Jesus and the money-changers

Matthew 12:

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

This was quoted recently by a Ratburgher. It was part of a long-running back and forth we have had about the political responsibilities we do or do not feel as American consumers or investors.

This passage of scripture was associated with this remark:

I … suppose I am damned because I do not associate money with theft.”

I know that there are Leftists who insist that the Gospels support Communism, but I believe that Leftist interpretations are all false and unsupportable. The folk who preach that the Bible associates money with theft are way off base and can be shown to be playing fast and loose with the Word.

I doubt if there is much interest in Ratburger.org for a longwinded discourse on the Bible and capitalism. So I will limit my remarks to the incident cited, so as to help unpack this particular passage.

Let’s begin with a little bit of history about the Temple. (Yes, this is relevant, as you will see.)

When God gave the Law to Moses, it included instructions for the construction of a Tabernacle, which was a tent that could accompany the nomadic Israelites as they traversed the wilderness for 40 years, until they could enter the Land of Canaan. In Canaan the Tabernacle was moved a couple of times. When David became King and was able to build a palace, he sought to build a permanent temple to replace the Tabernacle, but God instructed him to leave that happy task to his son Solomon. Solomon completed the Temple in about the year 900 BC.

The Temple was the center of Jewish religion. It was the place where God received the sacrifices of the people. The entire Jewish religion before A.D. 70 may be characterized as a “temple cult” if it is clarified that it involved none of the Pagan practices usually associated with that term.

Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Neo-Babylonians in the year 586 B.C. After conquering the Babylonians, Persian King Cyrus allowed the Prophet Ezra to rebuild the Temple, which was completed in the sixth year of Darius I, 516 B.C.

Jews would take their sacrifices to the Temple to offer them to God. After the Babylonian Captivity, Jews were spread all over the western half of the Persian Empire. A representative of each family would try to travel to Jerusalem most years for one or another of the five major festivals. Jewish pilgrims would carry along offerings and sacrifices for their families and friends.

The Law of Moses prescribes particular sacrifices. In particular, lambs and doves are the most common sacrifices for most families. The Law requires that the animals to be sacrificed must be without defect; it is unacceptable to offer a deformed animal or one with a broken leg or wing.

Travelers would commonly carry money to make travel easier, and purchase the animals for sacrifice after arriving at Jerusalem. That way they avoided the risk of injury to the animals while in transit. This made sales of doves and lambs big business in Jerusalem.

Before making a sacrifice, a priest would inspect the animal to make sure it would qualify. In order to streamline the process, enterprising merchants would get some animals “pre-screened” by an agreeable priest who would issue a certificate (nobody knows quite what the certification looked like). Certified animals cost a few shekels more, of course.

And travelers from all over the Levant, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt would be bringing all sorts of coins, prompting a brisk business in currency exchange. In addition to needing funds for lodging, a Temple tax on each family needed to be paid annually with a Jewish coin.

Booths for currency trading and animal sales were available all over Jerusalem, but the most convenient locations were the few booths that were available on the Temple porch. Booth rental was a nice source of revenue for the priests.

When Herod the Great became King of Judea, he undertook a building program (that is how he earned his nickname “Great”). His building program was very much modeled after Roman building practices, which made for grand civic works, roadbuilding, improved wells, aqueducts, theaters, gymnasiums and other projects in the Roman style. Since the Jews disapproved of gymnasiums, Herod sought to placate them by undertaking improvements to the Temple.

Now, touching the Temple is touchy business. When Solomon built, he had the Prophet Nathan to give God’s word. And Ezra the Prophet received God’s blessing for the construction of the Second Temple. But Herod had no prophet. This is one of the things that torqued the Essenes; Herod was not eligible to be king of Judea under the Law of Moses, and then to go messing with the Temple was too much.

So, without a prophet to guide, Herod undertook to improve the Temple according to the way that would earn favor according to Roman sensibilities. He also intended to earn some goodwill with members of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council. What he did was expand it in three directions, requiring huge retaining walls and making the Temple appear to be a very grand work when viewed on approaching Jerusalem. Herod deliberately used extra-large stones for the purpose of impressing all those travelers from all over the Jewish world. It certainly impressed Jesus’s pals, who were rubes from Galilee.

This work was left incomplete when Herod died, and it was only brought to completion when Jesus was about ten years old. What Herod had done was enlarge the Temple, making sure that in the process he made more room for tables or booths for the currency traders and the peddlers of certified animals.

I can easily imagine that the chief vibe on the Temple porch was haggling and hawking. There was so much spiritually defective activity going on with all that buying and selling that it is not surprising that a righteous Jesus would object.

Jesus had nothing to lose by upsetting their apple cart; He knew they were plotting to kill Him.

I do not think that this lesson is a commentary on the proper use of money. Scripture has plenty to say about how to work hard, live within your means, be honest, fair and generous, and return offerings to God, but those things are not in this lesson. Rather, this is a lesson about the proper reverence due to God in His own house.

If you cannot hear the Pastor because of all the commotion going on at the coffee station, then perhaps this lesson is due for a hearing at your church. If there is a lot of coming and going while prayers are being said, it is time for a sermon on reverence.

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15 thoughts on “Jesus and the money-changers”

  1. From the Gospel of John, Chapter 2:

    13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

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  2. I knew my reference would get your attention!

    I will have to respectfully disagree with the notion that “money changing” is incongruous with a “house of prayer.”

    I speak from experience. My father was a deacon in his church and actually held the title of Treasury Secretary. He raised money for church repairs and expansion, a crematorium and founded a college scholarship program for local kids with great GPAs and test scores. He was somewhat secular but well-respected and loved by the congregation who emptied their well- funded bank accts to contribute money whenever he asked.

    At his funeral two years ago, countless church members made it a point to comment on his fiscal acumen and the good he did for the community. One member actually told me, “He made me proud of this church. We accomplished good things under his influence.”

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  3. EThompson:
    I knew my reference would get your attention!

    I will have to respectfully disagree with the notion that “money changing” is incongruous with a “house of prayer.”

    I speak from experience. My father was a deacon in his church and actually held the title of Treasury Secretary. He raised money for church repairs and expansion, a crematorium and founded a college scholarship program for local kids with great GPAs and test scores. He was somewhat secular but well-respected and loved by the congregation who emptied their well- funded bank accts to contribute money whenever he asked.

    At his funeral two years ago, countless church members made it a point to comment on his fiscal acumen and the good he did for the community. One member actually told me, “He made me proud of this church. We accomplished good things under his influence.”

    Your disagreement is with something I did not say.   The church needs funds to operate, and needs donors and needs good fiscal managers to stretch those funds optimally.

    But the raising of funds, bringing of offerings, and business aspects of keeping the church open for business should not in any way diminish the reverence with which worship is conducted.

    The issue for Jesus was the lack of reverence for God’s House.

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  4. MJBubba:
    But the raising of funds, bringing of offerings, and business aspects of keeping the church open for business should not in any way diminish the reverence with which worship is conducted.

    No argument here. My father who would best be described as a Deist would agree. He requested “Amazing Grace” to be played at his funeral.

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  5. This is the only theory I’ve ever read which makes sense of the story. So Jesus’ scourging took place in an area recently added by Herod?  He had violated the Historical District Overlay Zoning? Where could I find info about Herod’s building projects?

    it has always been interesting to me that the popular perception of the incident has the offending businessmen as money lenders  ( not money changers).  That fits in with the anti-Semitic trope.

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  6. Hypatia:
    This is the only theory I’ve ever read which makes sense of the story. So Jesus’ scourging took place in an area recently added by Herod?  He had violated the Historical District Overlay Zoning? Where could I find info about Herod’s building projects?

    The best source for Herod is Josephus.  The lazy way would be to read an encyclopedia entry.  A translation of Jewish Antiquities by Josephus is available on the internet, but it is an eighteenth century translation, written in King James style to make it sound biblical, and so hard to read.  I recommend a recent translation by Paul Meier, which is worth the price.  He consolidated Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, deleting redundancies and using modern English.  It is very readable.

    https://www.christianbook.com/josephus-essential-works-full-color-edition/paul-maier/9780825432606/pd/3620X

     

    it has always been interesting to me that the popular perception of the incident has the offending businessmen as money lenders  ( not money changers).  That fits in with the anti-Semitic trope.

    Agreed.  “Money-lenders” is inaccurate and amounts to a smear.

    They had rules that limited the fee that could be charged to make change, but there was a world of dishonesty available in setting exchange rates.

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  7. “and the seats of those who sold pigeons”  If I were selling someone in the Temple, I would be brokering the world’s oldest profession – have it, sell it, still have it.  Ditto graveyards, apartments, diets.   The profound glory of economics only asks patience during disaster to reveal its eternal perfection.  That is how I would sell pigeons and marks.

    “Do you want your pie-in-the-sky bye and bye, or do you want it now!”  Reverend Ike.

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  8. It seems to me that there is still something to be said about the commerce that rose out of the desire to practice your faith. Here we have Jewish faithful entering into a market for the procurement of religious rites. By the time of Jesus it seemed like the act of commerce was more important to those involved than the need to adhere to the laws of Moses.

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  9. Robert A. McReynolds:
    It seems to me that there is still something to be said about the commerce that rose out of the desire to practice your faith. Here we have Jewish faithful entering into a market for the procurement of religious rites. By the time of Jesus it seemed like the act of commerce was more important to those involved than the need to adhere to the laws of Moses.

    Yes, Christians need to be able to conduct business in order to be able to keep the church up and keep it open and staffed.  All religions that involve gathering for worship share this need.

    Under the doctrine of the Freedom of the Christian, we now choose how to make our gifts and offerings, but First Century Jews were following the instructions in the Law of Moses, which gave them less in the way of options.  Evidently the marketplace that efficiently delivered the items needed to fulfill these obligations had become a marketplace that saw some price gouging.

    Jesus objected.

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  10. When Herod the Great became King of Judea, he undertook a building program (that is how he earned his nickname “Great”).

    Why is there never King Alexander the Pretty Good? Or Queen Ann the Adequate?

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  11. Henry Castaigne:

    When Herod the Great became King of Judea, he undertook a building program (that is how he earned his nickname “Great”).

    Why is there never King Alexander the Pretty Good? Or Queen Ann the Adequate?

    Because: remember Jimmy Carter, “The Adequate Society”?

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