Jesus’ rampage in the temple complex to drive out sellers and money traders appears in all four Gospels, but we only read it once in the lectionary cycle. Why was Jesus so angry? And what did he do in his anger?
First, we must remember that the money changers and animal sellers weren’t technically doing anything wrong in any of the Gospel accounts. They were aiding those who tried to keep the commandments. Roman and other coins that contained images of autocrats, gods or even animals violated the prohibition on creating images of living things. The money changers sold properly observant coins that didn’t violate commandments so people wouldn’t have to buy sacrifices with idolatrous coins.
In the same way, those selling animals were helping people observe commandments. The Ten Commandments of Exodus 34 (not the list that we read this week) demand that no one appear before the Lord empty-handed (20) and that three times a year all men have to make a pilgrimage to the temple to sacrifice (23). It would have been bedlam and chaos if everyone brought their own animals. Hundreds of Levites would have been required to conduct an additional inspection to see that animals were fit for sacrifice. Not to mention that, in an age of economic specialization, not everyone kept their own animals. So pilgrims to the temple relied on the convenience of buying sacrificial animals near where they would make the sacrifices that God had commanded.
But that leaves the question: Why was Jesus so angry? The synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46) recount that Jesus alluded to Jeremiah 7 in saying that the temple had become a “den of thieves.” I have to think that as Jesus spent time making a whip of cords (John 2:15), he was angrily recalling God’s word through the prophet:
Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house (the temple), which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord (Jeremiah 7:8-11).
Thieves don’t steal in a den. Instead, they hide out in a den to escape from authorities after they have stolen. God, according to Jeremiah, wasn’t upset at anything that was happening in the temple, per se. Rather, God was furious about what was happening in everyday life and that the people thought they could escape from the consequences when they went into God’s house. Thousands of years later, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call this “cheap grace,” when we receive God’s love and forgiveness but don’t repent from evil in order to perform good in the world.
Driving out animals and overturning coin tables made it impossible to offer the sacrifice that Jesus felt was too easy, too convenient.
I don’t think Jesus was specifically upset about people doing business to try and help facilitate the God-ordained sacrificial process. True, Jesus overturned tables and told people not to have a market, but Scripture doesn’t indicate that trading in the temple was prohibited. Why did Jesus not want a market? When Jesus formed the cord, he drove out the animals—not the people (John 2:15). The thing that Jesus attacked was not the system of keeping commandments, but the notion of cheap grace for habitual sins, including acting with injustice; oppressing the foreigner, the orphan and the widow; shedding innocent blood; and going after other gods (Jeremiah 7:5-6, 9). Driving out animals and overturning coin tables made it impossible to offer the sacrifice that Jesus felt was too easy, too convenient.
If we make Jesus attack mere economic practices here, we let ourselves off too easily. That isn’t the only point. Jesus isn’t riled up simply by people charging money for sheep or making money from exchanging coins. Jesus is furious because we keep on oppressing folk, and then we waltz into God’s house like it’s no big deal because we can be easily forgiven for our sins. No! Jesus says you don’t have the opportunity to be right with God before you are right with your neighbor.
By driving the animals out, he cut off people’s ability to make sacrifices to atone for their sins easily and without repentance. By overturning the tables, Jesus was cutting off people’s ability to hide their collaboration with the empire and the idolatry of power by changing their sinful money into “clean” money.
Jesus says making things right with other humans is more important than sacrificing to God. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus was squarely in line with the prophets before him who condemned the idea of offering sacrifices while committing habitual, oppressive sins (Isaiah 1, Amos 5, Isaiah 58).
This week, when we read Exodus 20, we should remember that God is serious about commandments and wants them to be obeyed. But Jesus also says that treating our neighbor as we would want to be treated is much more important than those commandments from Exodus 20. We can’t oppress our neighbor—especially our foreign neighbor, our widowed neighbor or our orphaned neighbor—and then go to the house of the Lord for safety. Going to a holy building without repenting and reconciliation is worthless, and Jesus wants to make sure people know it.