Last week’s post discussed the cleansing of the temple. I often ponder on the timing of that action. The gospels report the cleansing of the temple on two occasions. The first is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2:14-17). The second is just before his passion, at the end of his ministry (Matt 21:12, Mark 11:15, Luke 19:45). Why did Jesus act when he did? Today’s post examines this.
Two points are necessary to better respond to the question. The first is that Jesus was a Jew and subject to Jewish law (Galatians 4:4). Second, Jesus began his ministry when he was about “thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23). Juxtaposing these two points raises some questions. As a dedicated Jew, Jesus went to Jerusalem for the annual Passover. In fact, it was at a Passover feast at the age of twelve that he went missing. His parents returned to Jerusalem and found him listening and asking the teachers questions (Luke 2:39-52).
Why didn’t Jesus cleanse the temple then, or did the buying and selling begin when Jesus was thirty years old? Jesus may have pointed out this wrong use of the temple, but he was ignored since he was a child or an adult without leverage. Why didn’t he then forcefully try to cleanse the temple? A single word: brinkmanship.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines brinkmanship as “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome”. Investopedia describes it as “a negotiating technique where one party aggressively pursues a set of terms so that the other party must either agree or disengage”. However, the Collins English Dictionary provides a more apt definition for today’s post. It defines brinkmanship as “a method of behaviour, especially in politics, in which you deliberately get into dangerous situations which could result in disaster but which could also bring success”.
How does Jesus’ action demonstrate brinkmanship? First, the trade in the temple allowed pilgrims to get the animals they needed for sacrifice. However, the religious leaders also permitted them. The leaders may have financially gained directly and indirectly from the trade. They would have gained directly if the sellers paid taxes to gain permission to sell in the temple. On the other hand, they gained indirectly because the trade enabled all pilgrims to have the required currency or animal for Passover, which trickled into the treasury.
Since this trade was essential to the Jewish religious leaders, any threat to the buying and selling and changing of money threatened their income.
Although Jesus had preached severally in the synagogues, performed miracles even on Sabbath day, and even reprimanded the Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy, none of these threatened them as much as the cleansing of the temple.
The gospel of Mark reads:
“And he (Jesus) taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching”. (Mark 11:17-18).
Matthew’s gospel reports that after the temple cleansing, the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus on whose authority he taught and acted on. After Jesus’ response, the gospel reads: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet” (Matt 21: 45-46).
One recalls that the synoptic accounts of the cleansing of the temple (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) narrate that Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his ministry, that is, after triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Therefore, one argues that Jesus adopted the strategy of brinkmanship. Although Jesus saw this trade throughout his childhood and early adulthood, he did not attempt to forcefully stop it because it would have undermined the timing and manner of his life, teachings, passion, and death. The Jewish leaders would have arrested him immediately because humanly speaking, he had not yet acquired the leverage that instilled fear into the chief priests and Pharisees, which deterred them from acting for fear of the people.
As religious leaders, do we know people adopt brinkmanship in relating to us? Do we realise that when people confront us the way we never expected, they must have endured a lot and tried various means which failed before considering confrontation as a last resort?
When people confront us as pastors, do we realise that our actions may have threatened their spiritual, mental or economic well-being? It is almost an issue about life, identity, and existence. Do we know we can prevent their extreme reaction through availability to suggestions, malleability towards pastoral plans, and sympathy for people’s conditions? The Jewish leaders were powerful, yet Christ confronted them head-on at the appropriate time.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾