Holy Week: Monday (The “cleansing of the Temple”)

by Richard on March 29, 2010

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
Mark 11:15-16 (New International Version)

The 3 synoptic gospels tell us that after Jesus had made his grand entrance into Jerusalem, he went to the temple and chased out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. It’s a story that many Christians are fond of. Here is none of that wimpy turn-the-other-cheek guff. This is a kick ass Jesus who knows how to sort out the bad guys. Time and again, this incident has been used by Christians to justify their participation in violence. Faced with the exploitation of the temple courtyards, Jesus forgets the idealistic nonsense and gives them a taste of the only language they’ll understand.



First, forget any assumption that Jesus is objecting to commerce in the temple. This was essential for two reasons. First, the law demanded the sacrifice of unblemished animals. Having animals available for sale ‘on the spot’ made a good deal of sense. How irritating would it be to drag a basket with a couple of doves in it all the way from Galilee to discover when you arrived in Jerusalem that they weren’t up to scratch? Like the animal sellers, the moneychangers provided an essential service, turning Roman money (with its image of the emperor) into something which could be taken into the temple without breaking the Law of God. So these weren’t corrupt practices, but essential to the running of the temple.

What we see when Jesus goes to the temple is not a violent confrontation with evil-doers. Like Palm Sunday, it’s another bit of street theatre — or enacted prophecy, if you’d rather. Jesus is declaring the end of the temple and its sacrifices, not acting decisively to protect its purity. Here he stands in a direct line which runs from the prophets, who were ever suspicious of the temple and its hierarchy. For this reason, the title ‘cleansing of the temple’ is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus isn’t seeking to reform or renew the Temple. In this prophetic act, he’s declaring its end.

To try to use this incident as a justification for Christian involvement in violence is an act of utter desperation. Faced with the overwhelming evidence of the life and teaching of Jesus, the only way such reasoning can be sustained is by giving priority to an existing commitment to pursue violence over the Lordship of Christ. It’s as simple as that. No one can serve two masters, he said. And he meant it.

OK I confess. This is more or less a reblog. So sue me.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }


tortoise 03.30.10 at 9:31 am

You won’t be surprised at my agreement with you that this incident in the Temple is to be seen as first and foremost a prophetic act, and that to take it as a mandate to violence is at best eisegetical, at worst downright blasphemous.


I’m not convinced that the account you offer takes sufficient account of the accompanying remarks of Jesus, recorded in all three synoptics. In telling them that “you have made [this house] a ‘den of robbers’”, he appears to be doing something other than declaring the end of legitimate Temple practice. These words do indeed seem to point towards purity-protection of an ongoing institution, rather than eschatological intervention.


Richard 03.30.10 at 10:41 am

I take your point, but I don’t agree. Firstly, because I believe Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, a tradition that was never big on the legitimacy of the temple.

Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine’s blood;
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight. Isaiah 66

Second, because it seems to me that by going on to prophesy the destruction of the temple, Jesus is making it clear that he is opposing not merely the corruption of the temple, but the temple itself, the whole religious system. The ‘den of robbers’ quote comes from Jeremiah 7, which is concerned with (amongst other things) the oppression of the poor bringing judgement from God. I’ll be returning to this theme tomorrow.


Kim 03.30.10 at 11:07 am

It is just possible to take tortoise’s point with the synoptic accounts, though perhaps even more than the cleansing of the temple, the forgiveness of sins, freely offered by Jesus, suggests the ultimate deposition of the entire sacrificial system. However in John’s gospel, it is quite clear that Jesus is the telos of the temple, in the double significance of the word: Christ himself is the new temple (John 2:21).


Earl 03.30.10 at 2:56 pm

There was no need for the Temple environs to be degraded in the name of facilitating the provision of acceptable coinage or fit animals for sacrifice. Areas adjacent to and beyond the Temple were more than adequate for such needs. However it is unlikely such practices were run independent of the Temple. For such concessions to find a place within the Temple precincts would have facilitated control and oversight of operations and finances. Jesus condemned this calculated commercialization that resulted in an abuse of worship and those who came to worship. Here the Rustic Rabbi from Galilee is using blunt confrontation to drive a stake through the heart of excuses for such abuse. Here he is not speaking to the end of the Temple.

I am not sure that many who follow Christ are all that enamored with the story of Jesus cleaning out the Temple. To some degree it is due to preference for a “wimped Christology.” It is legitimate for objection to be raised when conflict to easily leads to “the final argument of kings.” Those who refuse pacifism as the only legitimate response to evil may with justification look to this passage as support for their position. In choosing between extremes it is best to choose to do good even if it means going beyond mere words in confronting and overturning unrestrained evil. At the Judgment all will be held to account for their actions. The Judge of all the Earth will do right. Before Him and Him alone all will give explanation. If Matt. 25 is any indication, excuses for failure to act will not be well received.


Kim 03.30.10 at 3:49 pm

Those who refuse pacifism as the only legitimate response to evil may with justification look to this passage as support for their position.

That shoud read “self-justification”.


Earl 03.30.10 at 4:10 pm

“That should read ’self-justification’.” What I have written I have written. Make of it what you will. When the time comes we will all give an account of our actions. Long ago I determined not to have to apologize for doing nothing.


Kim 03.30.10 at 4:36 pm

Look, Earl, Jesus was engaging in a classic symbolic act of prophetic criticism. In any case, to jump from this event to a justification of the mass murder of war beggars both logic and belief. Even Niebuhr, with his so-called Christian realism, said that such a move is illegitimate, that the ministry of Jesus was uncompromisingly pacifist. If our Lord had wanted to take the violence option he would have become a Zealot - and he would have done a fair amount of revision on the Sermon on the Mount.

Now this exegetical irresponsibility is pernicious enough, but to go on to suggest that pacifists are do-nothings - which, for starters, leaves the entire pre-Constantinian church sitting on its ass - is not only cynical, you are bearing false witness. Shame on you.


Earl 03.30.10 at 6:42 pm

The response posted addressed the actions of Jesus at the Temple and rejected the insistence that Christian pacifism is the sole legitimate response to evil. Your objection to that rejection is duly noted. I stand by what I have written.

The gritty reality of life is that unrestrained evil rampages unless and until it is checked. No man would stand and watch while a child was victimized. No man would stand by and watch while a woman was assaulted. Any man would stand up and act to stop such outrage. To do anything less would be beyond excuse. A very wise man once observed that there is a time and a place for everything under the sun. There is a time and a place for affirmations of peace and good cheer. There is a time and a place to also take action to deal with those who live at the broken end of a bottle as well as those in whose hand that broken bottle is a weapon. That is the proof of living faith. It moves beyond mere words to prove itself in that dynamic of action that produces real positive results in the lives of people.


Pam 03.31.10 at 4:16 am

Yawn, another Kim-Earl dialogue. Wake me up when it’s over.


Kim 03.31.10 at 9:01 am

From your incisive comments today it sounds like you could use some sleep.


Pam 03.31.10 at 9:33 am

Caring as always Kim. I am deeply touched by your concern for my health. But then you are a minister, aren’t you?


Richard 03.31.10 at 10:00 am

Is it me, or are folk feeling a bit crotchety this morning?


Pam 04.01.10 at 12:54 am

Nothing a good night’s sleep didn’t cure, Richard. A blessed Easter to you.

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