One of the most famous episodes in the life of Jesus was his “cleansing of the temple.”
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11)
It’s a far cry from Jesus “meek and mild”! But what exactly was Jesus up to? For many years I assumed there was something he found objectionable about the moneychangers. But what? After all they enabled people to buy animals for sacrifice? And the dove sellers? Didn’t they enable those who were poor to participate in temple worship?
In The Final Week Marcus Borg and John Crossan provide an answer. The clue is in the reference to a den of robbers. A den is not the place where robbery occurs but the place of safety to which thieves retreat after their crime. Jesus’s critique is not of moneychangers and dove sellers but of a corrupt leadership that exploited the people then took refuge in the temple, imagining that by offering the right sacrifices they enjoyed the favour of God.
This was the point the prophet Jeremiah, whom Jesus references, made centuries earlier:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7)
Historians tell us that at the time of Jesus the majority of the population were peasant farmers, that they were taking loans from the wealthy in order to pay the exhorbitant taxes demanded by Rome, only to find their wealthy countrymen foreclosing on them when they couldn’t repay. As a result a small elite were acquiring large estates while their countrymen were reduced to landlessness and poverty. This was in clear violation of God’s law that called for interest free loans and debt forgiveness to avoid this very situation.
This corrupt elite were centred in the temple – it was the high priest and the circles around him that ruled Israel in collusion with the Roman governor. Jesus’s action in the temple temporarily disrupted the regular order of things and drew attention to the disjunction between the actions of the elite toward the poor and their worship of God. Crossan and Borg argue that this was a prophetic foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple.
Just as in the times of Jeremiah and Jesus, so in ours. Worship is meaningless if not accompanied by justice.