Jesus on Wall Street?

At the end of 2013, Pope Francis I released an exhortation he called Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) decrying free market capitalism which he described as an economy of exclusion and inequality. In doing so he stirred up a wasp’s nest of criticism. In the document he states, “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”i

Is it really the place of a religious authority to address economic systems? Should Popes not keep to religious matters and leave economic theorizing to economists? Surely we would not allow economists to address or shape Christian theology, why should theologians address economic theory?

But the practice of economics is profoundly moral, and the first economic policy-maker was God.

The Old Testament Law devotes a good deal of attention to how economic transactions are to happen and what to do if those transactions go awry. The means to acquire wealth (through land and labor) was strictly regulated in the Law. Leviticus 25 outlined the process by which land and bonded laborers were to be released on a 49 year cycle, returning to their original owners. This acted as a hard reset correcting the ways in which economic systems produce wealth disparities over time. The “Jubilee” economic policy, along with a debt forgiveness cycle which repeated every seven years (Deuteronomy 15), were among the many ways in which God displays concern for how we exchange our goods and services without producing out of control wealth inequality.

Jesus’ political and economic activism is often lost upon those of us who live in societies where the private practice of faith and the public practice of citizenship are kept in strictly separate containers. We do not easily see how larger economic or political structures were touched upon by Christ in his actions and teachings. We assume that Jesus takes a passive approach to political and economic powers. “Leave them well enough alone,” our western ears seem to hear him telling us, “devote yourselves to private spiritual matters and those larger structural issues will work themselves out.” Jesus seems to be more concerned with private economic practice, alms giving for instance, than systemic economic concerns, like interest rates or minimum wage laws.

Everyday existence in Palestine during Jesus’ time would have been a socio-political, religio-economic experience, and teasing out what might be relegated to the individual and private and what involves the corporate and public would have been difficult. Those lines were either drawn in radically different places or did not exist as we think of them today. Religious structures, political structures and economic structures were hopelessly bound together and Jesus engaged the whole power fabric. Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes – these were not viewed in the sanctified and separate ways in which we view spiritual vocations today. Religious leaders in Jesus’ day were civic leaders, and part of a religio-political ruling class. The Sanhedrin ruled with as much civil authority as they did religious authority. Were the teachers of the law religious teachers or civil lawyers? Yes. Was the Roman Emperor viewed as a political leader or a religious deity? Yes. Was the high priest a political post or a sacerdotal post? Yes. Was commerce in Jerusalem controlled by the religious elite or by business leaders? Yes. If we are honest, even in our church-state separated world, all political power has spiritual significance and all spiritual power has political significance. Try though we might, we cannot uncouple the ways in which the powers are mingled.

Jesus Visits Wall Street
Outside of the death and resurrection narrative, there are just five events which appear in in all the gospels. One of those five is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and clearing the temple.  What is it that is so central to our rightful understanding of Jesus Christ that this event should be among the few stories shared by the gospel writers?

It would be difficult to understand Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and clearing of the temple without reference to the larger political, economic and religious structures surrounding this story. The crowds wielding palm branches are re-enacting a scene from the Maccabean revolt more than a century earlier when Simon marched into the Citadel at Jerusalem and threw off the foreign oppressors, establishing a short-lived, free, Jewish State and reforming temple worship which had been paganized (I Macc 13:49-51, II Macc 10:1-8). While it may be argued that the crowds had some misconceptions about what Jesus’ kingdom looks like, there is no mistaking the real threat that Jesus and his reign would mean for existing powers.

Jesus’ first act after being hailed as heir to David’s throne was to confront economic strongholds.

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you are making it a den of robbers. The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them " Matthew 21:12-13

Driving out those selling sacrificial animals and overturning the tables of the money changers was not an attempt to restore the temple to its Old Testament glory. Jesus had prophesied to a Samaritan woman that worship would not be linked to the temple in Jerusalem, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21). Luke records that when he entered Jerusalem, Jesus wept over city’s coming destruction (Luke 19:41-44) in which the temple also would fall (Matt. 24:2). All of this would take place within four decades. Jesus knew that the temple was destined to be demolished. The kingdom he brought has no temple “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Rev. 21:22). Jesus primary concern could not have been the restoration of right temple worship.

I don’t want to underplay the religious exclusion which Jesus addressed in clearing the temple courts of this marketplace. The original blueprint for the temple did not include corralling women and Gentiles into separate courts, away from pious male Jews. However, this segregation had emerged and it was inside the courts designed for the excluded that Jesus displays such zeal. The fracas had the effect of opening up space for the “unclean” to enter. Matthew 21:14, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them,” directly follows Jesus driving out the money changers.

But Jesus was not just concerned with making it possible for the excluded to enter the temple area for a handful of years before its destruction. He was confronting another thread of power twisted together in the strands of authority ruling this part of the temple and giving us a picture of the coming kingdom.

Money changers were essentially banks, and anyone coming from one part of the empire would need the services of these currency exchanges if they were traveling between different regions. We know from Josephus and other historians that the high-priestly families were making a killing from the temple marketplace which included these banks. The high priest, Ananias, was called “the great procurer of money,” and Josephus claims that the temple was being “ruined by greed.” Matthew and Mark’s gospels specifically recall Jesus overturning the “benches of those selling doves.” These vendors would have catered specifically to poor folk, like Jesus’ parents. One influential member of the Sanhedrin a few decades later addressed the price gouging of the poor occurring at the hands of those selling doves. He fixed a maximum price for doves at just 1% of their original purchase price,ii giving us some idea of the profiteering going on in the temple marketplace.

The attack on the temple marketplace was a challenge to the ruling elite and pre-firgured the kingdom which was coming – a kingdom where profit was not made at the expense of the poor, a kingdom where eighty five individuals don’t possess more wealth than 3 billion people,iii  or where devotion to God is not leveraged to enrich the ruling class. Ched Myers concludes that, “It is the ruling-class interests in control of the commercial enterprises in the temple market that Jesus is attacking.”iv

The clearing of the temple by Jesus was not primarily a worship corrective, it was an economic corrective, struck at the heart of first century Palestinian Wall Street.

So, yes, it is appropriate for those of us who claim to know the character of the King and the sort of kingdom he brings to challenge economic structures. After all, Jesus said “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing...” (John 14).

Overturning economic tables is our attempt to do the work our Master has been doing.


i Pope Francis I, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World. Vatican Press, November 24, 2013, p. 46

ii Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period, trans. F. H. Cave and C. H. Cave (1969; German ed.: 1967), p. 33-34

iii “The World's 85 Richest People Are as Wealthy as the Poorest 3 Billion” by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, January 21, 2014, accessed on January 22, 2014 at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-worlds-85-richest-people-are-as-wealthy-as-the-poorest-3-billion/283206/

iv Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books) 1988, 2008, p. 300

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