When I was young I wanted to change the world. I was a little disappointed that in the 1980s and 1990s we had come so far with civil rights and feminism that there weren’t, to my mind, any great battles left. I wanted to be a mover and shaker like Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth. Oh sure, glass ceilings and subtle prejudice were still skirmishes I could join, but the glorious emancipations were already accomplished. Since the 1960s, the more overt fights were dissipating with each generation. And certainly, in fifty years I’ve seen huge strides in tolerance and equity across cultures. Heaven on earth seemed so close.
Jean Piaget, the man who wrote the book on cognitive development, says we all go through an idealistic stage in our early adult years, what some have termed “Messianic” because we try to reform the world. It may be good timing because we’re then full of energy and (as yet un-crushed) optimism. We tend to prefer the free-exchange of open borders regarding rules and ideas, because we want to push those boundaries. At times, our society needs that—when we’ve become so stagnant in our thinking or our systems, that nothing works. We periodically need push-back and questioning of the established way of doing things, like a general car maintenance. Youth and exuberance, however, would have us replace the engine every 3000 miles, rather than a simple oil change.
As Christians, I believe we are tasked to change the world and follow Jesus' example. The example I most admired was Jesus marching up to the temple, brandishing a whip, full of righteous anger at the systemic corruption that went all the way up to the priests, flipping over money tables and chasing out the wicked.
Ellen G. White paints a vivid scene:
“Jesus ascended the steps of the temple and surveyed the scene with a calm and dignified look. He saw and heard the traffic and bartering. His expression became stern and terrible. The eyes of many turned instinctively to look at this stranger; their gaze became riveted upon him. Others followed their example till the whole multitude were regarding him with a look of mingled fear and amazement.
"They felt instinctively that this man read their inmost thoughts and their hidden motives of action. Some attempted to conceal their faces as if their evil deeds were written upon their countenances to be scanned by those searching eyes.
"The confusion was hushed. The sound of traffic and bargaining ceased. The silence became painful. A sense of awe overpowered the entire assembly. It was as if they were arraigned before the tribunal of God to answer for their deeds. The Majesty of Heaven stood as the Judge will stand at the last day, and every one of that vast crowd for the time acknowledged him their Master. His eye swept over the multitude, taking in every individual. His form seemed to tower above them in commanding dignity, and a divine light illuminated his countenance. He spoke, and his clear, ringing voice, echoing through the arches of the temple, was like the voice that shook Mount Sinai, of old: ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.’
"He slowly descended the steps, and, raising the whip, which in his hand seemed changed to a kingly scepter, bade the bargaining company to quit the sacred limits of the temple, and take hence their merchandise. With a lofty zeal, and a severity he had never before manifested, he overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the coin fell, ringing sharply upon the marble floor. The most hardened and defiant did not presume to question his authority, but, with prompt obedience, the dignitaries of the temple, the speculating priests, the cattle traders and brokers, rushed from his presence. The most avaricious did not stop to gather up their idolized money, but fled without a thought of their ill-gotten gains.
"The beasts and birds were all hurried beyond the sacred portals. A panic of fear swept over the multitude who felt the over-shadowing of Christ's divinity. Cries of terror escaped from hundreds of blanched lips as the crowd rushed headlong from the place. Jesus smote them not with the whip of cords, but, to their guilty eyes, that simple instrument seemed like gleaming, angry swords, circling in every direction, and threatening to cut them down. Even the disciples quaked with fear, and were awe-struck by the words and manner of Jesus, so unlike the usual demeanor of the meek and lowly man of Galilee.“ (Spirit of Prophecy Vol 2, 117-118)
Mrs. White’s version was much different from the indignant Jesus I had in my head, who beat the wicked and kicked out the corrupt establishment. The priests returned to the temple even more bent on killing Jesus. They hadn’t learned a thing. So what good was it all? I’d always been told that this story shows that righteous indignation is a good and proper kind of anger, an example of how we are to manifest our own righteous indignation on behalf of God. And we should exhibit His same zeal in changing the world—aren’t we?
I re-read the brief gospel accounts. All four say that Jesus “drove out” the money changers. One infers then some sort of intimidation; and John’s mention of the whip makes one assume that Jesus used it on the cattle, if not the people too. Yet Mrs. White shows Jesus with the whip raised as a scepter, never striking man nor beast. And I have to say, this is much more consistent with the loving Jesus presented throughout the New Testament. She also shares the detail that the disciples were as awe-struck and frightened as everyone else—with reverent fear, having glimpsed His divinity as Judge. It was Jesus’ divine presence, convicting the priests and money changers of their guilt, that caused them to flee and drive the animals out before them.
How could I think to emulate Jesus’ divinity? What arrogance makes me think that I have any authority to read people’s hearts, pronounce judgment, or demand contrition of them? Over and over the Bible tells us to let go of our pride, the idol of Self that gets between us and God. One of those forms of pride is a sanctimonious narcissism that tries to do the job of the Holy Spirit to re-educate and convict people of their sin. I find myself guilty of trying to point out or solve other people’s addictions to sin because it’s easier than working on my own heart. I too-often fall into the trap of thinking I know better than everyone else or that my sins are somehow less offensive to God than another person’s—even though Jesus taught that our thoughts can be just as sinful as any outward action.
And if I were really honest, a large part of my desire to change the world comes from the same hubris that I know best how to make this a Heaven on Earth. It’s the same pride that built the tower of Babel.
The Bible says there will always be poor people and trouble. Does that mean we shouldn’t even try to fix things? Of course not.
Mrs. White adds something the gospels do not. You can decide for yourself if it was a vision or not. But it’s the part that I can emulate.
“…This was a scene worthy of the temple of the Lord. He who, a short time before, had stood upon the steps like an avenging angel, had now become a messenger of mercy, soothing the sorrows of the oppressed, encouraging the despairing, relieving the suffering. Hundreds returned to their homes from the passover sound in body and enlightened in mind, who had come there feeble and desponding.” (Spirit of Prophecy Vol. 2, 120.1)
The true radical nature of Jesus was the radical message He taught and lived in the way we are to love. This radical love is so much harder and more important than toppling institutions. I say harder because our prideful nature impedes us from obeying the first commandment to love God. When that relationship is right, all our human relationships will follow. In fact, how we treat people is a good test of our where our faith is at, and it’s the second commandment. “…whoever loves others [in the radical way Jesus loved people] has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)
Jesus asked Peter three times to “feed my sheep.” I think the three was significant. Our mission, as followers of Christ, is to feed the world in three ways—mentally, physically, and spiritually. And it’s essential that it be direct contact, personal interaction; nowhere does the Bible invoke us to write a check or leave it up to an organization to deal with, nor march in the streets and try to overthrow the Romans. Justice, mercy, and encouragement are to be handed out in person. Each of us is supposed to solve the problems as we encounter them. Even our enemies’ problems, as the parable of the good Samaritan illustrates.
As Christians, we are tasked to change the world—by following Jesus’ radical teachings.
Jesus told Peter three times to “feed my sheep” perhaps because He knew that caring for other people would transform Peter and give Peter the opportunity to love people the way he would no longer be able to show Jesus his love. Peter then founded the church on this mandate. He created something of a hospital for the broken where we are all doctor and patient. Each interaction would start a catharsis between people, transforming both individuals, and expose others to God’s healing love. It would create a ripple of change, not by clawing down institutions, but by building up individuals, feeding them body, mind, and soul.
The most important change we can make is changing our focus, first to God, then—not to ourselves—but to others.
Jesus was a radical and a zealot. But it wasn’t in the way I thought. He did mean to overthrow systems and change the world. But it had nothing to do with earthly powers and principles. While He was here, He changed hearts, and that changed the world. The example He upheld is a lot harder and more meaningful than I could ever hope to accomplish—without divine help. In this series of blogs, we’ll look closer at Jesus as a radical.