Having performed his debut “sign” at a wedding in the backwaters of Cana (see last week), the next event John narrates has Jesus in a much more public place: the temple. Here, too, he performs a sign – not a miracle, but a sign of judgement.
John 2:13-16 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
What’s going on here? Is Jesus just having a bad day? What could have prompted him to do such a provocative, violent act?
There are, in fact, three possible – but connected – motivations. (Stick with me here, I’ll try to keep it simple.)
(1) The Gentiles were being excluded
The first possible reason isn’t found in the account here in John’s Gospel. In fact, we only see it in Mark’s account. Those of you who did the extra reading on catch-up Friday may have spotted that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus gives the following reason for cleansing the temple:
Mark 11:17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
In this he quotes from Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7. (These quotes are in Matthew and Luke, too, but the phrase “for all nations” is left out.) According to this view, Jesus is cranky at the way in which non-Jews (and women) were only allowed to be in the outer court of the temple. (This wasn’t in the original temple design.) Further, by allowing such trading activity to take place in the only part of the temple Gentiles could pray, they were hindering their access to God. After all, God’s people was supposed to be inclusive. Here’s the context of the original quotation:
Isaiah 56:6-8 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
This may well have been part of it – but the phrase “for all nations” only appears in Mark’s Gospel, making it unlikely that the other three writers (including John) thought this was the primary reason.
(2) People were being exploited
The reason for the presence of the money-changers and animal sellers was one of convenience. If you lived a long way from the temple (say, Galilee – or in the Jewish diaspora throughout the Mediterranean) it would have been difficult to pack the animals you were going to sacrifice, since in Economy they were limited to one carry-on goat per passenger, and perhaps the odd dove stuffed into a handbag. So the smart thing to do was to take money with you, and buy the animal when you got to the temple.
Now, if you’ve ever bought food at the movies or at a theme park, you can answer the next bit: how much do you think they sold the animals for inside the temple precinct? Right. Pilgrims were being ripped off, and traders (or the temple establishment who authorised them) were making big profits at their expense.
Same with the money-changing. You could only play the temple tax in special coins. (The Roman coins were Gentile coins – can’t have them in the holy place!) So to do that, you needed to exchange your Roman coins for temple ones. Again, have you ever changed money at the airport?
So some say that Jesus was cranky about the corruption and exploitation going on in the outer court of the temple. And that’s probably part of it. In fact, it seems to be, on face value, how John understands it. “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market.”
(3) The temple (and its leadership) had lost its way
But these first two reasons may just be symptoms of a bigger problem with the temple and its leaders. They had lost their way. It had become all about the mechanics of religious ritual rather than communion with God.
People from everywhere came to pray: and they got lost in the noise and commotion of the money and animal trading.
People came to offer sacrifices: and got exploited by a corrupt priesthood.
People came to meet with God: and found the focus was on the ritual rather than the attitude. (Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” 1 Samuel 15:22 “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”) Just like the Pharisees, the temple experience had become all about the outward performance of religious actions, rather than the inner person.
If we look at the context of the Jeremiah quote (found in the other three Gospels), it’s about a much broader issue than just exploitation. The chapter describes a people who are living far from the way God intends, yet think that by bringing sacrifices to the temple it’s all OK:
Jeremiah 7:9-11 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
And the context of the quotation John provides – from Psalm 69 – is about how everyone else shows a lack of faithfulness to God, and only the Psalmist is concerned for God’s honour and temple:
Psalms 69:7, 9 I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face…9 for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
So Jesus’ clearing of the temple is an enacted sign of judgement on it. The temple, and its leaders, were perpetuating the kind of false religion that thinks sacrifice and ritual can make up for godless behaviour. Jesus wanted to send a clear message that this is not the case. (And it’s a message that set him on a collision course with the most powerful people in Jerusalem. More on that tomorrow.)
To think about
Are there ways in which we might similarly hinder people’s attempts to come into a relationship with God? Think of:
- Distracting or excluding people by busyness and activity, rather than communion with God.
- Intentionally or unintentionally exploiting people through organised religion, leaving them with a bad impression of God’s people – and God.
- Putting the focus on outward actions and allowing people’s inner attitudes (and behaviours) to go unchallenged.