Yes, it’s a critique of capitalism: There’s a place for it, and temple isn’t it.
In the other gospels, Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple during Passion Week.
The debate amongst scholars is whether Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple once, and one (or three) of the gospels don’t have their facts straight; or whether Jesus did it twice—once at the start of his mission, and once again before he was killed. It is an awfully similar story; might even be the same story.
The most common theory—even the inerrantists I was raised among would teach it—is this event happened once. During Passion Week. They wouldn’t overtly teach it that way: What they’d do is teach on Passion Week, teach on Jesus tossing the merchants out of temple, and in order to fill in any blanks in the story, start quoting John. ’Cause you know that bit about Jesus using a whip to do it? Not in the other gospels. Seriously, look:
Mark 11.15-17 KWL
- 15 They came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered temple and began to throw out all the sellers and the shoppers in temple.
- He overthrew the coin-changers’ tables and the pigeon-sellers’ seats.
- 16 Jesus didn’t permit anyone to carry containers through temple.
- 17 Jesus taught, and told them:
- “Isn’t it written that ‘my house will be called a prayer house for all nations?’
- You’d made it a thieves’ cave.”
Matthew 21.12-13 KWL
- 12 Jesus entered temple, and threw out all the sellers and shoppers in temple.
- He overthrew the coin-changers’ tables and the pigeon-sellers’ seats.
- 13 Jesus told them, “It’s written, ‘My house will be called a prayer house.’
- You make it a thieves’ cave.”
Luke 19.45-46 KWL
- 45 Jesus entered temple and began to throw out the sellers,
- 46 telling them, “It’s written, ‘My house will be a prayer house,’
- and you made it a thieves’ cave.”
But man they loved that whipping imagery. So they’d deliberately swipe it from John. Didn’t matter if they believed the story in John happened at another time; they just couldn’t pass up the idea of Jesus giving the merchants a good whipping. I leave it to you as to whether prioritizing the whip over the textual integrity suggests something sorta demented about them.
The less-common variation of this theory is it still happened only once, but following John’s timetable: At the beginning of Jesus’s mission. Not during Passion Week—but the synoptic gospels moved it there ’cause it’s more dramatic.
My view: John has it right. And the other gospels have it right. Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple more than once. Heck, for all we know Jesus kicked ’em out every time he went to temple. Maybe that’s why he had a whip in John, but not the other gospels: “Aw crap, it’s Jesus the Nazarene again! Run before he gets the whip out!” By Passion Week, they’d learned their lesson.
Should I get to the story? Yeah, why not.
John 2.12-17 KWL
- 12 After this, Jesus went down to Kfar Nahum with his mother, his siblings, and his students.
- They stayed there—not many days; 13 it was nearly the Judeans’ Passover.
- Jesus went up to Jerusalem, 14 and in temple he found cattle-, sheep-, and pigeon-sellers,
- and coin-changers taking up residence.
- 15 Making a whip out of ropes, Jesus threw everyone, plus sheep and cattle, out of temple.
- He poured out the money-changers’ coins, and flipped over the tables.
- 16 He told the pigeon-sellers, “Get these things out of here!
- Don’t make my Father’s house a market-house!”
- 17 His students were reminded it’s written,
- “The zeal of your house will eat me up.”
The temple marketplace.
Much has been taught on the temple marketplace. Much junk, too.
Anti-capitalists claim it’s a rejection of capitalism. Antisemites use it to push the old stereotype of greedy Jews, so interested in profit they were willing to sell out their religion. Anti-Pharisees blame the Pharisees, even though Pharisees hadn’t a thing to do with it: The head priest and his family ran the temple. And they were Sadducees.
Here’s a little story I’ve heard preachers claim: As part of the priests’ job, they had to inspect sacrificial animals ’cause it was against the Law to give God a deficient animal.
It’s a clever story, but I’ve found no historical basis for it. It’s probably crap. Fact is, lots of people would buy their sacrificial animals at temple. It wasn’t practical to bring animals all the way to Jerusalem: They could easily be injured along the way. Imagine trekking to temple for two weeks, and just as you’re getting into town, your ox tramples your lamb and breaks its ankle in the process, rendering them both unfit for sacrifice. All this way for nothing.
So the Law actually made accommodations for this. If you couldn’t bring your sacrifice with you, no problem. Sell it. Bring the money. Buy a new sacrifice.
I’ve also heard preachers claim the coin-changers were a scam. Supposedly the Pharisees made it a rule you had to use special temple money. Then they could futz with the exchange rate and squeeze a little more out of the worshipers.
Again: Rubbish. A lot of money violated the Law. Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, and Roman money had pagan gods stamped on them. As you might recall, there’s a command against other gods before the L
So as far as this marketplace was concerned, no thievery was going on. These were resources. This was a useful service to worshipers, who knew they’d have to change their coins at some point, who knew they’d have to purchase sacrificial animals at some point—and here was everything, right on the temple grounds! This was a ministry to these worshipers.
Yeah, a ministry. And that idea tends to make people balk, mostly because they assume the reason Jesus whipped ’em out of the building was because they were doing something evil. They had to have been cheating and deceiving people, right?
Nope. And how we can tell is pretty simple. If the priests were really trying to soak people, they wouldn’t have limited the marketplace to coin-changing and sacrificial animals. They’d have sold all sorts of religious articles—anything they could think of or get away with. First-century versions of the same Jesus junk we find in Christian bookstores. Shofars, phylacteries, kippas, prayer shawls (I know; prayer shawls weren’t invented till the middle ages; they’d have invented ’em early), religious books, sheet music, Jewish art with inspiring bible verses, food, knick-knacks. They’d make a few sheqels on top of the necessary services.
But they didn’t. They exercised way more self-control than some of our church bookstores do.
The real problem: Right business, wrong place.
So why’d Jesus come a-whipping, and refer to this place (in the other gospels, of course) as a cave of thieves?
A reconstruction of Herod’s temple. Those big huge blank spaces, surrounded by colonnades, on either side of the temple complex? That’s the Gentile Court. Meant to be full of worshipers, but ordinarily it’d be full of merchants. [Accordance Bible Lands PhotoGuide]
The Gentile Court was the one space in temple where non-Jews could worship. Every other place was Jews only, off-limits, and ritually clean. Gentiles, who didn’t bother with ritual cleanliness, would defile it with their very presence, requiring the sacrifices and prayers to stop as the priests re-cleansed the place. Hence there were signs posted outside the no-gentile spaces, warning them to stay out on pain of death. If gentiles dared enter, it’d trigger a riot,
The priests didn’t want the merchants to take over Jewish space, and really didn’t care about the dirty gentiles. What did it matter if their worship space now smelled like sheep crap and pigeon droppings? Who’d it really harm if you couldn’t hear the worship music over the sound of haggling merchants and noisy animals?
But it did matter to Jesus. The gentiles were robbed of their worship space. God was robbed of their worship.
Besides, it was against the Law to discommode the gentiles.
So when Christians look at this passage, our usual joke is, “Well, I guess now we gotta go smash up the church’s bookstore.” Which is amusing, but not accurate. Again, it’s where merchants do their business. There’s a place and purpose for commerce, but did a more important ministry get sacrificed on its behalf?
- Did the church turn a prayer room into a coffeehouse without replacing the prayer room with a better prayer room?
- Did it set up a concession stand in the sanctuary, thus creating a distraction or taking away from worship space?
- Did it pave over a prayer walk ’cause we need more parking?
- Did it turn a prayer closet into an ordinary storage closet?
- Did it kill off a less-profitable ministry for a far more lucrative one? (’Cause more profit implies God’s blessing, right?)
- Did it take over church classrooms so the pastors could get more office space?
“Well, you don’t understand our circumstances…” No; I understand ’em fine. I’ve been at those churches which were short on space. (I’m at one now.) When you decide to prioritize money or prestige over people and worship, you can’t honestly tell me you’re growing God’s kingdom. If you’re telling yourself that, ’tain’t honest.
Are we so fixated on turning a profit that we forget these are meant to be resources? Fr’instance when a bible study requires its members to read another book than the bible: Has your church arranged it so the poor can afford, or otherwise get hold of, this book? Too many churches don’t even consider the poor, and should. God does. If the poor couldn’t afford a sacrifice, God let ’em sacrifice pigeons.
In the same way, Christians need to provide affordable or free resources for everyone who can’t afford ’em. That, or stop claiming we minister to all, when we only minister to the wealthy.