#BCCSundaySchool2019: “Behold, Thy King Cometh”

 

Matthew 21–23; Mark 11; Luke 19–20; John 12

These passages cover Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. John puts the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Christ’s ministry; the three synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) put it toward the end. It is the inciting incident which leads the Jerusalem elite to seek Jesus’s death for Matthew, Mark, and Luke; as Mark has it, in 11:18 (KJV):

And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.

How should we understand what was happening here?  The first thing to note is that the people doing business at the temple were not necessarily doing wrong, so we cannot read this story as a critique of a self-evident crime; it’s not as though these were people hanging around selling souvenirs in a sacred place.

Notice who they were:

Mark 11:15-17 (KJV): And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.

So we have two groups: moneychangers and dovesellers. These people were in fact facilitating worship at the temple. Jews would not carry Roman money into the temple, because Roman money had the head of the emperor on it, and thus was idolatrous, a violation of the Commandment which prohibits graven images (particularly as the emperor was acclaimed as a deity). Dovesellers were in particular there to serve the poor, as Leviticus makes provision for those who cannot afford larger animals for sacrifice:

Leviticus 5:7 (KJV): But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.

So, what is Jesus angry about here? On the one hand, it’s common to read the cleansing of the temple straightforwardly: these people were, despite their useful function, making a profit off of worship, and should have been driven out. But Jesus’s targets seem to be less these tradesmen and more the entire power structure. Jesus himself offers reason to believe this, as he sits near the temple after its cleansing with his disciples. Note what Mark identifies as the “doctrine” the scribes and priests feared.

Mark, 12:38-40 (KJV): And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts, which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.

 

After this passage Jesus sees the widow who gave “two mites” to the temple, and declares “This poor widow hath cast more in than all they.”

In this sense, we might understand the cleansing of the temple as a prophetic condemnation of Israel’s wickedness; Jesus here sounds much like those Hebrew prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who similarly condemned the corrupting influence of wealth and pride over Israel’s worship, and performed public prophetic displays like Jesus’s here. For instance, in Jeremiah 19 God commands Jeremiah to purchases a clay pot, and gathers together the leaders of Israel.

Jeremiah 19:10-11: Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, and shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again: and they shall bury them in Tophet, till there be no place to bury.

Or Isaiah, who in Isaiah 20 is commanded to roam the streets in the nude to draw the peoples’ attention, and whose book later declares:

Isaiah 58: 3-7: In the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers . . .Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him?

 So we might read Jesus’s actions here as similar to those of the Hebrew prophets: a prophetic act, coupled with prophetic speech, denouncing a system of extortion and wickedness, that like Jeremiah in particular drew the ire of the community’s leadership.

There’s another way to approach the story, though, and that becomes apparent when we pay attention to Jesus’s words. In the synoptics, he utters some variation on this:

Mark 11:17 (KJV): And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Note that Jesus uses a phrase he repeats a lot here: “Is it not written.” That is, he’s quoting scripture.

Isaiah 56:6-7 (KJV): The sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—

 Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.

Jeremiah 7:11 (KJV): Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know,  and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” saith the Lord.

Jesus’s combination of these two passages is interesting. In Jeremiah 7, Jeremiah is commanded to go stand before the temple gates and denounce the priests performing functions within, condemning them for idolatry. Now, it does not appear those priests were actually worshiping other gods: Rather, like most idolators (including us) they were worshiping other gods while claiming to worship the one true god: gods of money and sex and lust and selfishness. This made them (and us) thieves.

But then Jesus invokes Isaiah. Isaiah 56 is one of the grandest passages of scripture. It is a millenarian prophecy, a declaration from God as to what the New Jerusalem he builds will be like. The temple Jesus is cleansing is only a type of the temple declared in that chapter: and look at what it says. All those who hold to God’s covenant, all those who keep his Sabbath (and see this for more on the Sabbath in this context), are welcome in his house—even the foreigners so often excluded.

That’s the temple Jesus sees as he looks at the temple around him, a temple exploited by a wealthy few at the expense of the widow with her mites. And that’s the temple he wants to uncover as he steps into the chamber, ready to clean.

Comments

  1. No one cleanses a temple like Drogon. Or so I’m told.

  2. I might need this one dumbed down for me. I simply don’t understand it. I’m trying to reexplain it to myself and I can’t.

  3. Given how keeping the Sabbath is such a big deal, it makes me want to know if I’m keeping the Sabbath. I don’t want to be in tge position of thinking that I am, only to find out that I’m not. I suspect this attitude results in lots of rules, which really aren’t commandments, but it’s hard not to do that. The risk is too great.

  4. Jared Livesey says:

    If you ask men what rules you should obey, what can you hope for except the rules men think you should obey?

    On the other hand, God, it is written, gives wisdom to all men freely, and does not scold nor find fault with the asker. Why not therefore inquire of God and ask him what he wants you to be doing?

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