Some years ago I was watching the movie Jesus Christ, Superstar on television after the children had gone to bed. One young daughter left her bedroom for some reason and happened to see a scene from the movie through the doorway—it was the scene in which Jesus violently disrupts the buying and selling that is taking place in the Temple. My daughter recognized that the actor in the movie was representing Jesus, but she was not familiar with this event as described in the Bible. The anger and violence with which Jesus confronted the misuse of God’s Temple puzzled and frightened her.
According to Mark, this cleansing of the Temple happened on Monday of Holy Week, the day after Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke both describe the two events without transition, but neither of them says they took place on the same day; John does not mention this cleansing of the Temple, but he includes a similar event near the beginning of his account of the Gospel. Jesus was passionate about the Temple. It provided God’s people a place to have access to God. Animals were sacrificed there as an offering to atone for sin, though they were only pictures of the ultimate Offering that would atone for sin. Prayers were said in and around the Temple. As Jesus pointed out on that Monday, God’s house was intended to be a house of prayer.
Jesus then added that the buyers and sellers had made the Temple a den of thieves. I have not been able to verify this account, but I have read that when people brought their animals to the Temple for the sacrifice, they were told that their animals were flawed and unacceptable for sacrifice to the Lord. The buyers offered to purchase the flawed lamb or goat or bull from the worshipers and sell them a proper animal for sacrifice (at a higher price, of course). After the sale, the flawed animal was taken to a pen elsewhere on Temple property until it was sold to another worshiper in a similar way.
In the same way, the money-changers were cheating the people. The priests of the Temple said that Roman money was no good in God’s house. The money-changers offered to exchange the temple shekel for Roman coins. The exchange rate was not favorable for the worshipers. Of course the money-changers and even the priests had no difficulty spending Roman coins in the marketplace. When they asked Jesus, during Holy Week, about paying taxes to Rome and he asked them to show him a Roman coin, they had no trouble finding one to show him, even though that money was supposedly no good in God’s house.
Even today enemies of the Church accuse Christians of hypocrisy and greed. Unfortunately, they often find enough examples to prove their point. Jesus does not want his people to be known for their sins. He has paid a great price to take away their sins. Jesus still wants his house to be a house of prayer and a place where people may approach the Lord to receive his grace, his forgiveness, and his love. Therefore Jesus still fumes when he sees his Temple distracted by worldly things to the point that they no longer proclaim the message God has given them to share.
The wrath of God is real, as I had the opportunity to explain to my daughter that night years ago. God’s wrath at sin is not confined to the Old Testament; Jesus himself strikes out at sinful injustice and the way some people take advantage of others in the name of the Lord. If we are like Jesus, we will oppose evil wherever we find it. We will seek to make God’s house a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. But we will also make God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the center of our message to a sinful and needy world. J.