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The Expulsion of God

The Forgotten Sequel to Palm Sunday

“The point is that the service industry can be corrupted. Essential services can be administered in a profiteering direction. Great money can be made out of conveniences”

Palm Sunday is often celebrated with joy and vigour. Many of us can see in our mind’s eyes the glow on the faces of our children, as they wave the palm branches during worship. The decorations, the special songs and doubly-prepared sermons all add to the atmosphere. Some of us may wish for a donkey, only to be reminded that there are already some in the congregation! Joke aside, the celebration of Palm Sunday often induces us to wish that more of our worship services may feature such vitality and enthusiasm. There is, however, a forgotten sequel to Palm Sunday. Our Gospels speak of the expulsion of God.

The destination of pilgrimages to Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was the Temple, where pilgrims brought their offerings to God. What was so special about the final trip of Jesus was that he entered the city amid much jubilation and acclamation. The one who entered the Temple, then, was no ordinary mortal but the long-awaited king (Mark 11.9-10). However, Jesus proceeded to stop some ongoing operations and expelled the operators (Mark 11.15-18 and parallels). The verb that is associated with exorcism in our Gospels (Greek = ekballō) is also used in this story; such conditions take great power to eradicate. This provocative action of Jesus is closely linked with yet another shocking action, viz. the cursing of the fig tree, which indicates further how egregious the problem was. But in keeping with the constraint of space, I shall not refer to it.

We usually think of Jesus as nice and bright, someone who is here to make life’s load light. Why then did he perform the provocative action? I mention in a previous paragraph that the problem was egregious. A qualification is needed. It is egregious only for those who have pure eyes, because it took on a very subtle form.

The Torah commands that offerings must be unblemished, for after all, they are to be presented to the Almighty Sovereign. This being the case, it makes good sense for the Temple authorities to provide for procurement approved animals for sacrifice. Can you imagine the disappointment of a pilgrim who, after travelling many miles with an animal, is told that it does not meet the requirements? Furthermore, the annual Temple tax must be collected. Jews lived in different parts of the Roman Empire and therefore used different types of coins, which were of different metal purity. Can we fault the Temple authorities for instituting a standard to ensure that the best coins were being used to pay the Temple tax? In Jesus’ day this was the silver statēr from the city of Tyre. This being the case, it is understandable that the Temple should provide money-changing facilities. Hence, all the operations mentioned in the account may be understood as having the interests of the worshippers at heart, by providing conveniences. Or were they?

In Matthew and Mark, it is said that Jesus drove out those selling and buying, suggesting that he was against the commercialisation of a place of worship (Matt 21.12 || Mark 11.15; cf. John 2.16). This is not to be denied, but there is something else lurking underneath, and it has to do with the scriptural passages Jesus cited to explain his actions. In Jesus’ eyes, what the Temple authorities did effectively transformed the house of prayer for all nations into a den of robbers. The statement of Jesus must not be taken as an exaggeration or simply a rhetorical flourish. The Isaianic passage reminds us of the ideals of God’s Temple (Isa 56.7). The Jeremian passage, however, evokes the sad story of corruption during the prophet’s time (Jer 7.11). Abusing the belief that God’s house was inviolable, the priests used their privileged position to impoverish the people, and then retreated to the safe haven of God’s Temple, just like robbers in their secluded caves. Who could stop the priests if they were acting in God’s name?

There is an interesting story in the Mishnah (m.Kerithoth 1.7) that sheds light on Jesus’ action, for after all he did target the dove sellers (Mark 11.15 and parallels). Once, doves were sold for a gold denarius, which was equivalent to twenty-five silver denarii, i.e. roughly a month’s wage of a common worker. Now, doves were the offerings of the poor, and often used for purificatory rites related to gynaecology, such as menstruation and miscarriages. When Gamaliel I, the well-known teacher of Paul, heard of this exorbitant price, he made a pronouncement that reduced certain offertory requirements, and the price plummeted to half a silver denarius in the same day: a whopping discount of 98%! Gamaliel I demonstrated a keen grasp of the connection between religion and economics. The practice of paying very generous pensions to wealthy widows of high priests from the Temple coffers (as much as 400 gold denarii a day!) indicates who the beneficiaries of this connection were. The Temple authorities were indeed very caring, but only to their own kind, and with the hard-earned money of non-priests. As Singaporeans are wont to say, such coffers always need ‘topping-up’.

“This sequel to Palm Sunday must be remembered. God cares for his house, God cares for his people, and God expels if necessary”

The point is that the service industry can be corrupted. Essential services can be administered in a profiteering direction. Great money can be made out of conveniences: just look at the many chains of convenience stores in Singapore. Indeed, what appears legitimate may only be a façade. Underlying this may be shocking corruption. Sadly, religious institutions are not exempted from such tendencies. It is the responsibility of those who can see beneath the façade to unmask the hypocrisy that is going on. If this is not done, many will continue to be exploited, and God may be expelled from their hearts as a result. Nothing can discourage people from believing in God more potently than the hypocrisy and corruption of religious leaders.

Palm Sunday reminds us that the longed-for king has indeed come. As the righteous king, he must visit the Temple and clear out operations and operators, which prevented people from truly worshipping God. Indeed, our belief in the incarnation entails the thought that this king is in a profound sense also God in person. This means God in Christ visited the Temple, found many things wanting, and expelled them as he expelled demons from people’s lives. This sequel to Palm Sunday must be remembered. God cares for his house, God cares for his people, and God expels if necessary.

If ever a church in Singapore is indicted for financial irregularities or corrupt practices, it will understandably cause much sadness and soul searching among Christians. How could people who claim to belong to God do such dastardly deeds? How could they be allowed by those who should know better to carry on doing those deeds? Have we all been cowardly or complicit? This is even more so if it concerns a prominent church. However, if we take to heart seriously the events of Passion Week as recorded in the Gospels, the sad event should not shake our faith, as the expulsion of financial irregularities or corrupt practices from places of worship is intimately connected with the concept of the kingdom of God. God is king and he will put his house in order and the world to rights. We should then take courage in both hands – with joy if we dare – and solemnly proclaim, ‘Our God reigns!’

Dr Tan Kim Huat, Academic Dean,
Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament