Matthew 21:12-14

THE SCENE IN THE TEMPLE

Matt. 21:12-14

And Jesus entered into the precincts of the Temple of God, and cast out all who were selling and buying in the Temple precincts, and overturned the tables of the money-changers, and of those who were selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it `a robbers’ cave.'”

And the blind and the lame came to him in the Temple and he healed them.

If the entry into Jerusalem had been defiance, here is defiance added to defiance. To see this scene unfolding before our eyes we need to visualize the picture of the Temple.

There are in the New Testament two words which are translated Temple, and rightly so, but there is a clear distinction between them. The Temple itself is called the naos (GSN3485). It was a comparatively small building, and contained the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies into which only the High Priest might enter, and he only on the great Day of Atonement. But the naos (GSN3485) itself was surrounded by a vast space which was occupied by successive and ascending courtyards. First there was the Court of the Gentiles, into which anyone might come, and beyond which it was death for a Gentile to penetrate. Then there came the Court of the Women, entered by the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, into which any Israelite might come. Next there came the Court of the Israelites, entered by the gate called Nicanor’s Gate, a great gate of Corinthian bronze which needed twenty men to open and shut it. It was in this court that the people assembled for the Temple services.
Lastly there came the Court Of the Priests, into which only the priests might enter; in it there stood the great altar of the burnt-offering, the altar of the incense, the seven-branched lamp-stand, the table of the shewbread, and the great brazen laver; and at the back of it there stood the naos (GSN3485) itself. This whole area, including all the courts, is also in the Revised Standard Version called the Temple; the Greek is hieron (GSN2411). It is better to keep a distinction between the two words; and to retain the word Temple for the Temple proper, that is the naos (GSN3485), and to use the term the Temple Precincts, for the whole area, that is the word hieron (GSN2411).

The scene of this incident was the Court of the Gentiles into which anyone might come. It was always crowded and busy; but at Passover, with pilgrims there from all over the world, it was thronged to capacity. There would, even at any time, be many Gentiles there, for the Temple at Jerusalem was famous throughout the world, so that even the Roman writers described it as one of the world’s most amazing buildings.

In this Court of the Gentiles two kinds of trading were going on. There was the business of money-changing. Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of one half-shekel, and that tax had to be paid near to the Passover time. A month before, booths were set up in all the towns and villages, and the money could be paid there, but after a certain date it could be paid only in the Temple itself; and it would be there that the vast majority of pilgrim Jews from other lands paid it. This tax had to be paid in certain currency, although for general purposes all kinds of currencies were equally valid in Palestine. It must not be paid in ingots of silver, but in stamped currency; it must not be paid in coins of inferior alloy or coins which had been clipped, but in coins of high-grade silver. It could be paid in shekels of the sanctuary, in Galilaean half-shekels, and especially in Tyrian currency which was of a very high standard.

The function of the money-changers was to change unsuitable currency into the correct currency. That seems on the face of it to be an entirely necessary function; but the trouble was that these money-changers charged the equivalent of 1p for changing the currency at all; and, if the coin was of greater value than a half-shekel, they charged another lp for giving back the surplus change. That is to say, many a pilgrim had not only to pay his half-shekel–which was about 7 pence in value–but another 2 pence also in changing dues; and this has to be evaluated against a background where a working man’s wage was about 3 pence a day.

This surplus charge was called the qolbon (compare kollubistes, GSN2855). It did not by any means all go into the money-changer’s pockets; some of it was classed as freewill offerings; some of it went to the repair of the roads; some of it went to purchase the gold plates with which it was planned entirely to cover the Temple proper; and some of it found its way into the Temple treasury. The whole matter was not necessarily an abuse; but the trouble was that it lent itself to abuse. It lent itself to the exploitation of the pilgrims who had come to worship, and there is no doubt that the Temple money-changers made large profits out of it.

The selling of doves was worse. For most visits to the Temple some kind of offering was essential. Doves, for instance, were necessary when a woman came for purification after childbirth, or when a leper came to have his cure attested and certified (Lev.12:8; Lev.14:22; Lev.15:14; Lev.15:29). It was easy enough to buy animals for sacrifice outside the Temple; but any animal offered in sacrifice must be without blemish. There were official inspectors of the animals, and it was to all intents and purposes certain that they would reject an animal bought outside and would direct the worshipper to the Temple stalls and booths.

No great harm would have been done if the prices had been the same inside and outside the Temple, but a pair of doves could cost as little as 4 pence outside the Temple and as much as 75 pence inside the Temple. This was an old abuse. A certain Rabbi, Simon ben Gamaliel, was remembered with gratitude because “he had caused doves to be sold for sliver coins instead of gold.” Clearly he had attacked this abuse. Further, these stalls where the victims were sold were called the Bazaars of Annas, and were the private property of the family of the High Priest of that name.

Here, again, there was no necessary abuse. There must have been many honest and sympathetic traders. But abuse readily and easily crept in. Burkitt can say that “the Temple had become a meeting place of scamps,” the worst kind of commercial monopoly and vested interest. Sir George Adam Smith can write: “In those days every priest must have been a trader.” There was every danger of shameless exploitation of poor and humble pilgrims–and it was that exploitation which raised the wrath of Jesus.

THE WRATH AND THE LOVE

Matt. 21:12-14 (continued)

There is hardly anywhere in the gospel story where we need to make a more deliberate and more conscious effort to be fair than in this passage. It is easy to use it as a basis for a complete condemnation of the whole Temple worship. There are two things to be said.

There were many traders and hucksters in the Temple Court, but there were also many whose hearts were set on God. As Aristotle said long ago, a man and an institution must be judged at their best, and not at their worst.

The other thing to be said is simply this–let the man and the Church without sin cast the first stone. The traders were not all exploiters, and even those who seized the opportunity of making a quick profit were not all simply money-grabbers. The great Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams has a comment on the too common Christian treatment of this passage: “When Jesus overturned the money-changers and ejected the sellers of doves from the Temple, he did a service to Judaism. . . . But were the money-changers and the dove-sellers the only people who visited the Temple? And was everyone who bought or sold a dove a mere formalist? Last Easter I was in Jerusalem, and along the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I saw the stalls of the vendors of sacred relics, of painted beads and inscribed ribbons, of coloured candles, gilded crucifixes, and bottles of Jordan water. There these Christians babbled and swayed and bargained, a crowd of buyers and sellers in front of the Church sacred to the memory of Jesus.
Would, I thought, that Jesus were come again to overthrow these false servants of his, even as he overthrew his false brothers in Israel long ago.”

This incident shows us certain things about Jesus.

(i) It shows us one of the fiercest manifestations of his anger directed against those who exploited their fellow-men, and especially against those who exploited them in the name of religion. It was Jeremiah who had said that men made the Temple a den of thieves (Jer.7:11). Jesus could not bear to see simple people exploited for profit.

Too often the Church has been silent in such a situation; it has a duty to protect those who in a highly competitive economic situation cannot protect themselves.

(ii) It shows us his anger was specially directed against those who made it impossible for simple people to worship in the House of God. It was Isaiah who said that God’s House was a House of Prayer for all peoples (Isa.56:7). The Court of the Gentiles was, in fact, the only part of the Temple into which Gentiles might come. It is not to be thought that every Gentile came to sight-see. Some, at least, must have come with haunting longings in their souls to worship and to pray. But in that uproar of buying and selling and bargaining and auctioneering prayer was impossible. Those who sought God’s presence were being debarred from it by the very people of God’s House.

God will never hold guiltless those who make it impossible for others to worship him. It can happen yet. A spirit of bitterness, a spirit of argument, a spirit of strife can get into a Church, which makes worship impossible. Men and office-bearers can become so concerned with their rights and their wrongs, their dignities and their prestiges, their practice and their procedure, that in the end no one can worship God in the atmosphere which is created. Even ministers of God can be more concerned with imposing their ways of doing things on a congregation than with preaching the gospel, and the end is a service with an atmosphere which makes true worship impossible. The worship of God and the disputes of men can never go together. Let us remember the wrath of Jesus at those who blocked the approach to God for their fellow-men.

(iii) There remains one thing to note. Our passage ends with Jesus healing the blind and the lame in the Temple Court. They were still there; Jesus did not clear everyone out. Only those with guilty consciences fled before the eyes of his wrath. Those who needed him stayed.

Need is never sent empty away by Jesus Christ. Jesus’ anger was never merely negative; it never stopped with the attack on that which was wrong; it always went on to the positive helping of those who were in need. In the truly great man anger and love go hand in hand. There is anger at those who exploit the simple and bar the seeker; but there is love for those whose need is great. The destructive force of anger must always go hand in hand with the healing power of love.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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