Why did Jesus cleanse the temple? (part 2)

In America, we believe in the separation of church and state. In principle, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, that is, freedom of worship without government interference. (In practice, unfortunately, it seems we often act as if it’s the state that needs to be protected from the influence of the church.)

I wonder, though: would anyone care to advocate for the separation of church and marketplace, in principle or practice?

In the previous post, I posed the question of why Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem temple. It’s hard to imagine how shocking the act may have been to the people who were there. The temple was a focal point of Jewish identity; in America, we have no parallel.  To what church are American Christians required to make a regular pilgrimage? Nor is America occupied by a foreign power, which would make the preservation of some kind of national identity more fraught.

But even if we can’t quite put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ audience, we can understand a little of what made him angry. Here’s Mark’s version of the event:

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.”  (Mark 11:15-17, NRSV)

Matthew and Luke’s accounts are much briefer, making it sound as if Jesus’ words were directed at the sellers and money-changers. But Mark portrays Jesus as teaching the crowd why he acted as he did. He quotes Isaiah 56:7, a verse which sums up a prophecy in which God gathers in the Gentiles who worship him. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple would have taken place in the outer court, the so-called Court of the Gentiles, which for the sake of the pilgrims had been transformed from a worshipful place of prayer to a noisy place of commerce.

The word “robbers” can also be translated as “marauders,” which leads some scholars (like N. T. Wright) to suggest that Jesus was criticizing the temple system for becoming a place that sheltered anti-Roman zealots, a move that he knew was doomed to disaster. Or he may have been criticizing unethical business practices (imagine being charged exorbitant fees for currency exchange at the airport) or the way the money in the temple treasury was used. But either way, the underlying problem is that the temple court is not being used for its intended purpose: a place to gather the nations for prayer.

Similarly, here’s John’s account:

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!” (John 2:14-16, NRSV)

Again, if the argument of part 1 is at all correct, John and Mark may be describing separate but similar events. The action is the same, though the details differ. There’s no quote from Isaiah. And this time, Jesus speaks directly to the sellers as an aggrieved Son kicking intruders out of his Father’s house. The complaint? They have turned the temple into a marketplace.

America, in many ways, is a market society. We call ourselves a Christian nation because of our historical origin. But I think it’s fair to say that our day to day routine is shaped far more by market forces and values than specifically Christian belief. Even our ministry strategies may be shaped more by the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review than the vision of God gathering the nations for prayer.

Thus, I’m left to wonder: what would Jesus say if he were walk into our houses of worship today?