Table-Flippin’ Jesus, Business, and the Gospel Writers’ Oversight

One of the most vivid scenes in all of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life is the story of the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem at Passover. Jesus sees moneychangers and livestock sellers set up in the temple courts and literally flips out. He starts overturning tables and driving cattle out with a whip.

From John 2:12-16 (also today’s revised common lectionary reading):

“The Passover of the Jews was near, 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. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”

This story has a lot of layers, but if you stop here, this looks like another reinforcement of a common belief among Jesus fans (Christian and non-Christian alike): namely, that business is more or less profane, or at least not sacred enough. It is (seemingly*) what Jesus is kicking out of the central Jewish holy place.

It’s not hard to understand why people think this way. The only Jesus you see in the Gospels is an itinerant, nomadic Jewish rabbi with no straightforward income source and no business ambitions. And the few times he does seem to interact with what most people think of as “the market”, Jesus looks pretty mad.

Quite a lot of people (not just Christians) look to the stories of Jesus for inspiration in how to live lives of love for God and neighbor and even enemies. So it’s a damn shame the Gospel writers never spent time writing about Jesus in business and trade.

It’s likely that Jesus worked in the world for a living before he became the famous wandering rabbi, after all. He’s known as a carpenter. Presumably at some point he worked on projects for the Roman or Jewish elite, or on homes and other buildings around Nazareth. Presumably he traded his services for money or goods at some point.

Maybe this kind of material was too boring for the Gospel writers. But if Jesus did business (as an employee or a an independent artisan), maybe he did it with the same unconventional wisdom and powerful love he had in his ministry.

No one knows, and we’re the poorer for it.

Christians and other Jesus fans still have a hard time conceiving of mutually-beneficial, voluntary trade as a good thing. We can only think of pro bono gifts and service as “love,” but we can’t see how exchanging value for value is also “love.”

We have to go outside of the Gospels to look around and remember that trade is one of the most powerful ways we love our neighbors every day. Exchange doesn’t just make the recipient richer – it makes the giver richer, too. And people who are both better off because of trading can both trust each other more and collaborate at greater and greater scales to exchange greater and greater value. They can grow webs of trust and value and sharing and investment and more trade. They can engage as equals with dignity, instead of as just givers or receivers.

Trade makes it easier for us to “love our neighbor” both in action and in intention. And even without fleshed-out Gospel context, I bet Jesus would agree.* .

My point in bringing this up is not that anyone needs Jesus to do or be anything to prove any point about business. I think business would be a good thing even if Jesus or the Gospel writers spent their time (they don’t) raving against it. But if we are about the work of loving our neighbor (Christian or not), we need to know that trade is not a profanity or an aberration from a life of love. It’s one of our best tools.

*There’s some interesting reasoning to suggest that table-flippin Jesus was reacting against unjust business practices and the corrupt bureaucracy of the temple elite. Livestock sales and money-changing wasn’t the problem – fraud and abusive power/religion was.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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