The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
12 And Jesus entered the temple[a] 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.”
We are now reading about the events of Jesus’s final Passover, which many Christians commemorate during Holy Week.
Matthew 21:1-11 records His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we remember as Palm Sunday. It is important to remember that the crowds hailed him as a temporal king, not the spiritual Messiah.
Once in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple, which, being Passover, was teeming with faithful Jews anxious to offer the proper animal sacrifice.
My past posts have discussed the temple in more detail. The history of the temples is detailed here and here. The structure of the temple of Jesus’s era, the one that the Romans destroyed in 70 AD, is here.
That last post is well worth reading before contemplating today’s verses as it also includes how suitable home bred animals were often rejected and the faithful were forced to buy their sacrifices from the temple.
Then there was the question of temple tax, due during this time. The Jews had to pay it with a special coin in order to be allowed into the Temple during Passover. The moneychangers would charge an exhorbitant rate to exchange everyday money for this coin.
There was a real racket going on. No wonder Jesus was filled with righteous anger.
Some readers might be confused about this cleansing of the temple. After all, isn’t it recorded early on in John’s Gospel? John 2:13-17 says:
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
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.”
That cleansing was at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. John MacArthur explains:
So, when He started His ministry, He started it at the temple and when He ends it, He ends it at the temple.
These two cleansings bookend His earthly ministry.
They are important in that, through them, He establishes his Messianic credentials. He is cleaning His Father’s house (verse 12).
In some manuscripts, such as the King James Version, verse 12 begins (emphases mine):
And Jesus went into the temple of God …
Jesus drove out these crooked, greedy men. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those selling pigeons. Pigeons were the poor man’s sacrifice. The impoverished faithful were charged exhorbitant prices.
One can imagine the scene. Carefully counted coins scattered everywhere. Pigeons flew away, perhaps not to be seen again.
All this had the permission of the high priest, Annas. He and the other priests were in on the racket. MacArthur explains:
Annas being the high priest, a corrupt and vile man who saw the temple as a way to get power and wealth…had a great idea. He and his priests sold concessions. In other words, you could buy space in the Court of the Gentiles. And there you could come and sell sheep, lambs, doves, pigeons, make money exchanges, sell oil, wine, salt and other requisites that go along with sacrifices.
And you paid dearly for those concessions because here’s how the system worked. Every offering had to be approved by the priests, right? When you finally got into the Court of the Israelites and you brought what you were going to give, it had to be approved. And maybe they had approving stations even before you got that far in. But the priests had to say your sacrifice is okay, and the odds were that if you bought it outside the temple, it was not going to be approved. If you had raised a lamb way out where you lived and brought that little lamb in to be offered, they’d say that lamb is not acceptable, you must have a lamb purchased in the Court of the Gentiles. Go see So-and-so. And so you’d go to buy a lamb from him, only according to Edersheim, the great Jewish historian, you would pay ten times the value of that lamb. So you were extorted, you were fleeced to reverse the picture a little. You were taken by robbers.
Poor people, according to Levitical law, didn’t have to bring a lamb because they couldn’t afford lamb, so they were allowed to have a dove or a pigeon in the place of a lamb. And most historians feel that in today’s currency, a couple of birds might be worth a nickel or a dime. But you would have paid four or five dollars for them there. And if you wanted to exchange your money because you had to have exactly a half shekel so you had to have the right change, and if you came from a foreign country with foreign currency and it had to be changed, you would pay twenty-five percent fee just to make small change.
It is easy for us to say that all this was Jewish practice, nothing to do with us. However, the accounts of these cleansings are warnings about similar corruption in the Church. In pre-Reformation times, this would have meant the selling of indulgences for notional penance for sin or entry into heaven:
In 1392, more than a century before Martin Luther published the 95 Theses, Pope Boniface IX wrote to the Bishop of Ferrara condemning the practice of certain members of religious orders who falsely claimed that they were authorized by the pope to forgive all sorts of sins, and obtained money from the simple-minded faithful by promising them perpetual happiness in this world and eternal glory in the next.
Some of these indulgences were a mandatory purchase and, as with the pigeons of the poor, expensive. The seller — the pardoner — pocketed a percentage of the money and the rest filtered its way to clerics and local rulers. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, featuring a typical story of the Middle Ages:
The Pardoner says to the pilgrims that by these tricks he has acquired a considerable sum of money. He goes on to relate how he stands like a clergy at the pulpit, and preaches against avarice but to gain the congregation’s money; he doesn’t care for the correction of sin or for their souls. Against anyone that offends either him or other pardoners, he will “stynge hym with my tonge smerte”. Although he is guilty of avarice himself, he reiterates that his theme is always Radix malorum … and that he can nonetheless preach so that others turn away from the vice and repent—though his “principal entente” is for personal gain. The Pardoner explains that he then offers many anecdotes to the “lewed [ignorant, unlearned] people”. He scorns the thought of living in poverty while he preaches; he desires “moneie, wolle [wool], chese, and whete” and doesn’t care whether it were from the poorest widow in the village, even should her children starve for famine.
Some indulgences purchased an exemption from spiritual disciplines:
Similar things go on today with televangelists or independent pastors urging their flocks to give generously because, without them, the ministry cannot exist. Then one sees the money going towards lavish mansions, limousines and clothes for the preacher!
Matthew records that Jesus cited Isaiah 56:7 after cleansing the temple (verse 13):
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
Matthew Henry tells us:
Tradition says, that his face shone, and beams of light darted from his blessed eyes, which astonished these market-people, and compelled them to yield to his command …
This would indicate the fulfilment of Old Testament Scripture:
if so, the scripture was fulfilled, Proverbs 20:8, A King that sitteth in the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes. He overthrew the tables of the money-changers he did not take the money to himself, but scattered it, threw it to the ground, the fittest place for it. The Jews, in Esther’s time, on the spoil laid not their hand, Esther 9:10.
MacArthur gives us examples from the Old Testament showing the sanctity of the temple, as holy a place as we consider church:
I’m reminded of 1 Samuel 1, Hannah, she went to the temple and Eli the priest sat on a seat by the post of the temple of the Lord. She went there to seek God. She was in bitterness of soul. She prayed to the Lord, she wept bitterly. She vowed a vow. Now that’s what the temple was for. It was for a person to go and find some quiet, the court was where a Jew or a Gentile could go and seek God, a place of silence, a place of meditation, a place to vow a vow to God. And she was there, you remember, and Eli saw her lips moving and she found there the face of God that she sought. God wonderfully heard her prayer and gave her a child.
And you remember when the temple was dedicated in 1 Kings chapter 8 verses 29 and 30 and Solomon offered his prayer to God. And he said, “I pray to God that this place may be a place where Your people can come and confess and find forgiveness, a place of quiet, a place of confession.” And I’m reminded, too, of the psalmist in Psalm 27 who identifies the usefulness of the temple with these words, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.” It’s a place where we can see the beauty of the Lord and worship and where we can beseech Him, inquiring of Him there in His holy place. And they had turned it into a crooked bank, a stockyard, a thoroughfare…blasphemous.
What is chilling is Jesus’s comparison of these money-men, priests included, to robbers hiding in a cave awaiting their prey. What a transformation of evil to God’s holy place on earth:
And He says to them in verse 13, “But you have made it a den of thieves,” or a cave of robbers. And that’s another Old Testament quote from Jeremiah 7:11. You have made it…and He borrows the phrase from Jeremiah…a cave of robbers, where robbers hole up. Instead of being a place for true worshipers, it’s a place where people can rob and be protected in doing it. You have made it a cave of robbers. They can come here and they’re safe. Robbers used to hide in the caves. Jeremiah alludes to that in chapter 7 verses 4 to 11 where the robbers were hiding in the caves. And they were safe there, out of the way, unfound, secure. And he says you’ve provided a cave for robbers to hide in in the temple of God. And they can do their robbery right in the place they’re hiding. Such protection of extortioners is blasphemous. Yahweh’s house, God’s house to be a temple to worship and pray and commune with Him, what a prostitution you’ve made of this.
The parallel accounts are Luke 19:45-46, which I covered in November 2014, and Mark 11:15-19, which is in the three-year Lectionary for public worship. Mark’s is fuller than the other two accounts, because of these two verses:
18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they[b] went out of the city.
Henry concludes with these words of wisdom:
When dissembled piety is made the cloak and cover of iniquity, it may be said that the house of prayer is become a den of thieves, in which they lurk, and shelter themselves. Markets are too often dens of thieves, so many are the corrupt and cheating practices in buying and selling but markets in the temple are certainly so, for they rob God of his honour, the worst of thieves, Malachi 3:8. The priests lived, and lived plentifully, upon the altar but, not content with that, they found other ways and means to squeeze money out of the people and therefore Christ here calls them thieves, for they exacted that which did not belong to them.
For us, church should also be a holy place where we can communicate with God, perhaps publicly, perhaps privately. It is not a place for running around, distracting others or engaging in ordinary activity, such as checking one’s phone messages or texting (unless it’s an emergency).
Many today — including clergy — say that church is people, not a building. We see from Holy Scripture that this is not the case. A bit more consideration and reverence on our part would not go amiss.
Those of us over a certain age were told from childhood that church is God’s house. May we be ever mindful of it.
Next time: Matthew 21:14-17