• Sarah Chayes

Insight #3: Jesus Takes On the Kleptocracy



ONCE MONEY BECOMES the main measure of social standing, what do people running the endless race do?


They turn humans back into apes. By banding together in a coalition of their own, they overpower the egalitarian consensus.


Of course, inside such a coalition-of-the-rich, tempers may flare. Members -- alpha-dominators that they are -- may be contentious; the group may be split by bitter rivalries. In fact, it may not be a single clearly defined group at all. (More on that next post.)


But don’t let the noise distract you. There is one objective around which such coalitions always close ranks: fixing the rules so they get to hog the community’s meat. (Or, by this point in human development, money.)


Just such a coalition ruled in Jerusalem when an itinerant preacher, who had gained quite the following, performed an indelible act.


And Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.


It may be the most consequential thing Jesus did – the climax of his ministry. But the spare text omits crucial details. Here is what history and archeology add:


=> Striding up the temples steps as he did, Jesus was barging into the boardroom of the coalition-of-the-rich. That temple was not some lonely and sober building like a church or a mosque. It was a huge complex, the most magnificent east of Rome. The whole place was designed to put the coalition’s wealth on intimidating display -- down to the gold-plated walls. (Sound familiar?)


=> The people who presided over this sacred space were busy meat-hogging. One of the temple buildings housed a major bank. Its super-rich clients included wholesalers, wealthy long-distance traders, and tax collectors -- the guys who raked in a profit by contracting their government work out to private businessmen. Those businessmen, in turn, extorted more money than citizens owed. The supreme court was also located on the temple grounds.


=> Not only was money the yardstick for measuring social standing, money was required to be part of the blessed society at all. What Jesus broke up was no ordinary cattle market. It was the sale of animals every family had to offer up for sacrifice once a year, in order to remain a member in good standing of the faith community. In the old days, people brought a lamb they had raised to the yearly Passover celebration. During the rites, the meat from the sacrifice was shared around – recalling that ancient egalitarian ritual that made us human. No more. By Jesus’s day, with the Midas Disease rampant, people had to buy their sacrificial offering – in a foreign currency no less. (Its silver content was higher than local shekels.) That’s what the money-changers were doing there in the temple, right next to the sheep and the doves, turning a profit with every transaction. Many rural folk, subsistence farmers, had no money at all. To perform this obligation, they might have to mortgage their land, even submit to bondage. So were irreplaceable spiritual and human values reduced to cold metal.


It was this system, rigged by and for the meat-hogs, that caused the Prince of Peace to lose his cool and start throwing furniture around.


And it was his fatal act.


This was the moment, gospels agree, that the coalition-of-the-rich started “looking for a way to kill him.” Let’s just take that in. It wasn’t Christ’s compassion or his God-given power to heal the sick that got him in trouble. Not even his tendency to shrug off the letter of the law in favor of its spirit. Only when he pointed out the meat-hogs and their grasping addiction to money did they get murderous.


But they couldn’t follow through. Not just then.


Why not?


Because of the sequence Jesus followed. His step-by-step actions recreated the deepest egalitarian practice that made Homo sapiens human.


=> First, he gathered the whole community together, across its bitter identity divides. He led by example – listening to individuals from every detested social category or profession, pointing out their goodness. He reminded the community of its founding commandment: “Love thy neighbor.”

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=> Next, he re-enacted that ancient ceremony: sharing out equal portions of meat -- in this case not mastodon meat, but the nourishing flesh of fish. Through this celebration, held on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus cemented the egalitarian consensus.

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=> Only then did he invite that broad-based egalitarian coalition to consider behavior of its meat-hogs. Only then did he expose the money-hoarders to public shame. And they were helpless against him just then, because he was surrounded by that "spellbound" crowd, which represented the whole community. This is just how our forebears, for tens of thousands of years, began the work of reining in their dangerous would-be alpha-dominators.


Here, then, are the keys this sacred story holds for us:


1) “The Jews” didn’t kill Jesus. (Jesus was a Jew.) The coalition of the super-rich killed him.


2) They did so because he wielded the only weapon that could defeat them: a cross-cutting consensus of their whole society.