Just a handful of days before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus entered Jerusalem, which was already packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover. The rumors of Jesus’ imminent arrival had spread down the road from Bethany and Bethphage into the city. Many of the pilgrims therefore came out to meet him, adding their numbers to the growing entourage. We can imagine, then, that when Jesus walked into the outer courts of the temple, he had quite the audience.
What would he do?
Well, it depends on who you read.
Mark’s account is the most boring: Jesus entered the temple, looked around a bit, then left and went back to Bethany, because it was getting late (Mark 11:11). Jesus, in other words, didn’t cleanse the temple until the following day. Matthew and Luke, however, write as if Jesus cleansed the temple the same day, soon after he entered the city. Here, for example, is Matthew’s version:
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.” (Matt 21:12-13, NRSV)
To some extent, the situation in the temple court was understandable. Pilgrims were traveling long distances from around the empire to offer their sacrifices in Jerusalem. For practical reasons, they were not always able to bring the animals with them, and had to buy them on site. Moreover, if they were only carrying foreign currency, they would need to exchange it. The sellers and money changers, therefore, were providing a needed service. The temple was supposed to be a place of prayer and worship — but may have looked more like a bazaar.
But note that Jesus doesn’t say, “You people are making too much noise!” or even, “How dare you bring commerce into a holy place!” His words echo the ancient prophecies of both Isaiah and Jeremiah. Long before, Isaiah had written “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples” (56:7). In context, Isaiah was reporting an oracle of God that spoke of a coming day of salvation, in which the people would act with justice and even foreigners would keep God’s covenant.
Unfortunately, the reality into which these prophetic words were spoken was quite different. The rulers of Israel were corrupt and morally blind. “The shepherds also have no understanding,” Isaiah wrote; “they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all” (Isa 56:11).
Jeremiah, for his part, also proclaimed God’s judgment on a corrupt nation, and referred specifically to the emptiness of their temple worship. Through the prophet, God demanded, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer 7:11). The people were not behaving justly, and this seems to have spilled over into the odd presumption that they could do whatever they wanted in the temple, as if the very fact that it was God’s temple offered some kind of protective moral umbrella:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” … Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? (Jer 7:4,8-10)
When Jesus cleansed the temple, therefore, the religious leaders would have heard in his words the echoes of ancient prophecy. They would have heard Jesus condemning them for their corruption.
No wonder they wanted to kill him. That’s often what happens to people who prophetically speak truth to power. And that makes it doubly significant that in Matthew’s gospel, the cleansing of the temple follows immediately after the crowds have acclaimed Jesus as a prophet (21:11).
The cleansing of the temple is not merely about money per se, nor about the contamination of the holy by the secular. This is about the presumptive delusion that those in charge of the temple had a free hand to do whatever they saw fit, under what they considered to be their God-given authority. They could take advantage of the pilgrims’ situation, and charge them exorbitantly for the animals they needed for sacrifice. They could charge interest on the necessary currency exchange. And they could do all of this with the rationalization that the money would go into the temple treasury, praise be to God.
I am reminded here of Christian leaders who abuse their power and treat others unjustly, with the twisted justification that they are the ones God ordained to lead. I imagine that if Jesus were to visit their churches, he would want to fashion a rhetorical whip, and drive out that false presumption.