Matthew 21:12-13 (New Living Translation)
Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
It is likely that this market was what in Rabbinic writings is called “the Bazaars of the sons of Annas,” the High-Priest who is infamous in New Testament history. It seems reasonable that pilgrims to Jerusalem would be able to change their various kinds of currency to temple coinage, and also that some would need to purchase an animal for sacrifice.
So what was Jesus so angry about?
The problem was the greed of Annas and others who profited unfairly by overtaxing a population already stretched beyond reason by Roman taxation. The religious Jews would have been burdened with additional costs because the were sincere about their worship of God. The money changers and sellers of animals were eventually removed, about three years before the temple was destroyed, says one scholar, ‘...on account of the sinful greed which characterised their dealings. The general populace would probably have applauded his actions. The problem was that He was taking on the Jewish High Priestly family, a family known to be unethical.
Both the historian Josepheus and some of the Pharisees gave a picture of avarice and corruption amongst their ranks. Josephus describes one of the sons of Annas as a "great hoarder up of money,” adding that he bought friends with great presents so as to gain influence for himself and, "...he also had servants who were very wicked, who...took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants, without any one being able to prohibit them; so that [some of the] priests...died for want of food’
The Talmud records the curse which a distinguished Rabbi of Jerusalem (Abba Shaul) pronounced upon the High Priestly families after their servants "beat the people with sticks." Given this deplorable state of affairs in what was supposed to be a place of prayer, we can understand why the authorities only challenged the purging of the Temple without seeming to take much action. The unpopularity of the whole shady business, if not their consciences, probably prevented them from doing any actual violence. We can also understand why there seemed to be no resistance by the people towards Jesus' angry actions.
When Jesus came into the Temple courts He already knew what He’d find - and knew of the greed which was at the root of what was taking place there. His anger was directed towards those who made a exorbitant profit from Jewish pilgrims who wished to offer sacrifice and worship to God.
This ought to make some folks uncomfortable when they consider some of what is done in our day, don't you think? He calls those doing such things "thieves. Such a set up also restricted the Gentiles from finding a place where they could serve God through the simplicity of prayer. Mark 11:17 records Jesus' words that the Temple was supposed to be a place of prayer ‘for all the nations.’ The Court of the Gentiles, where money changers were located, was the closest they could come in their approach to the presence of God.
I don’t believe Jesus would have argued at that time with the purchasing of sacrificial animals and offerings in the service of God. He was angry with how it was being done. Partly, I think, because it lined the pockets of the aristocracy at the expense of true Jewish worshippers, and also because the whole shady business prevented others from worshipping God in the way they were able to do at the time.
What does this tell us about priorities, about how the Lord feels about those less fortunate, and about how those in leadership should behave? Lots to ponder in just a few short verses!
God, we ask forgiveness for times we considered our own needs at the expense of someone less fortunate. Help us make room for all people who seek to worship you in spirit and in truth, and to remember what is true, just, right and eternal. May we not be guilty of valuing offerings over people, profit over worship, large buildings over genuine worship. Amen