Mark 11:15-19


Mk. 11:15-19

They came into Jerusalem, and when Jesus had come into the sacred precincts, he began to cast out those who sold and bought in the sacred place, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves, and he would not allow that anyone should carry their gear through the sacred precincts. The burden of his teaching and speaking was, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a brigands’ cave?” The chief priests and the experts in the law heard him, and they sought a way to destroy him, for they were afraid of him, for the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.

And when evening came he went out of the city.

We will visualize this far better if we have in our mind’s eye a picture of the lay-out of the Temple precincts. There are two closely connected words used in the New Testament. The first is hieron (GSN2411), which means the sacred place. This included the whole temple area. The temple area covered the top of Mount Zion and was about thirty acres in extent. It was surrounded by great walls which varied on each side, 1,300 to 1,000 feet in length. There was a wide outer space called the Court of the Gentiles. Into it anyone, Jew or Gentile, might come. At the inner edge of the Court of the Gentiles was a low wall with tablets set into it which said that if a Gentile passed that point the penalty was death. The next court was called the Court of the Women. It was so called because unless women had come actually to offer sacrifice they might not proceed farther. Next was the Court of the Israelites. In it the congregation gathered on great occasions, and from it the offerings were handed by the worshippers to the priests. The inmost court was the Court of the Priests.

The other important word is naos (GSN3485), which means the Temple proper, and it was in the Court of the Priests that the Temple stood. The whole area, including all the different Courts, was the sacred precincts (hieron, GSN2411)). The special building within the Court of the Priests was the Temple (naos, GSN3485).

This incident took place in the Court of the Gentiles. Bit by bit the Court of the Gentiles had become almost entirely secularised. It had been meant to be a place of prayer and preparation, but there was in the time of Jesus a commercialised atmosphere of buying and selling which made prayer and meditation impossible. What made it worse was that the business which went on there was sheer exploitation of the pilgrims.

Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of one half shekel a year. That was a sum of 6p. It does not seem much but it has to be evaluated against the fact that the standard day’s wage for a working man was 3p. That tax had to be paid in one particular kind of coinage. For ordinary purposes Greek, Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Tyrian coinages were an equally valid. But this tax had to be paid in shekels of the sanctuary. It was paid at the Passover time. Jews came from an over the world to the Passover and with all kinds of currencies. When they went to have their money changed they had to pay a fee of lp., and should their coin exceed the tax, they had to pay another lp. before they got their change. Most pilgrims had to pay this extra 2p. before they could pay their tax. We must remember that that was half a day’s wage, which for most men was a great deal of money.

As for the sellers of doves–doves entered largely into the sacrificial system (Lev.12:8, Lev.14:22, Lev.15:14). A sacrificial victim had to be without blemish. Doves could be bought cheaply enough outside, but the temple inspectors would be sure to find something wrong with them, and worshippers were advised to buy them at the temple stalls. Outside doves cost as little as 3p a pair, inside they cost as much as 75p. Again it was sheer imposition, and what made matters worse was that this business of buying and selling belonged to the family of Annas who had been High Priest.

The Jews themselves were well aware of this abuse. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Simon ben Gamaliel, on hearing that a pair of doves inside the temple cost a gold piece, insisted that the price be reduced to a silver piece. It was the fact that poor, humble pilgrims were being swindled which moved Jesus to wrath. Lagrange, the great scholar, who knew the East so well, tells us that precisely the same situation still obtains in Mecca. The pilgrim, seeking the divine presence, finds himself in the middle of a noisy uproar, where the one aim of the sellers is to exact as high a price as possible and where the pilgrims argue and defend themselves with equal fierceness.

Jesus used a vivid metaphor to describe the temple court. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its robbers. It was a narrow winding road, passing between rocky defiles. Amidst the rocks were caves where the brigands lay in wait, and Jesus said, “There are worse brigands in the temple courts than ever there are in the caves of the Jericho road.”

Mk. 11:16 has the odd statement that Jesus would not allow anyone to carry his gear through the temple court. In point of fact the temple court provided a short cut from the eastern part of the city to the Mount of Olives. The Mishnah itself lays down, “A man may not enter into the temple mount with his staff or his sandal or his wallet, or with the dust upon his feet, nor may he make of it a short by-path.” Jesus was reminding the Jews of their own laws. In his time the Jews thought so little of the sanctity of the outer court of the temple that they used it as a thoroughfare on their business errands. It was to their own laws that Jesus directed their attention, and it was their own prophets that he quoted to them. (Isa.56:7 and Jer.7:11.)

What moved Jesus to such wrath?

(i) He was angry at the exploitation of the pilgrims. The Temple authorities were treating them not as worshippers, not even as human beings, but as things to be exploited for their own ends. Man’s exploitation of man always provokes the wrath of God, and doubly so when it is made under the cloak of religion.

(ii) He was angry at the desecration of God’s holy place. Men had lost the sense of the presence of God in the house of God. By commercialising the sacred they were violating it.

(iii) Is it possible that Jesus had an even deeper anger? He quoted Isa.56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Yet in that very same house there was a wall beyond which to pass was for the Gentile death. It may well be that Jesus was moved to anger by the exclusiveness of Jewish worship and that he wished to remind them that God loved, not the Jews, but the world.


Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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