Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ’My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
The early followers of Jesus quickly identified him both as a prophet in the tradition of Old Testament prophets as well as something more, God’s anointed Messiah. In this passage we see both of these confessions of faith at work.
First, Jesus is portrayed as overturning tables and chairs and driving out moneychangers even as he shouts (I assume) verses from the prophets. Consider Jeremiah 7:11, for instance: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.” And Hosea 9:15b: “Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their officials are rebels.” In this way, through both word and deed, Jesus aligns himself with some of Israel’s greatest prophets.
Yet there is more going on as well, particularly when we consider the accusation of robbery. Changing money was not in itself considered by most of Jesus’ contemporaries as wrong – anyone who wanted to sacrifice at the Temple according to the Law needed to pay with the Temple coin. To use a Roman coin – engraved, as it was, with the Emperor and his claim to being God – would be a violation of the commandments to make no graven images and to have no other gods.
It’s possible that Jesus is attacking these practices along several fronts. It may be that he believes the money-changers are extorting or defrauding those who need the Temple coin by charging too much for their services. Seen this way, Jesus’ actions are an early protest against the power financial institutions wield over “ordinary folk” (kind of a first-century precursor to the Occupy Wall Street protests!).
Or it may be that he is challenging the alliance between the religious authorities in the Temple and the Romans, who demanded a cut of the Temple profits in return for “keeping the peace.”
And it may be that Jesus is challenging the larger system of Temple sacrifice all together. Later Christians will certainly interpret it this way, as they see Jesus’ death as opening up for everyone direct access to God, unmediated by priest or Temple. While this confession culminates in the tearing of the Temple curtain at Jesus’ death, we see already a similar confrontation and “tearing” of Temple practices here. In this way, Jesus moves beyond being merely prophet to being, in fact, the Messiah, the one who opens the way to God.
However one reads Jesus’ actions, they certainly set off a chain reaction that leads to his death. For Jesus isn’t just offering a religious critique, he is attacking the whole Temple system which is both religious and economic, and as history repeatedly points out, religious fervor, political power, and economic opportunity makes for a volatile mix.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us again and always that we cannot separate our religious belief from our economic and political behavior, as what we say about you is confirmed or disavowed in how we treat our neighbor. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post Image: Jesus and the Moneychangers, Boris Olshansky, (2006).