The following working translation and notes accompany my podcast Cleansing the Temple.
15Then they went into Jerusalem, and after they entered the temple he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and up-ended those of the dove sellers.
The problem with the money changers was not a matter of economic exploitation, despite popular readings of this scene that paint the issue this way. [Barclay so reads it.–HN] Rather, Jesus’ action in the temple was fundamentally a prophetic one to point the nation in a fresh direction and announce the arrival of a key figure in God’s program. (Bock, p. 319)
Bock certainly has a good point here. There has been a great deal said about this incident in the ministry of Jesus. Much of the time we apply it according to our current situation. But Jesus was probably here continuing to focus on his agenda for Israel as opposed to the plans that others had. Early in my series on the Bible Pacesetter Radio Program and then podcast, I referred to N. T. Wright’s rendering of the phrase “repent and believe the gospel” as “drop your agendas, and trust me for mine.”
Jesus had many debates with the Pharisees, and these debates can often be read in terms of this difference of agenda. I’ll be adding Marcus Borg’s book Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus to those I have consulted in preparation for various of these messages. Borg and Wright often disagree, though they do it very agreeably, but on this point they are in general agreement. Jesus had an agenda of compassion for people; the Pharisees at the time had a focus on holiness attained through separation. Typically we think of the Sadducees as interested in the temple, and the Pharisees primarily interesting in Torah. But that impression is false. The Pharisees were very interested in the temple as the center of the Jewish nation, and the focus of their drive for holiness. They felt that the
Sadducees and the high priestly families were not practicing such holiness as they should.
Jesus cut across both camps by kicking the people out and putting his focus on prayer and the worship; worship was about the people, not so much the place.
16He wouldn’t let anyone carry any container through the temple, 17and he taught them and said,
Has it not been written:
My father’s house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,
But you have made it a den of thieves.
Can the process of worship get in the way of actual worshipers worshiping? I would suggest that it can be so. In the modern church we need to watch out for things that we do that tend to bring worship to a halt in order to so “stuff.” It doesn’t matter so much what it is that we do. If it distracts from people worshiping God then it’s not the right thing.
The temple money changers were needed in order to carry out worship by the laws of the Torah. Jesus acted out the new way, the direct way, for all nations to come to him.
18And the senior priests and the scribes heard it, and they began to search for a way to kill him. For they were afraid of the people, since the crowd was amazed at his teaching.
Fear is not the noblest motive to rely on in the fight against evil; but it is a legitimate motive, and sometimes very efficacious. The power of public opinion is too often discounted. One hope for a better world, rid at least in some measure of the great blights which rest on humanity, is the growth of a public opinion strong enough to say to the forces making for oppression, poverty, and war, “Let my people go.” We can always help to create a situation like that in Jerusalem, where the chief priests “feared him” because a multitude took him seriously. So have all great social advances been made, by changes in the intellectual and spiritual climate. As has been well observed, no one killed the diplodocus and other mammoth beasts which used to trample the earth. The climate changed and they died. This is a task where the impact of every life counts. — IB Exposition on Mark 11:18
We don’t know how much we can accomplish just by speaking up. Too frequently we think we are unimportant, individuals with limited time and audience. But every person who takes action is just one person, and if every “just one person” decides not to act because he or she is not important enough, then nobody acts.
We often focus on the crowd of people who called for the death of Jesus. It has been used by many who blame “the Jews” for the death of Jesus without asking who and how many. But here we find that there is a crowd, also of Jews, who prevent these leaders from acting. We do not know the numbers. There were no polls taken. But what is to say that this crowd was not substantially larger than the one that would later call for death? We certainly have plenty of modern examples of arranged demonstrations.
19And when it was evening, they went out of the city.
Jesus apparently stayed outside the city and only went inside for his work. The entire area would have been crowded as the feast approached.