For people who think of Jesus as meek and mild, his upending of the economic center of the Temple is a challenging image. In John 2:13-22, this event is almost the first account of Jesus’ ministry–and his first public appearance. (It appears later in the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.) The Temple was central to the worship of God by the people of Israel. The first Temple was built during the reign of Solomon, approximately 1000 B.C.E., and was a much larger structure and complex than the second one. The first Temple was destroyed around 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, whose conquest carried many of the Israelites into exile (mostly the educated and skilled people). The book of Ezekiel (chapter 40) envisions the rebuilding of the Temple. When Cyrus the great of Persia conquered the Babylonians, he gave permission, money, and safe passage to those who wanted to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and worship the God of Abraham and Sarah. He also returned the holy vessels of the Temple which had been taken by the Babylonians. The Temple buildings were reconstructed and richly adorned by Herod the Great. This was the Temple standing in Jesus’ time. It was the central shrine and sanctuary for the entire nation, and the only place according to the legal codes in Deuteronomy (12-26), where sacrificial worship could be offered to God.
The Temple was a center of pilgrimage, where people faithful to God would come and offer sacrifices. There was a currency exchange, so that people from other countries could conveniently change their money and pay the half-shekel Temple tax, and purchase unblemished animals suitable for sacrifice. It was an orderly and accepted practice that benefitted those who came to worship. So why was Jesus so angry that he grabbed a handful of cords and used them as a whip to break up the market? The coins rang across the stones, pigeons flew into the sky, and people fled. Jesus shouted that they were profaning God’s house. When Temple authorities protested–demanding to know on who’s authority Jesus was doing this–Jesus responded prophetically, demonstrating that he was cleansing the Temple on his own authority. Jesus was enraged to the point of violence by the disconnect between God’s justice, and the oppression and exploitation that was condoned by the power structure of empire and Temple. The context of this protest is the Passover, the week-long Spring festival commemorating the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Passover is associated with liberation from oppression, and divine salvation. In an earlier critique of the Temple, the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. ” ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 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? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
Jesus was pointing out that what began as a benign arrangement to provide services for travelers had turned into a racket. And he foreshadowed the Crucifixion and Resurrection to come, challenging his hearers to destroy the Temple and he would raise it in three days. The essential meaning of the story to the original hearers of John’s Gospel would be that Jesus had authority over the Temple. And possibly, that his presence effectively replaced the Temple as the center of God’s presence among the people.
[The Temple finally was destroyed in the Jewish uprising against Rome in 70 C.E. It has not been rebuilt, and the site is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock mosque. Only the Western Wall (called the Wailing Wall) remains, it is a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Temple’s courtyard.]
Questions to think about:
- Have you ever been overcharged for something basic, like a bottle of water (in an airport, or a sports arena)?
- A famous movie quote (from Blazing Saddles, parodying the Treasure of the Sierra Madre): when questioned about his authority, the character replies, “Badges! I don’t need to show you no stinkin’ badges!” Do you see any similarities with this Bible passage?
- Are there rooms in your spiritual life that need cleansing? For example: your living room (area of recreation) or your closet (where your hang-ups live)?