The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


One Size Fits All

An enigmatic historical account and the blame game.

by Mike Stavlund

Gospel Reading: John 2:13-22

For Sunday, March 11, 2012: Year B—Lent 3

For some reason, Jesus picks this one day out of his whole lifetime of trips to the Temple to come unhinged.

Why is Jesus so Angry?

Presumably, the commerce there was common practice, and this was just another ordinary day. Except that this was the day that the crazy person from Nazareth made a whip and drove all of the people and animals out of the Temple, flipping tables as he went.

Jesus even makes a special point of dressing down the dove retailers, accusing them of making the Temple into a marketplace.

When the din dies down a bit, the Temple authorities ask Jesus, “Why are you doing this?”

Ask a Reasonable Question, Get a Non-Answer

To this very sensible question, Jesus gives an answer that is both non sequitur and highly inflammatory: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Say What, Jesus?

This is akin to shouting “Bomb!” in the TSA line, or choosing the lawn of the White House as a great place to run your wind-sprints. Destroy the Temple? What are you talking about, Jesus? Just what kind of fight are you trying to start here?

With some restraint, it seems, the Temple authorities ask for some clarification. At which point Jesus goes mute. End of story.

What Really Happened that Day?

We know we should give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, but what if we don’t? Some uncredentialed person walks into a holy site, goes crazy, then gives a cryptic response and/or veiled threat before he shuts up completely.

The story doesn’t even make sense without a lot of speculative interpretation. Even the disciples who witnessed it don’t know what to make of it: John’s interpretive clues don’t occur to him until much later.

More than most, this is a gospel passage that gets inflicted on others from a later perspective. Even in the text itself, the disciples don’t know who to blame until they’ve had time to get their dander up. It seems that this tradition has been carried on ever since.

The Blame Game

There are lots of cheap shots that a low-church guy like myself can make here about preachers with salaries and churches with mortgages (which only serve to hide my jealousy at personalized parking places and retirement plans).

Perhaps without even noticing, we put faces on these characters: the faces of our enemies and opponents. So Jesus is mad at commerce, or capitalism. Jesus is angry at religious establishments. Or authorities. Or Judaism. Or religion itself. Or sacrifices. Or Temples. Or church buildings. Or worship services. And so on.

Ann Lamott has famously said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

The Hardest Question

We want to ask, “What was Jesus’ intent here?” But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe this enigmatic passage acts as a mirror to show us our own faults, biases, and prejudices.

Who do we tend to blame? In this Lenten season of self-examination, perhaps that’s the hardest question of all.


Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He blogs at, and his first book, “Force of Will”, will be published by Baker in the Spring of 2013.


  1. Rebekah says:

    I love that Anne Lamott quote! I like where you are going with this, Mike, but for me a harder question would be to ask, what does textual criticism say about this text? And then, how do we preach this?

    If these words reflect not Jesus but the early church, then why do we still pretend it’s Jesus? We can still ask the question about our own faults, prejudices, and biases. But we can also reflect on how the early church is not immune to these either. And maybe Jesus also has his issues.

    Don’t get me wrong, taking these words at face value can lead us to some valuable introspection. But it feels like a dangerous game to me. If we grant immunity to the text others will/do run with it and use it to bludgeon others. I’d prefer to think of the text’s writers as fellow humans trying to work their way through life as best they can, making mistakes occasionally just as I do, but as we muddle through we can all learn from each other. Having Jesus reflect our prejudices is just another example of creating God in our own image.

    In our engagement with the text, why does Jesus always hold the get out of jail free card?

  2. Thanks for the link-love, Dennis.

    And I’m really enjoying your thoughts here, Rebekah– especially that last line. I was initially wondering how one can preach textual criticism, but now I see the light!

  3. Dave says:

    Man, you really hit too close to home with that question.

    Out here in the “wilderness,” my days are literally numbered. I’m a small church pastor with a small salary. My wife works at another church nearby. And we are recognizing that it’s time to move on. Another church is likely not a possibility for either of us (at least for a long time). All around us, we’re surrounded by bigger church pastors and staff people who like to talk about how blessed they are because they’ve found their “niche.” Meanwhile, our denominational leaders seem to have given in to some sort of common drink, often chanting the same rhetoric about church renewal and pastors being held to standards of effectiveness.

    So I’m reading this familiar passage and thinking at first, man, I really identify with Jesus. I’m pissed at the church–the empty rituals, the people that show up on Sundays only, the inevitable gatekeepers, the rich pastors, the comfortable big church staff, and so on.

    But then I’m hearing a gentle but persistent scrubbing sound. Then I realize the sound is accompanied by some discomfort. I realize I can’t say a whole lot about all the other “temples” out there, but my own temple is long overdue for a thorough cleansing. I’ve accumulated years of resentment, hoop-jumping rituals, empty routines, mumbled prayers and self-inflicted A.D.D. Bible reading.

    With my days here numbered, and my days ahead of me looking both daunting and glorious, I suppose I will answer that I tend to blame myself. But there is great promise–the “Cleaning Man” never gives up, and all that I leave behind is a glorious lightening of my load toward what promises to be a new season in our walk with him. As to the sermon and the accompanying question, I seem to be moving in the direction of a confessional tone with an invitation to practice self-examination…with the hope that there will be at least one taker….

  4. I feel you, Dave– both in the desire to flip some tables, and the sense of entrapment. Keep the faith, brother.

    And re: the sermon, sometimes one is plenty. And it sounds like you’ve already enlightened at least one (yourself) and inspired at least one more (myself). Preach it, brother!

  5. I was going the same direction with this passage. I plan to first show the Why I hate Religion but Love Jesus video then show the Why I love Jesus & love religion video. I was hoping to ask more questions than give answers or interpret much. This passage to me leaves so many questions that to try and answer many of them with speculation is just not right. I want to leave it with pointing down the road to Holy Week and asking what this journey says to each individual. My dilemma right now is I need more questions to ask!

  6. Chris, I’m not sure of the shape of your congregation, but I wonder if I can ask a homiletical Hardest Question: What if you let everyone present for worship ask their own questions? Like, out loud? Not only would this make your job easier, but a whole lot more enlightening!


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