The Cleansing of the Temple

The Cleansing of the Temple

The Cleansing of the Temple. 

“So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the Temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the Temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the furniture of those who sold doves. And he would not allow anyone to carry wares through the Temple. Then He taught, saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Mark 11:15-17; also refer to Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; and John 2:13-17).

The Advocate. The area of the Temple being used as a marketplace was the Court of the Gentiles. It was the only precinct in the entire Temple that allowed non-Jews to come from all over the world to worship the God of the Israelites. With all the commerce being conducted, and all the animals and furniture and crowds of people doing business, the Gentiles were being excluded from worship. Jesus vehemently rejected this idea, and strongly believed that excluding the Gentiles was offensive to God, and violated the sanctity of the Temple. Jesus well-understood the importance of Gentiles hearing the Word of the Lord and worshiping. Jesus was serious about having the Temple welcoming to non-Jews. The Court of the Gentiles must be taken back for proper worship and prayer. With Jesus, it was as good as done. The non-Jews couldn’t have found a better advocate.

What’s the Fuss? Here’s the problem. Jesus has seen that Temple use has become defiled through its compromise with commercialization. He wants the Temple to return to its roots, pure and holy, a place set apart for Yahweh and prayer. The Temple has become sullied, and Jesus is taking this very personally. The merchants are overcharging for animals purchased for sacrifice. They are charging exorbitant prices for their oxen, sheep and doves. Temple-goers don’t have a choice but to pay up if they want to make  sacrifice in order to follow the Law of Moses. What’s going on is a racket, and everyone knows it, but nobody can do a thing about it. On top of that, the Temple doesn’t allow Roman coins to be used in the Temple commerce, since the head of Caesar is on the coin, which would defile the Temple. So there are profiteers taking advantage of this, money changers who deal in exchanging Temple coins for for those forbidden Roman coins, and overcharging in the exchange. Once again, what can one do to get around that? Nothing. So the poor who come to the Temple are exploited, and then are excluded if they can’t afford the prices. If they decide to pay the exorbitant prices, they have very little left for their daily needs. Also, the Temple raked in the profits through the Temple taxes that everyone had to pay to conduct business. The Temple made out like bandits in that tax system. There were dishonest and disingenuous profits everywhere in this process. In  modern terms, this is called an organized crime syndicate, and it continued because the Temple had all the authority in this case. Jesus exploded when he saw this whole dishonest scenario. It insulted God, it tainted the Temple, and it was unjust to the poor and the Gentiles. The whole system was corrupt and it was done with impunity. It’s easy to see why St. Jerome described Jesus this way as he thought about the cleansing of the Temple… “For a certain fiery and starry light shone from his eyes, and the majesty of God gleamed in his face!” According to Scripture, Jesus purified the Temple in this way twice, once at the beginning of his ministry, and once close to the end. If He had lived any longer, He no doubt would have done it a third time. That’s how much He must have hated anything that violated the purity and sanctity of the Temple, especially if it was unjust, dishonest, and exclusive.

Zeal. Watching Jesus in anger mode, the disciples remembered Ps. 69:9. It has been translated in various ways. “Zeal for your house has eaten me up.” “My passion consumes me for your house.” And even, “Concern for God’s house will be my undoing,” which is very interesting. The Hebrew dictionary describes the word zeal as an intense fervor and emotion that is greater than a person’s wrath and anger. Jesus was undoubtedly full of righteous indignation. He was expressing a righteous anger that is alien to us other humans. We are told not to be angry, and for good reason. Jesus has an utterly pure heart without mixed motives. He has God’s heart. He can express all the anger He wants, because it will never devolve into sin. In matters of justice, especially, we can feel a spark of righteous indignation that truly does reflect the heart of God. But be careful, watch yourself when that happens. For most of us, it is a slippery slope from righteous indignation to unrighteous indignation. Our hearts are not pure enough, our motives are mixed and our emotions tainted. Scripture tells us very clearly to confront injustice. But our hatred for an injustice can turn quickly to a hatred for the people involved and an activism that devolves into destruction. We are wise to refrain from following Jesus into the temple-cleansing business.

Scripture. In the midst of His fury, Jesus quoted two verses from the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And Jeremiah 7:11, that His house has become a “den of thieves.” We just assume that Jesus had the Word of God on the tip of His tongue as if the Word was put there by osmosis. As if by virtue of Jesus being Messiah, He had merely been downloaded Scripture, through no effort of His own. The fact is He was raised in an orthodox Jewish home and He had thus been raised in Scripture from infancy. He had to learn the Word like any other person… Study, discussion, prayer, memorization. Jesus had been exposed to His Bible since birth, and He had gone to the trouble of memorizing it. By the time He was thirty, He could quote any verse for any occasion. He worked hard to learn Scripture. The entire Hebrew Bible was probably hidden in His heart.

Safe. How does one describe the personality of Jesus? There’s so much we don’t understand about how He operated from one moment to the next. The “Fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) does indeed give us a picture of His personality, but not the whole picture. For example, here we find Jesus with a scary flash of fire in His eyes. He is extremely frustrated and angry. He is consumed by zeal, a “fiery passion.” And yet, immediately following His display of righteous temper, we find Him welcoming the blind, the crippled, and many children! One moment He is fashioning a whip to use on merchants, and the next moment He is tenderly healing the blind and the crippled, and appreciating the praises of children. He was a person to avoid one minute, and then a safe place the next. How does one explain that? What would that look like? The personality of Jesus is never described clearly in the Gospels. We are left in the dark. But in this incident we see quite a lot. Being both God and man, His personality was pretty much indescribable.

Children. Following on the heels of the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus was surrounded by children. They were all in the spirit of Palm Sunday, shouting praises at the top of their voices, “Blessing and praises to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:16). The religious leaders taking all this in were outraged and demanded an explanation from Jesus. The leaders furiously said that it wasn’t right for the children to be saying such things. The Son of David was a code word for Messiah, and the Temple scholars couldn’t stand to hear such nonsense. But Jesus once again used Scripture to answer His critics. Paraphrasing Psalm 8:2, Jesus told them, “Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise.” The sweet hosannas of children is music to God’s ears, and instead of being discounted, are held up as an example to us all. The Holy Spirit loves to use the innocence, the simple trust, the straightforwardness of children, and we should not forget that.

Authority. After Jesus disrupted business and cleared out the Temple, the outraged Temple leaders asked Jesus a question. Who gave Him the authority to do such a thing? It is curious that the Temple had their own Temple guards, and priests, and scribes, and law scholars, all watching this whole event in the Temple. And yet they seemed dumfounded and frozen during Jesus’ tirade. Here was this upstart rabbi acting like a king. He was in control of the scene, disrupting Temple business, wiping out their money-making system, and in a sense rebuking the whole Temple priesthood for cooperating in this system. Yet they all just stood there and didn’t lift a finger to stop it. Roman soldiers were certainly standing around as well and listening to the huge ruckus, but there was no attempt on their part to intervene. Everyone seemed paralyzed. Finally, when the cleansing was finished, someone had the obvious question for Jesus. Who gave you the authority to do such an audacious thing? Jesus decided to not state the  obvious, that He had God’s authority, since they wouldn’t have believed that any way. Jesus decided to be coy, and gave them a non-answer. Jesus chose to leave them all scratching their heads.