suggesting that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Sure, there are people who are racist, sexist, all kinds of prejudiced, that don’t like these ideas of inclusion and equality. People who were unhappy about Jesus’ dinner companions. People who didn’t want the children of former slaves and former slaveowners to sit down together. But what got King and Jesus killed—many would argue, I would argue—is the threat they posed to the economic status quo. Not sitting around tables, but planning boycotts around them—and flipping them.

Tables. Exciting, right?

What’s rather disconcerting for me is that the money changers sitting behind those soon-to-be-flipped tables most likely thought they were doing something good. Providing a needed service. Serving God in their own way. And, yes, making a little money for themselves—because they need to pay the bills and buy the groceries. What’s wrong with that?

I make money providing religious services for people; facilitating worship.

Many of you provide that money.

In about an hour, we’re going to talk about that money. How the church gets money. How we spend money. At our congregational meeting, we will discuss and, hopefully approve, our budget. And honestly, this image of Jesus sweeping coins to the floor and flipping tables . . . it’s making me a little nervous.

True, we aren’t the Memphis or the US government. We aren’t a large, central, religious hub like the Jerusalem Temple. Yet even as a small church with a small budget, we are called to be faithful in how we use money. We are called to fairness. We are called to justice.

As we gather around our “Zoom table” later to discuss how to spend our money, I pray we will know the Divine presence just as King did at his kitchen table. And I pray that whatever decisions we make will cause Jesus to want to pull up a chair at the table rather than flip it.