Holy Week: The Cleansing of the Temple

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Carl Bloch

I have seen multiple people on Instagram talking about Jesus cleansing the temple in the final week of his ministry and misinterpreting the motive Jesus had for doing it. So let's talk about the details we can glean from Scripture to better understanding this story.

The temple complex had merchants who would sell animals to people they could use for sacrifices. The law of Moses in Leviticus 5 (see also Leviticus 14-15) talks about how the sin offering involves sacrificing a lamb or a kid goat. In the case of extreme poverty, two doves were the acceptable alternatives. These offerings would be bled on the Temple altar and burned.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves. —Matt 21:13

The act of selling these animals was not the problem. It was a necessary part of the temple functioning, especially as people traveled from far distances to participate in temple worship.

The problem that caused Jesus to walk through the stalls turning over tables brandishing a whip was price gouging. Theft, of both money and access to God.

Everything that happened in the temple complex was under the direction of the high priest, the most important figure in Judaism at the time. The animals provided would've been inspected and assured that they would meet the requirements of the law. In a world where various monies were in use, weighed with scales to meet the established exchange rates, nothing would've prevented the high priest from requiring bribes from the privilege of operating in the temple market. Nothing would've prevented the scales from being turned against those who price gouged the public to provide for those bribes, as well as to line their own pockets. All of this happened at the expense of the people who were required by divine law to make these sacrifices to achieve forgiveness of their sins.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates his disdain for the senior-most leadership of Judaism in his day. He had condemned the love of money and status over people so many times. He had disrupted ceremonies and insulted the priests to their faces. He had criticized their poor understanding of the law and their duties to others in their community. He had called them hypocrites, a den of vipers, vessels that were clean on the outside but filthy within, whited sepulchres full of dead men's bones, predators akin to wolves in sheep's clothing, and unprofitable servants. And here, he engages in his most pointed and unapologetic criticism yet for those in power:

And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. —Matt 21:13

The agitation of Jesus Christ culminated in this exact moment, where he struck back against the Establishment not only in thought, but in their pocketbooks. In the destruction of the temple market, he restored access to the ordinances for all by front the animals to those who were present. He liberated the money to the oppressed in society by flinging it outside the reach of those who had taken it from them. He upturned the power structure and social order which placed the high priest as a wealthy superior over, rather than a humble servant to, the Jewish community.

Make no mistake: Jesus was a Jew. He loved his community and his faith. He loved God. He respected the law, which called his people to be the best versions of themselves to serve God. But this love didn't stop him from publicly criticizing and condemning moral failure in the leadership around him. Love does not enable abuse. And it was abuse that allowed Jewish leadership at the time to limit access to the most important, the most sacred ordinances in Judaism only to those who were willing and able to pay enough money.

What do we learn from Jesus, from his destruction of the temple market?

That some evil forces in society cannot be reformed. Reasoning with abusers in ways they don't have to acknowledge, that doesn't cost them anything, isn't a solution for the powerless. That people are more important than money and the economy. That there is restorative justice waiting for the oppressed, in the form of destruction for their oppressors. And when this happens, a greater increase of faith, healing, and power from heaven will follow.

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. Matt. 21:14

This Easter season, this is the hope and prayer for many: that God will remember those who have been shut out of their communities because of the exorbitant prices set by their leadership for their participation. That God will restore access to the holiness and forgiveness that has been stolen from them. That there is still a Savior, a Deliverer from the greed and pride that drives this world. And most of all, that there is healing and rest for those who have been exploited against their will, that all that has been stolen will be restored to them one day.

No comments:

More Posts from Me

The Unimpressive Origins of Anti-Queerness in the LDS Church

"Sister Collins, why don't you believe being queer is a sin like the rest of the righteous, obedient Mormons?" Because despite...