In Jesus’ day, the way you got right with God and stayed connected with your community was to go to the temple and present an animal as an offering. The priests would take your lamb or bird, sacrifice it to God on your behalf, and voila, you were again in right standing with God and your community.
That is a simple explanation of the sacrificial system, but it cuts to the quick. And yes, it’s a very transactional system, and many Christians still participate in the religious spirit behind it today.
Have you ever had a can of Coke confiscated on the way into Disney World? Yeah, neither have I. But I’ve heard it happens, and it’s understandable. A can of Coke purchased outside Disney World costs less than a dollar. However, inside the park, a can of Coke goes for $10,000 or something like that. It’s extortion, but we pay it because, I don’t know, we’re on vacation, I guess.
I bring it up because that’s what was taking place on the way into the temple grounds—not the vacation but the extortion. And because of it, there’s a famous story about Jesus, a whip, and flipped tables.
You see, you couldn’t bring your own Coke into the park with you. Instead, you had to buy your beverage inside the park from the vendors—except the temple priests weren’t selling soft drinks. Rather, they sold the birds or lambs worshipers would need to offer as sacrifices so they could be in right standing with God and their community. Essentially, you could get a bird or lamb for a buck outside the temple, but they cost like $10,000 inside.
Yeah, the priests were price-gouging souls—extortion of the spirit, highway robbery in the name of God. The religion of separation is good business—and really disgusting.
Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.
The religious leaders were exploiting the vulnerabilities and inequalities of the people they were supposed to serve. It was an injustice, and Jesus was outraged. So, He spent the whole day braiding a whip. Then, Jesus and His disciples went to the temple grounds where He drove the moneylenders—those religious money-grubbing, hypocrisy-ridden, rock-throwing, abusive leaders—out of the temple grounds. And as He drove them out, He flipped over the tables they had used to receive payment.
Thus, the term, table-flipping.
And I tell this story because I’ve been sharing the non-punishing good news long enough to run up against retribution preachers who leverage Jesus, a whip, and flipped tables to support their cruel and punishing theology.
But this story wasn’t about that one-time Jesus participated in punishing violence. There were no reports of anyone struck or injured—just hurt pride and offended ego as Jesus responded to the religious abuse of authority and confronted one more injustice in a sin-counting world oppressed by injustice.
Jesus knew well the injustice of separation, us or them, oppressed and oppressor. Jesus knew the injustice for the orphan and the widow, the injustice of sickness and death, divorce, disconnection, poverty, inequality, slavery, and war—the injustice of lack; tables needed to be flipped!
And Jesus knew the cost of flipping tables—that only a “greater love that lays down one’s life for one’s friend” saves, sets free, restores, and makes us whole. You see, Greater Love is the justice that has both the authority and power to reconcile the world.
So, Jesus flipped tables—not in the spirit of retribution but as a revelation of reconciling love. Jesus flipped tables in the authority of, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” Jesus flipped tables in the power of “God in Christ, reconciling…oppressed and oppressor.” 1 Jesus was outraged by injustice, so He flipped tables in the justice of a “Love (that) keeps no record of wrongs.” 2
As a young man, I loved to be outraged, especially if it involved flipping tables. It was invigorating to call out hypocrisy, and it was easy to do. It’s everywhere!
But as I grow surer in love and mature in childlike faith, I’m learning that if I’m unwilling to lay down my life for the person on the other side of the table, I am not releasing justice. I am just noise pollution.
Paul said it this way “…If I do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 3
We can do all kinds of stuff for God in the name of justice, but if we’re not willing to engage in other-centered, self-giving love for those on the other side of the table, we’re not part of a solution, we’re a reaction and, therefore, a part of the problem.
Another way to say it—if we’re not willing to participate in reconciliation when we flip tables, then we’re participating in punishment. And that’s not justice; it’s just revenge passed down the generations.
When we flip tables outside of other-centered, self-giving love, all we do is make equal and opposite messes. When we flip tables in the spirit of retribution, we participate in the dualistic narrative of good and evil and evil and evil…
Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do…
1 John 15:13
2 1 Corinthians 13:5
3 1 Corinthians 13:1
This article is excerpted from my book, Leaving and Finding Jesus
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