Jesus and the Moneychangers

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, 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. - Matthew 21:12-13

I imagine most Christians are familiar with the biblical accounts of Jesus' reaction to the presence of moneychangers and livestock sellers in the courts of the Temple. How well do you understand the events? What was it that set Jesus to overturning tables and using a whip He fashioned on the spot to drive the offenders and their animals from the Temple? Doesn't such violent behavior seem at least a little incongruous on the part of One who is sometimes called the Prince of Peace?

Why were the moneychangers in the Temple and what about their presence so upset Jesus?

It was the season of Passover and Jews from all over Israel and throughout the Diaspora were converging on Jerusalem, to offer sacrifices in the Temple. On the 15th of Adar, a month before Passover, moneychangers would have opened for business in every town in Israel, except for Jerusalem. They must have done a brisk business, for every male Jew and proselyte in the country, except for slaves and those who had not yet attained the age of accountability, were required to pay the annual Temple tax of half a shekel.

Israel, or Palestine as the Romans called it, was a conquered nation occupied by a foreign power. The land was crossed by major trade routes with terminals at her seaports. As a consequence of foreign presence and trade, the coinage of many nations was commonly used in Palestine. None of the foreign coins could be used to pay the Temple tribute, which was required to be paid using either the half-shekel of the Sanctuary or the common Galilean shekel, which had the equivalent value.

After operating for ten days in the country towns, the money changers shut down their stalls and headed for Jerusalem, where business was brisk indeed, as foreign travelers exchanged for coinage acceptable in the Temple. This must have been especially lucrative, for the money men levied a surcharge not only for supplying half-shekels, but also for any change due the traveler. The surcharge they collected for changing money was fixed by statute at either one maah or one-half maah (accounts vary) for every half-shekel changed. Historians don't agree on the value of a maah, but it seems to have been something between a third and a sixth of a denar. Given that a half-shekel was the equivalent of two denars, it seems the moneychangers collected something in the neighborhood of 8-16% for every half-shekel they exchanged. Their profits must have been enormous.

It isn't difficult to imagine the scene that greeted Jesus' eyes when He entered the Temple. Scattered around the various porches and courtyards of the Temple would have been the tables of the moneychangers. Likely, there were a number of customers gathered around each table, waiting their turn as the 'banker' weighed out coins and calculated their true value after deducting for weight loss. As often as not, I imagine, the client would not agree with the moneychanger's calculations and there would have been a cacophony of angry arguing, disputing and bargaining.

Money changing was not the only business being conducted within the Temple compound. The priests and Levites had managed to gain control of a major segment of the goods-for-sacrifice trade, and folks who came to offer up sacrifices could usually buy whatever they needed right in the Temple courts. The sinner or celebrant would go to a priest or Levite and make his needs known, after which he would tender the price that was fixed by the Temple. In exchange, he would be given a receipt that could be exchanged for the appropriate sacrificial goods. Of course, one was free to bring his own sacrificial animal, but then he would have to have it inspected and certified as acceptable before it could be offered up. A fee was charged for this service, of course, and it is easy to imagine that even shabby creatures could be certified –for a price.

Certainly the money trade and its attendant squabbling would have been unacceptable to Jesus, as one would imagine it would be to church-goers today. Can you imagine your own reaction, were you to walk into your own church and have your nostrils assailed by the 'aroma' of livestock and the output of their various alimentary processes, even as your eyes took in the sight of birds and various four-footed creatures being offered for sale in the lobby?

As though these desecrations were not enough, the resident leaders of the priesthood, and especially those belonging to the family of the High Priest, were getting rich, it would seem, from the peripheral businesses operating within the Temple enclosure, in what Rabbinic writers referred to as the “Bazaars of the sons of Annas.”

Why didn't anyone try to stop Jesus when He cleansed the Temple?

To begin with, the bazaars were not at all popular with the populace, due to their being unrighteous and to the greed of their owners. In 67 AD, public indignation brought an end to their operation. But before public outrage swept away the market operated by Temple officials, Jesus acted by overturning the moneychangers' tables and driving out the livestock

The nation of Israel was established as a theocracy with God as the ruling Power and priests as His agents. At the center of this theocracy was the Temple in Jerusalem. Here and only here could Jews offer sacrifices to atone for their sins. It was in the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the Temple, where God's Glory descended. It was not built to be either the site of a livestock auction or a place for chiselers to make a quick buck. How could Jesus, both God and Man, not be offended?

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