This is Alexander Smirnov’s dramatic interpretation of The Cleansing of the Temple. It’s an odd story, isn’t it? Some even point to it as an instance of Jesus losing his cool, lashing out in irritation.
But there’s much more to it than that..
The Bible describes the Temple courtyard as being filled with livestock, merchants, and the tables of money changers. This last group was there to change the standard Greek or Roman coinage for Jewish and Tyrian currency. (Gentile money could not be used at the Temple because of the graven images on it.) It has been estimated that the Passover season swelled Jerusalem with some 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims.
This was a huge business.
And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”(John 2: 13-16)
“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:12-13)
In Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 Jesus accused the Temple authorities of thieving and this time names poor widows as their victims, going on to provide evidence of this (Mk 12:42; Lk 21:2). Dove sellers were selling doves that were sacrificed by the poor who could not afford grander sacrifices and specifically by women. According to Mark 11:16, Jesus then put an embargo on people carrying any merchandise through the Temple—a sanction that would have disrupted all commerce.
David Landry suggests that “the importance of the episode is signaled by the fact that within a week of this incident, Jesus is dead. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that this is the event that functioned as the “trigger” for Jesus’ death.” While most artistic renderings have a more dramatic depiction of Jesus thrashing the merchants, Nathan W. O’Halloran’s reading of the Greek word pantas indicates that Jesus took some ropes he found lying around “to drive out the sheep and oxen, like any shepherd or cattle herder would do”, followed, no doubt, by their owners. He also notes that the Synoptics do not make mention of a whip; and that Mark uses the word “drove”, as it was used elsewhere for the spirit “driving” Jesus into the desert, or Jesus himself “driving” out demons.
Far from being a flash of temper, O’Halloran identifies the actions of Jesus with “a calculated prophetic action evocative of the temple condemnation in Jeremiah 7:1-15″. The Gospel of Mark uses the phrase, “Then he taught them…” as Jesus references the prophet Jeremias. The full quotation from Jeremias reads:
Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the Lord.(Jeremiah 7:9-11)
And this is the interpretation that Smirnov seems to approach,in his stunning painting. The figure of Christ is clothed in a violent red which would appear to reflect his rage. The whip is raised above his head and almost threatens to become a noose. The hapless money-changers, clutching their bags of ill-gotten gains like comic-book burglars, are driven to their knees like sheep,and are being herded from the holy place by the sheer force of Jesus’personality. Their bodies have almost lost their human shape, turning into something else, black, grotesque and beast-like.
It needs no imagination to think that these are the same respectable and substantial citizens who will soon turn the tables on the crusading Christ and hound him to his death.
All this is understood, I think, by the artist. It’s a powerful insight into a spiritual -perhaps even a political- truth. The truth is that when you stand for justice, the forces against which you stand do not take it lying down. In this way, the painting reminds me of Martin Luther King, and his understanding of the interrelatedness of injustice:
In his ‘Letter from the Birmingham jail’, he put the struggle against injustice in Birmingham in the broader context of the United States. He writes: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In his speech ‘Let my people go’, which he held in New York on Human Rights Day in 1965, he repeated the message:
“The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world, it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength and because this is true when men of good will finally unite they will be invincible.”
And all this was happening when Jesus took up the “whip of small cords.” He was making an “open display” of what economic disparity and social injustice looked like.
And, like Martin Luther King, he paid the ultimate price for the exposure of evil.