If Jesus was really perfect, why did he become violent in the Temple? Is he not supposed to be the ultimate example of peace?
The question is rightly concerned with the consistency and clarity of Jesus’s behaviour: How can the one who teaches love of our neighbour and our enemies develop such anger and drive not only the cattle and the sheep but also the sellers from the temple, and that with “whip out of cords”. The dramatic detail of the spontaneously woven whip is reported in John (John 2:14-17). The Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) write more generally that he drove out the sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers (who changed money for profit into the only currency accepted for payment of the temple tax).
First of all, love of ones enemies which deliberately does not counter injustice with further violence, must not be confused with acceptance of any possible human actions. Recognising in the enemy a human being, loved by God, with his own irrevocable dignity does not mean that we should not be outraged by injustice and tolerate it silently. Jesus’s “zealousness” does therefore not contradict his love for his enemies. It is true, however, that violence against human beings cannot be justified by appealing to God’s will. None of the miracles Jesus is reported to have worked is a punishment of people. The only prophetic cursing relates to a fig tree.
It is therefore important to understand the clearing of the temple for what it is: It is not an ethical or moral instruction, not a “model” of how to act in the fact of the abuse of religious spaces (the temple), or the abuse of religious rituals for economic profit. Jesus is not trying to regulate the finer points of the economic processes relating to the temple cult, nor is he trying to instruct anyone how to treat traders who turn religion in to business. Jesus has certainly not been planning to “cleanse” the temple area. Rather, he wanted to be noticed and start a provocative “temple action”. His temple action is therefore a symbolic act. As it is a symbolic act, it is highly unlikely that he really hit or injured people. That would contradict all the other symbolic actions ever undertaken by the prophets. With this action Jesus wants to point to his messianic claim: He has the right to intervene in the running of the temple cult because with him, God’s rule over Jerusalem, Israel and all nations has begun. Jesus’ action therefore stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and shows the necessary connection between the temple cult and a just society: The temple is not a “den of thieves” but a house of prayer for the people (Mark 11:17) On the other hand, he acts as the Messiah who shows that the time of God’s Kingdom which Israel is awaiting, has begun now.
And finally, when reading the text carefully, we recognising one of those characteristics that are typical for the way Jesus acts: Note that the Jesus drives out the traders of sheep and cattle, but that he speaks to the traders of doves (John 2:16). Traders of doves were the poorest among those profiting from the temple cult and sold their wares to those who could not afford any other sacrificial animal. Without approving of their action, Jesus nevertheless expresses a particular closeness to them. God’s justice which is embodied in the live and actions of Jesus, is inextricably linked with special concern for the poor.