Day 179: Matthew 21:13

It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it a hideout for thieves!

Having made his grand entrance into Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is cause trouble.  It says that, “Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the stools of those who sold pigeons.”  He then makes this statement in today’s scripture disparaging the Temple and those who have set up shop there.

So what was going on here?  A fit of anger?  A temple tantrum?  Or was this a classic prophetic act in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets?

For example in, in Ezekiel 4 God told the prophet Ezekiel lie on his left side in public for 390 days to warn the people that God was going to allow the city to come under siege for 390 years because of the unfaithfulness of their unfaithfulness.  Then, at the end of that time he was instructed to turn over on his right side for 40 more days.  Every day God told Ezekiel to shake his fist at the city of Jerusalem and prophesy against it.

The prophet Jeremiah performed a number of dramatic prophetic actions to get people’s attention.  In one instance God told Jeremiah to smash a pottery jar in front of the people and tell them that the Lord Almighty had said, “I will break this people and this city, and it will be like this broken clay jar that cannot be put together again” because they had been worshiping false gods.  (Jeremiah 8).

In another instance God told Jeremiah to don an ox yoke and then proclaim that the King of Babylonia had been chosen by God to rule all of Israel. Didn’t exactly make him a popular guy (Jeremiah 27).

And how about the great prophet Isaiah?  God told him to run around naked and barefoot for three years as he proclaimed it to be a sign of what was going to happen to the defeated people of Egypt:  “Young and old, they will walk barefoot and naked, with their buttocks exposed, bringing shame on Egypt.”  (Isaiah 20).

When Jesus caused this ruckus in the temple, I don’t think it was a fit of anger.  In the tradition of the prophets, he performed a dramatic, attention-getting act and then loudly proclaimed God’s word from Isaiah 56:7: My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.”  Jesus then makes this stern accusation, But you are making it a hideout for thieves!”

In Jesus’ time hundreds of thousands of people came from all over the Holy Land and beyond to visit the Temple during the Passover season.  The main function of the Temple was to serve as a place where all of the sacrifices described in the Law of Moses were made.  Most of these were blood sacrifices, and it was much more convenient for the pilgrims to buy sacrificial animals like cattle, goats, sheep, pigeons, etc. in Jerusalem as opposed to bringing them all the way from their own homes.  So, like modern tourists, they needed to exchange their own local currency for the Jewish currency before they could purchase locally grown animals which they would then take to be killed by the Temple priests.  These financial transactions were made possible by entrepreneurs who set up booths in the Temple courtyard.  Passover was a highly profitable time for them, sort of like the economic upturn merchants look forward to each year during Jesus’ annual birthday celebration.

The usefulness of the whole sacrificial system was highly questionable.  Blood sacrifice was an ancient pagan practice, pre-dating the Law of Moses.  For thousands of years the prophets had been proclaiming God’s disdain for animal sacrifices (See Days 18-19):

Samuel the prophet said, “Which does the Lord prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey him than to sacrifice the best sheep to him.”  (I Samuel 22:22).

The prophet Isaiah said, “Jerusalem, your rulers and your people are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Listen to what the Lord is saying to you. Pay attention to what our God is teaching you. He says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals. I am tired of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats. Who asked you to bring me all this when you come to worship me? Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple? It’s useless to bring your offerings. I am disgusted with the smell of the incense you burn. I cannot stand your New Moon Festivals, your Sabbaths, and your religious gatherings; they are all corrupted by your sins. I hate your New Moon Festivals and holy days; they are a burden that I am tired of bearing. When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done—help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.” (Isaiah 1:10-14)

And then there was the prophet Hosea: “That is why I have sent my prophets to you with my message of judgment and destruction. What I want from you is plain and clear: I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.” (Hosea 6:5-6).

Even in the Psalms: “You do not want sacrifices and offerings; you do not ask for animals burned whole on the altar or for sacrifices to take away sins. Instead, you have given me ears to hear you, and so I answered, “Here I am; your instructions for me are in the book of the Law.” (Psalm 40:6-7).

And Jesus himself affirms these scriptures when he says:

I tell you that there is something here greater than the Temple. The Scripture says, “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.”  If you really knew what this means, you would not condemn people who are not guilty, for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (See Day 114).

I don’t think that Jesus’ actions in the Temple were either emotional or random.  I don’t think it was a tantrum.  His first prophetic act was to enter the city on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah.  The second was to cleanse the temple and affirm the prophecy of Isaiah.  Both of these actions caused an uproar.  Like a violent tornado Jesus took Jerusalem by storm.  Jesus’ time on earth was limited. God wanted him to get his message across, make a lasting impression, and go out with a bang.

So what is his next action?  He did somethig that invariably pleased the people and pissed off the religious authorities.  He healed a bunch of blind and crippled people.  Right there in the temple where the moneychangers and pigeon-pushers were.  Just to make sure everyone knew that he had indeed arrived and he wasn’t just fooling around.  He made it clear through those healings that he had God’s power as well as his favor and authority.  Those miraculous healings were a sign to all who were present that God had his back.

What does this scripture say to you?

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2 thoughts on “Day 179: Matthew 21:13

  1. John-Another precedent, the visit of Jeremiah to the first temple, before its destruction, provides still another background for Jesus’ prophetic action. The scene is found in chapter 7 and worth a complete reading.
    It begins, “The Lord sent me to the gate of the Temple where the people went in to worship. The Lord told me to stand there and announce what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel had to say to them. “Change the way you are living and the things you are doing, and I will let you go on living here. Stop believing those deceitful words, ‘We are safe! This is the Lord’s Temple, this is the Lord’s Temple, this is the Lord’s Temple.”
    There follows a powerful flow of words on how far the people have strayed, “Be fair to one another. Stop taking advantage of aliens, orphans, and widows. Stop killing innocent people in this land. Stop worshipping other Gods, for that will destroy you. If you change, I will let you go on living here in the land….”
    Jeremiah continues to pile it on. Think of him saying these things at the entrance to a place of worship today. “You steal, murder, commit adultery, tell lies under oath, offer sacrifices to Baal, and worship gods you had not known before. You do these things I hate, and then you come and stand in my presence, in my own Temple and say, ‘We are safe!” Do you think that my Temple is a hiding place for robbers?….
    He then speaks destruction of the Temple on account of how far the people have strayed, “Go to Shiloh, the first place I chose to be worshiped, and see what I did to it because of the sins of my people Israel. You have committed all these sins, and even though I spoke to you over and over again, you refused to listen. You would not answer when I called you. And so what I did to Shiloh [destroy the place of worship] I will do to this Temple of mine.”
    The rest of chapter 7 continues with the same prophetic preaching.
    I remember learning that Jeremiah of all the figures in the Hebrew Scriptures most closely prefigures the personhood of Jesus. I think I will reread Jeremiah again over the next few weeks. We also have a good video that gives visual support to the radical nature of Jeremiah’s life; maybe we should find it and watch it again. Peace.

  2. Pingback: Cleansing the Temple | Proverbs 31 Wanna-be

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