We’re living in some crazy times. In this season of mass protests and even riots over injustice, both in the United States and Lebanon (where I currently live), it seems like there is no better time to sit back and do a brief but serious look at the famous episode of Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.”
First, I want to take a look at what was actually going on during Jesus’ time and what he was most likely trying to accomplish when he drove out the money changers and sellers of doves.
Second, I’ll close with some practical observations that might help us as we struggle to wrap our minds around the violence and rage happening across our nation and across the world.
What was going on in the Temple?
Growing up, I heard this story taught in a singular way: Jesus was shocked when he showed up at the Temple and found it had become a place of commerce. Changing money and selling sacrifices was irreverent and disrespectful, and these things had no place in a house of worship. Therefore, he cleared it all out to make it a more “sacred space.”
That sounds nice, but it’s not accurate. Jesus would not have been surprised in the slightest to find money changers and sellers of sacrificial offerings in the outer courts of the Temple. The Jerusalem temple, like all other ancient temples, had developed and was more than a religious building or house of worship. It was “fundamentally an economic institution, and indeed dominated the city’s commercial life” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 300).
During festivals and pilgrimages, visitors to the temple would be required to pay the annual half-shekel tax. Obviously, currency exchange stations and collection stations would have been essential to making this happen. The mere presence of the money changers’ booths wasn’t anything shocking or offensive.
Pilgrims would also come to make required sacrifices, which they would need to purchase since they couldn’t exactly carry all their own animals with them—especially since there were purity requirements on those animals. So again, the mere presence of the tables selling doves and other sacrifices wouldn’t have been anything abnormal.
Because of the mass accumulation of wealth, the temple became something like a bank and broker for the people of Jerusalem, especially the ruling elite. Its economic power would have been used and manipulated by the establishment, and there is some evidence to indicate that it would have offered small loans to Judean peasant farmers which, most likely, ended up being exploitative and resulting in foreclosure of their land.
The temple also would have been a large client or even employer of local businesses: “curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, bakers, and countless others.” We even have a record of shewbread bakers (who made the Sabbath loaves for the temple) going on strike for higher pay. (Myers, 300)
Lastly, the temple would have been the primary center of Jewish political power in the city. In that sense, it was more like the Vatican of the Middle Ages than just “a big church”, like I thought when I was growing up. The high priest was a major political leader, usually allied with the Romans or even set up by them. The Sanhedrin, kind of like the Jewish version of the Supreme Court, were all part of the ruling class and met in the temple. Political leaders, both the Romans and their puppet kings (like the Herodian dynasty) would have known that good favor with the temple was mutually beneficial for both of them, which is one reason to explain why Herod invested enormous amounts of money and labor in expanding and upgrading the temple building during his reign.
Here’s the clincher:
All of this was taking place in a world where the poor people of Judah, including those from Jesus’ native Galilee, were being oppressed, marginalized, and burdened with taxation to a near breaking point. Most of them were living at subsistence level, barely able to afford the necessities, to the point that one year of a bad harvest could potentially ruin them (hence the need for loans from the temple).
An act of protest and resistance
With that in mind, it’s very telling (but not surprising) that the primary focus of Jesus’ anger in all of the accounts are the money changers and “those selling doves.” John’s Gospel is the only one to even mention other animals at the scene, and he still makes it clear that Jesus’ primary rebuke was to the bird-sellers.
The question is: why? Doves would have been the primary sacrifice bought by the poor, who were routinely exploited by the systems of the religious aristocracy at the temple. Whatever worship through sacrifices to honor God had originally meant, it had become twisted in many ways. It was a business now—a predatory monopoly, in fact, since the Jerusalem temple was the only place to offer legitimate worship. The money changers and the dove sellers “represented the concrete mechanisms of oppression within a political economy that doubly exploited the poor and the unclean.” (Myers, 301)
So what did Jesus do? He marched in and disrupted the proceedings. He flipped the tables, cleared the courts, and “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (Mark 11:16). It’s hard to know the scope of this protest, but it was definitely a protest. I picture his disciples helping him in an image not too far removed from crowds of people marching and shutting down major intersections or places of commerce in today’s world.
Jesus’ disruption of the temple market wasn’t about people selling things in a house of worship. It was an act of resistance against a corrupt and exploitative system which he called “a den of thieves”. (Mark 11:17)
What About Now?
I don’t want to say this happening is a parallel for what’s occurring in our world today. We’re talking about a cultural and historical situation that is two thousand years removed from us. I think it can be dangerous when we take Biblical narratives and make them exact parallels that are applicable to our own times. However, I think it is perfectly reasonable to find some touch-points between what is happening across our country today and what happened that day in Jerusalem somewhere around the year 30 AD.
So here’s what I propose. Rather than writing a whole detailed analysis of how we should protest Jesus style, I’m just going to end with a list of observations about Jesus’ style of protest that might provide a good framework for analyzing the protests and riots that are happening even as I write this article.
Clearing the temple was disruptive and highly controversial. It was not a “peaceful protest” in the sense of just standing outside the temple holding signs and chanting. This was a total direct intervention to halt commerce and traffic flow and business of any sort.
The “businesses” targeted were those of the establishment, not the lay people or the poor. This should be clear at this point in the article. This is far from a perfect parallel, but Jesus’ actions are much more comparable to burning a police station in protesting a corrupt system than they are to burning a Target to express anger and prove a point.
Jesus never physically harmed anyone. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The common image of him whipping the moneychangers in a white-hot fury are not grounded in any of the texts. Again, only one of the four even mentions a whip, and the whip is specifically said to be used for the sheep and cattle. (John 2:15)
The anger Jesus felt and the harsh words he said came from prayerful contemplation of the prophetic critique of injustice that filled Israel’s scriptures. It was more than just, “F*** the system!” It was, “Stop turning my father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16) And even more importantly, it was, “God’s house should be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of thieves/bandits/robbers.” (Mark 11:17)
The incident was followed by numerous teachings explaining how the establishment had misused its authority, including the parable of the tenants mentioned in a footnote below. It was more than just an outburst; it was part of a calculated program of prophetically pulling the pants down on the whole system.
Jesus was not a man of privilege. He was one of the poor and oppressed people he was fighting for! We often forget this with our whitewashed, spotless, unblemished portraits of Jesus or our high theology. He came from a backwater town in Galilee, home of many of the overburdened peasants described above. He was a victim of discrimination. One of his own disciples scoffed at him at first, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) He and his disciples had a distinctive regional accent, and people in Jerusalem knew where they were from just by hearing it (Matthew 26:73).
This protest got Jesus killed. Well, at least in part it did. All of the events of that week, including the entry on the donkey, the popularity with the people, and the strong teachings against the establishment also played a part in this. But for Mark and Luke, this is the moment where they start looking for a way to kill him (Mark 11:18, Luke 19:47).
I’m not writing to explain racial conflict, to justify (or unjustify) the riots, or to try to provide a blueprint for moving forward. Still, I find all of this content to be helpful and illuminating as we seek to understand how to move forward in the Spirit of Christ in a world that is very different from the one in which he taught.
A version of this piece first appeared at coreyfarr.com.