Throwing Out the Money Changers:
the Decisive Event that followed Palm Sunday
Luke 19:28-40; 45-48
March 20, 2016
On Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds loved him. It was a time to celebrate this beloved man Jesus, greet old and new friends, and engage in religious practices to prepare for the Passover. But on the day after Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, he went into the temple and began to drive out those who were changing money and selling sacrificial animals, saying “my house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.” According to Luke (19:47) and many scholars today, this was the key event that led the religious and political authorities to kill him.
Let’s first clear up some misconceptions. According to Marcus Borg, Jesus was not upset because commercial activities were happening in the temple.(1) Buying and selling sacrificial animals within the temple was a necessary and useful practice. It would have been difficult for travelers to bring a sacrificial animal with them from their homes and the animals purchased by worshipers needed to be ritually pure, something that could be guaranteed if purchased in the Temple.(2) Money changing was also necessary to convert local currencies into the money approved for the temple tax.
Jesus’ concern was not the commercial activity itself but the exploitation that was embedded within it, activities that were conducted by the Jewish authorities and which took place in the temple and elsewhere. Temple activities and the priests who administered them had “become inextricably intertwined with systematic appropriation of the goods and resources” from the many people who came to worship in the temple.(3) Priests received a portion of every temple sacrifice and offering and, given the large numbers who came to worship, they enjoyed a much higher income and standard of living than most other Jews at that time.
When Jesus charged that the temple had become a “den of robbers” (Luke 19:46), he was not just saying that robbery was happening within the temple. Rather he was charging that the temple was the robbers’ den, where they stayed, where they hung out. Who were these robbers who hung out in the temple? They were the religious authorities. According to Borg, Jesus’ charge “indicted the temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination system. They had made the temple into a den of robbing and violence. Jesus’ action was not a cleansing of the temple, but an indictment of the temple.”(4) And it was an indictment of the system that the temple authorities had established.
The temple played an important role in the economic and political life of the Jewish people, not just their religious life. Warren Carter writes, the temple “secured the elite’s political-economic as well as religious domination through tithes, offerings, the buying and selling of animals and birds for sacrifices, and supplies for temple rituals. The Jerusalem Temple, like others in the Roman world, was a political center and bank as well as a slaughterhouse for offering sacrifices to God.”(5)
According to Obery Hendricks, the temple was “the governing institution of Israel, the center of Israel’s political life and power. It was …[where] the high priest held court and presided over the powerful Sanhedrin; it was [where] the priestly aristocracy obediently represented Roman interests to their own people, at times even collecting taxes to place in Roman hands.”(6) Moreover, the temple was also “the center of Israel’s economy, its central bank and treasury, the depository of immense wealth. Indeed, so much of the activity of the Jerusalem temple hinged upon buying and selling and various modes of exchange that it is no exaggeration to say that in a real sense the Temple was fundamentally an economic institution” (emphasis in the original).
So Jesus’ actions in the temple were not only religious. Jesus was also taking action to oppose the major economic and political institution of his day.
Richard A. Horsley reminds us,
“That Jesus’ mission was in direct opposition to Roman imperial domination is dramatically displayed in his death by crucifixion and the circumstances of his birth, Augustus’ decree and Herod’s massacre…Indeed, his whole mission, which focused on renewal of Israel, was also opposition to Roman imperial rule and its effects. This is explicit in his exorcisms and proclamation of the kingdom of God, and more implicit in his renewal of covenantal community. Those activities, which took place in village communities, might not have resulted in his arrest and crucifixion as an insurgent. But he had the audacity to march up to Jerusalem at the highly charged time of Passover, carry out a forcible demonstration symbolizing God’s condemnation of the Temple, and state, however cleverly, that it was not lawful to render tribute to Caesar. Those were acts of insurrection that the Roman governor and the client-rulers of Jerusalem could not tolerate.”(7)
In calling the temple a “den of robbers,” Jesus used the language of the prophet Jeremiah. As written in Jeremiah 7, God asked Jeremiah to stand in the gate of the temple (this would have been Solomon’s temple, not the Second Temple that Jesus visited some 600 years later) and call on people to amend their ways and do justice. God was angry that the elites, those who claimed the temple as the seat of their power, oppressed the alien, the orphan, and the widow and shed innocent blood; and that the Hebrews worshiped other gods. Jeremiah charged that if people engaged in these injustices, they would not be saved by also worshiping in the temple. Jeremiah thundered (we imagine – how could he not?) the words he heard from God: “Has this house [the temple] which is called by my name, become a den of robbers?” (7:11). And he voiced God’s threat to do “to the house that is called by my name … just what I did to Shiloh” (7:11). Shiloh was the major religious center in Israel before the first temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. Shiloh was the site of the Tent of Meeting (Joshua 18) that held the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments received on Mt. Sinai. But at the time of Jeremiah’s proclamation in the temple gates (probably in the late 7th century BCE), Shiloh had been in ruins for hundreds of years. Jeremiah announced God’s intention to make Solomon’s temple a ruin (like Shiloh) if the injustices did not end. (We note that about 20 or so years later, Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.) When Jesus called the temple a “den of robbers,” he was repeating and reminding people of Jeremiah’s threat (God’s threat): God wants justice or dire things will happen.
Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s temple actions and statements were consistent with a long line of prophetic proclamations. As Borg and Crossan write, “[t]here was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not just on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, ‘I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,’ but never, ever, ever, ‘I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.’”(8) Examples of this preference for justice over worship include Amos 5:21-24; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8; and Isa. 1:11-17.
Today, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, we must speak out against oppression, especially economic oppression and exploitation. Today in the U.S., as in Jesus’ day, oppression is seldom physically violent. As in Jesus’ day, oppression typically happens because that is how the “system” – our rules, laws, regulations, and customs – is set up.
Consider the following abuses that result from our “system” of labor laws and regulations.
• The “system” has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour. In 1968, when the minimum wage was at its peak (adjusted for inflation), it was worth 52% of the median wage in the economy. To achieve that same ratio today, it would need to rise to $12.00. If this were to happen, 23 million people would get a raise. More
• The “system” sets the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13, where it has been since 1991. Anyone who earns more than $30 in tips per month can be classified, and paid, as a tipped worker. Some 4.3 million workers are categorized as tipped workers; two-thirds are women. More
• The “system” allows only about one-quarter (27%) of the unemployed to get unemployment insurance. The other three-quarters of laid-off workers get no supplemental support; they must live off their savings. More
• The “system” does not require employers to provide paid sick days. So over one-quarter of all employees (over 43 million people) have no paid sick leave. If they get sick, as we all do, or if a family member is ill, they are not paid for the time off they take and they may lose their jobs for missing work. More
• The “system” allows firms -- including huge multinationals like Tyson Foods and Purdue -- to employ one-quarter of a million people in their chicken processing plants where, according to Oxfam America, they “1) earn low wages of diminishing value, 2) suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and 3) often experience a climate of fear in the workplace.” More and more
• The “system” enables wage theft – the illegal but common workplace practice of employers not paying workers all the wages they earn – by failing to enact simple safeguards to prevent it (like requiring employers to provide workers with pay stubs http://www.iwj.org/issues/wage-theft/paystubs-for-all ) and by failing to prosecute violators. Up to two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries have wages stolen by their employers in any given week. More
The “system” is how we, who live in a democracy, organize our society. If we don’t like the system, if we think it violates our values and is at odds with our faith, then we need to get involved and change it. We must follow Jesus’ lead, raise our voices and act to end these systemic abuses. This work, this ministry, probably won’t make us popular. We might be accused of engaging in political activities, just like Jesus was. But if we are to follow Jesus, it is what we must do.
Find out about groups that may be organizing in your area.
Join the Justice and Peace Action Network to help change federal policies on a variety of issues
Join the UCC Economic Justice Movement to take action locally and nationally
1. Borg, Marcus. Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 234.
2. Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 48.
3. Hendricks, Jr., Obery M. The Politics of Jesus, New York: Three Leaves Press (Doubleday Press), 2006, p. 115.
4. Borg, Marcus. Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 235.
5. Carter, Warren. “Matthew Negotiates the Roman Empire,” in Richard A. Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2008, p 122.
6. Hendricks, Jr., Obery M. The Politics of Jesus, New York: Three Leaves Press (Doubleday Press), 2006, p. 114.
7. Horsley, Richard S. “Jesus and Empire” in Richard A. Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2008, p 95.
8. Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 44.