Cleaning House

“The first thing to notice about Jesus is the hardest thing for many Christians to notice about him. It helps if we back away for a moment from our Anglicized version of his name and call him Yeshua; better yet, Yeshua bar-Yosef, and do our best to envision him, a bronze-skinned young Middle Eastern man, lying down next to a low table to enjoy a meal with his friends. . . . He speaks Aramaic at home, a language we have never heard, and reads Biblical Hebrew in the synagogue. Even through layers of biography and translation (Aramaic to Greek to English) we can hear him say things we would never say and do things we would never do” (Andy Crouch, Culture Making, p. 134). 

“Casting Out Money Changers,”
Giotto di Bondone, 14th century

These words by Andy Crouch came to mind when I read the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple at a very early point in his public ministry. I would encourage you to read about this event in John’s Gospel (2:12-17). I can’t imagine doing that myself, although I might think about it! For many of us, the picture of Jesus we have been taught is of a very gentle man, a teacher, someone who we would be drawn to because of his warm, caring attitude.

But charging into the Temple, knocking over the merchants’ tables, scattering their coins, and dispersing their livestock – this is a radical act! Would you do this? How do you think Jesus’ disciples felt about this, so soon after they joined him as their rabbi?

After the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, an act that surely impressed the disciples, John tells us that Jesus went to Jerusalem at the time of Passover with some of his disciples, entered the temple, and caused havoc by overturning tables, making a cord of rope, and driving out the animals that were for sale to pilgrims for their sacrifices.

The other three Gospels record a similar event during the last week of Jesus’ life, but this encounter was different. While Biblical scholars argue about whether it was one event or two, it seems likely to me that there were two separate occasions when Jesus did this.* The first time there was no response from the temple authorities, but the second time so enraged the Jewish leaders that they took drastic action.

Let’s set the context. Throughout the history of Israel, the temple in Jerusalem played a very significant role. Solomon had the temple built around 950 B.C., but it was destroyed approximately 360 years later by the Babylonian Empire. Seventy years after its destruction, it was rebuilt on a modest scale, but in 20 B.C. Herod the Great began a major rebuilding project of the temple that was even more extraordinary than Solomon’s structure. This rebuilding project by Herod was completed in 63 A.D., many years after his death.

Herod’s temple was not only magnificent, it was also a huge financial center controlled by the Sadduccees. One of its major businesses was operated by money exchange dealers in the Court of the Gentiles. Many Jews who came to Jerusalem for Passover had Roman or other foreign coins that were not accepted in the temple. The leaders demanded that worshippers use certain Tyrian half-skeckel coins to pay their annual temple tax. You can imagine what the exchange rate was like – just like at today’s airports when you travel to Western Europe and need to exchange dollars for euros. For poor villagers, this was a painful welcome to Jerusalem!

The second major industry concerned the animals brought for sacrifice. If temple inspectors found the animals were blemished, the visiting worshippers were forced to buy “unblemished animals” at above market rates. Between these two businesses, a great deal of money was being exchanged in the temple and visitors were being exploited to the benefit of the merchants and the hierarchy that shared in the profits.

The temple and its crowded courts were thoroughly corrupted by merchants and their sponsors in the temple leadership. We know from historical records from this time that the temple leadership was corrupt and that the ruling elites had worked out arrangements with the Romans that allowed them to conduct business in this way.

This helps us to understand why Jesus is so enraged by what he sees. What is striking to me is that there is no resistance to what Jesus did! The temple leaders don’t respond, nor did the merchants or other visitors to the temple. In fact, it is likely that the Pharisees approved of what Jesus did.

For his disciples, as John notes, the prophecy that the Messiah would have “zeal for your house [that will] consume [him]” came to mind. This is a clear link to Old Testament prophecy. But when Jesus is asked by bystanders with what authority he did this, his answer was very mysterious. He said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (v. 19) – a response that neither they nor the disciples understood. This is a sign-post that Jesus deliberately puts in place to explain his mission, a sign-post that will only become understandable after his resurrection.

What a powerful story and what a dramatic beginning to Jesus’ public ministry! Is this the Jesus you know?

So What?

  • Have you ever been in a church or cathedral where there are many commercial booths in operation, where the area around the sanctuary is a hub of business enterprises? I admit this action by Jesus has come to mind on occasion. I do worry about how commercial our churches and their “coffee times” have become and how this can detract from a worshipful environment. Has this ever occurred to you? • 
  • For Jesus’ disciples, as well as for others, his teachings are sometimes difficult to understand and often not clear until years later. I think this is still true. There are times when I read teachings by Jesus in the Bible and simply don’t understand them at the time, but later they become clearer. Sometimes my uncertainty remains, but I still trust his words. There are times when Jesus doesn’t explain his teachings to his disciples until much later, when they have experiences that help them more fully understand what he said. I think this is still true today. Has this also been your experience? 

* NOTE: For my reflections on the second cleansing of the temple, see my post of June 6, 2011, “Get Out of This House!