John 2

re: Jesus' Sense of Justice (Part 1)

The semantic analysis of NT Wright may be accurate but it does not explain Jesus' anger at the Temple authorities adequately. The exchange of currency in the Temple precincts was abused by the money exchangers who were exploiting the poor. If you had to buy a sacrifice to be right with God and someone set up a system whereby the money you paid for that sacrifice was increased in the exchange to the Temple currency, then that would be an injustice especially if you were poor to begin with. Your reading of the reason why Jesus cleansed the Temple misses the point of the passage. He was angry with the injustice that the money exchangers were perpetrating against the people.

I appreciate your polite rejection of my reading--I've bumped into similar objections once or twice, and would enjoy the opportunity to explore it a little further.

The "corrupt moneychangers" exegesis of Jesus' famous "Den of thieves" citation has been a longstanding Protestant reading of the verse, though I imagine there are Catholic strains as well. It was especially popular with the Reformers, who were quite able to project their own condemnation of what they saw as Catholic corruption back onto Jesus in his conflict with a grandiose second-Temple Judaism. Probably, though, it was a very early reading--people have long condemned financial hypocrisy. But the question of right interpretation is an open one, and the duration of a popular interpretation is an inadequate measure of its soundness.

Certainly, however, we can take from the passage the sense that Jesus condemned these sales as inappropriate. The question we're considering is, "Why?" With the long-standing association between money and the corruption of religion, we could conclude that the money-changers were somehow interfering with a purer type of worship. But the Mosaic command that money should change hands, to facilitate tithings for pilgrims, complicates such an interpretation. Moreover, Wright's exegesis of the passage rightly notes that the word which most Christians know as "thieves" is NOT actually "thieves." It is"bandits," the type of criminal which justifies his criminal action by operating on anti-Roman rhetoric; "Robbing the rich to feed the poor" may be a noble sentiment, but it is less noble when the speaker considers himself to be 'the poor.'

If we were to skim Josephus for contemporary examples of the New Testament's "lestai," we would not find footpads and cutpurses; we would find anti-Roman terrorists. Barabbas in one such "bandit." Jesus is not condemning the money-changers for exorbitant usury--he was calling them a "den of Barabbases," murderers, insurrections, brigands robbing the people to establish their own strength in opposition to Rome.

But the biggest problem with the "corrupt money-changers" exegesis is the citation itself. If you read from the passage which Jesus is quoting--Jeremiah 7--you'll find "You have made my house a den of thieves" has no reference to monetary or financial gain. Instead, the passage condemns the general population for using the Temple as a sin shelter. Idolators and sinners of all kinds worship other gods and engage in the worst kinds of pagan rituals, and then conduct their business in the temple to cover it up. The actual verse says "Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes?” (Jeremiah 7.11a). The question is a rhetorical one; the Lord is asking, "Do you really see my house this way, as a place to hide your wickedness?"

Jeremiah 7 contains no mention of financial corruption. Instead, it implores people to turn away from religious hypocrisy, shielded by proper temple ritual, and to turn towards righteous behavior:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these.’

5 “For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, 7 then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.

8 “Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, 10 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’? 11 Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the LORD.

Jesus tosses out the money-changers, calling the temple a den of thieves, and so citing a passage which places the temple authorities at the heart of active rebellion against God, a stronghold against His punishment or judgment. While there is certainly indication that the money-changers represented some kind of corruption, there isn't any indication that the financial transactions thereby undertaken were at the heart of the issue. Given the anti-Roman sentiment fueled by several strains of second-Temple Judaism, and Jesus' framing of his open citation, I tend to lean away from what might be there--a possible condemnation of financial wrongdoing--and towards what is clearly there, which is a prophetic citation against those hiding their true sinful ways under a cloak of piety. Jesus announced the forgiveness of Israel's sins, and pronounced inevitable doom upon Jerusalem if this forgiveness was rejected; the existing Temple-system made it possible for some to deny reality, and promised eventual redemption for those who held true to virulent temple ideology. Jeremiah 7 embodies Christ's message to the core, which is "REPENT! For the true kingdom is here!" Both Jeremiah and Jesus condemned the temple as the stronghold of wrongdoers resisting God's commandments of righteousness, a flimsy umbrella against the fire and brimstone of coming judgment.