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.