MONDAY: Holy Violence

How can violence be holy? It depends on the kind of violence.

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12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
Matthew 21:12-13

This is not the portrait of Jesus we have come to expect. Here we have the Savior, meek and mild, displaying violence—holy violence. The divine wrath of judgment.

Holy violence? How can violence be holy? To be holy is to be morally pure and without ill motive. How can violence be morally pure?

It depends on the type of violence.

Most of the violence with which we are familiar is anything but morally pure. It is evil, born of hateful motives to harm, kill, and destroy. Physical violence usually is the expression of uncontrolled anger lashing out at an undeserving victim.

This is the kind of vile eruption of unrighteous rage we see manifested in domestic abuse. Whether meted out upon a spouse or a child, it is not only illegal, it is evil, wrong, and condemnable. No wonder the concept of holy violence seems like the ultimate oxymoron.

Of course, there is violence that is not related to sinful human aggression, such as a car accident or someone tripping down the stairs. Ever watched a YouTube video of European traffic accidents caught on a dashcam? Then you know what I mean. It is hard to stomach.

There also is the kind of violence that helps us get closer to understanding the potential for holy conflict. For example, when a SWAT team storms into a home to rescue a kidnapped child or when firemen smash in windows and doors to enter a burning home.

These kinds of violence are not only permitted but required by those whose jobs demand that they do whatever is necessary to bring about the blessing of those in danger, even if it requires personal sacrifice.

Now we are ready to grasp the kind of violence that is holy. It is holy because, unlike unrighteous anger, holy anger is the enacting of justice with a violence that is necessary to bring about righteousness —or rightness. We could say, it is holy violence that sets to right what was wrong with an act of judgment that results in blessing.

This is why Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple courts was holy violence.

In the early 1st century, folks would come to the temple to worship, bringing something to sacrifice that would represent atonement. Blood would be shed for the remission of sins setting them right with God.

Many were too poor to bring a living sacrifice. They didn’t possess livestock. They were day laborers, serving in the fields of others. With no sacrifice in hand, they would be forced to purchase a small animal or bird at the temple. Knowing that the poor worshippers were desperate, the money changers would charge the peasants far more than the animals were worth.

You know what this is like. Consider being at the movies and having an itch for a snack. You go to the concession stand for a bucket of popcorn and a Coke.

“That will be $14.”

“What? This is criminal!”

Exactly. Now you get what was happening at the temple.

Essentially, the poor were being robbed.

Those who couldn’t pay and had no sacrifice to offer at all would turn away in despair. Rather than a place where pilgrims would find God’s grace available through the shadow of the substitutionary sacrifice of an animal, the temple had become a center of burden where the rich took advantage of the poor.

In view of such oppression, Jesus was filled with righteous indignation and literally overturned the injustice with holy violence. But this wasn’t the only table that would be overturned this week.

Looking ahead to Friday, Jesus knew that it wasn’t the inability of a peasant to pay for a pigeon that would require holy violence. It was the inability of sinners to pay for their sin debt, a burden far exceeding the purchase of a symbolic sacrifice in the temple.

He would be the fulfillment of all those shadow sacrifices.

Every drop of blood that had been shed for over a thousand years pointed to Friday, where the sacrifice would not be presented by the people to God, but it would be a sacrifice presented by God for the people.

In just five days, Jesus would be crucified upon a cross—rough-hewn beams that would become the epicenter of holy violence, where the consequences of our sin would be overturned, setting us right before the law of God, reconciled as children to God as Abba, Father. All through a sacrifice for which none could pay but God alone.