What would you say is the most important building in The United States of America? What building symbolizes America for you? Some people might say: the White House. Now suppose you knew that the White House was soon to be attacked by terrorists or destroyed in a natural disaster. And suppose further that you knew this was going to happen as a result of God’s judgment on America for our wickedness. What might you do to warn Americans ahead of time so that they might repent? You may say: such a situation is hard for me to imagine. But in order to understand the story about Jesus we are going to read today, we must imagine just such a situation.
The most important building in Israel in the time of Jesus was the Temple. It represented Israel’s religious and national life. But the Temple system had become corrupt and Jesus predicted its destruction, which actually took place in AD 70. Furthermore, Jesus warned his fellow Jews, in a cryptic way, of the coming destruction of the Temple and urged their repentance by his symbolic act of cleansing the Temple the day after his triumphal Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem.
Let’s look into Mark 11:12-19 and see exactly what Jesus did and why. . . .
12The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:
“ ‘My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations’?
But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19When evening came, they went out of the city.
I want us to examine together the various reasons why Jesus cleansed the Temple, layer by layer. First of all, I think exploitation moved Jesus to turn the tables in the temple. I think Jesus was angry at the exploitation of the Jewish pilgrims gathered at the temple for the upcoming feast of Passover.
William Barclay writes, “The Temple authorities were treating them [the pilgrims] 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.”
What do I mean by exploitation? Perhaps a simpler phrase, one that my boys used to use when they were young, is “rip-off.” When Jamie or Jon used to get a bad trade in Pokemon cards they would say it was a rip-off. And that is what the temple authorities were doing to the Jewish pilgrims. They were ripping them off.
How? Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of one half shekel a year; that was the equivalent of two days wages. This tax had to be paid in shekels of the sanctuary. It was paid at Passover time. Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem for the Passover with all kinds of currency. When they went to have their money changed they had to pay a fee, and should their coin exceed the tax, they had to pay another fee before they got their change. Those fees together amounted to about a half a day’s wage, which for most people was a great deal of money. The money changers did big business during Passover, getting rich off the inflated exchange rates at the expense of the pilgrims.
As for sacrificial animals, doves could be bought cheaply enough outside the temple. However, the temple inspectors would be sure to find something wrong with them, and so worshipers were advised to buy their sacrificial animals at the temple stalls. But at the temple a dove could cost as much as 25 times the price outside the temple. This whole business of buying and selling belonged to the family of Annas who had been High Priest. This same Annas was the first man to try Jesus after his arrest. It was the fact that poor, humble pilgrims were being ripped off which moved Jesus to anger. And it may have been Jesus’ action in the temple that led Annas to have Jesus arrested.
This incident tells us a lot about the spirit of Jesus. Let me quote from the end of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume history of the expansion of Christianity. Referring to Jesus he says,
No life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men as that of Christ. . . . It has protected tens of millions from exploitation by their fellows, and it has been the most fruitful source of movements to lessen the horrors of war and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and peace.
This is the influence of Jesus through his followers in society. Don’t underestimate the power and the influence that even a small minority can exert in the community.
Here Jesus was just one man going up against an entirely corrupt system, but he won in the end. Oh yes, they put him to death. But then he rose again from the dead, and once that event took place no one could shut up his followers again. Peter and John were arrested after the resurrection and brought to trial before the same Annas who owned the temple trade and who tried Jesus. When Annas and the other officials commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, Peter and John replied: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20) Yes indeed, Jesus lit the fire of a revolution that has not burned out for 2000 years.
The second thing which I think moved Jesus to turn the tables in the temple was the desecration of the temple that he saw taking place. As William Barclay put it, “Men had lost the sense of the presence of God in the house of God. By commercialising the sacred they were violating it.”
Jesus quoted two Old Testament passages, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 when he said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.” What Jesus was saying was that the chief officials of the temple had taken a place that was supposed to be set aside for prayer and turned it into a place of business, and a crooked business at that.
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 places. In the midst of the rocks were caves where outlaws lay in wait. These places were referred to as the dens of robbers. So Jesus was saying in effect, “There are worse robbers in the temple courts than ever there are in the caves of the Jericho road.” (William Barclay)
How do we corrupt the worship of God today? We corrupt the worship of God whenever we turn the church into a purely financial or social function. We also corrupt the worship of God whenever we focus more on our own comfort rather than true worship. Calvin Miller has said,
The church knows it must not violate this world’s comfort standards and expect to have attendees. See our fabrics, settle into our cushions, and feel our conditioned air: Even in church we want it easy. Like movie houses, we will pad our seats, glitz our lighting, modulate our reverbs, and say, “Come to Christ and go on our ski retreat ...” Our huge temples of evangelical success may only be, as Vance Havner once said, million dollar launching pads that send up firecrackers. (Moody Monthly [Jan. l990]. Christianity Today, Vol. 34, no. 9)
Now there is nothing wrong with cushioned seats, air-conditioning and ski trips. But when these things take priority over proper worship, as the buying and selling in the temple took the place of prayer, then we are in trouble.
Another way we corrupt the worship of God today is whenever we get away from the Bible as guide for worship. When he was 48 years old, Johann Sebastian Bach acquired a copy of Luther’s three-volume translation of the Bible. He pored over it as if it were a long-lost treasure. Near 1 Chronicles 25 (a listing of Davidic musicians) he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” At 2 Chronicles 5:13, which speaks of temple musicians praising God, he noted, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” As one scholar put it, Bach the musician was indeed “a Christian who lived with the Bible.” (Mark Galli, former editor of Christian History, now managing editor of Christianity Today; source: 131 Christians You Should Know [Broadman & Holman])
Now this doesn’t mean that we have to do church music like Bach did it 250 years ago. It does mean we need to get back to the Bible as our guide to worship just as Bach did. Maybe then we won’t be desecrating the temple of God in our worship.
All of these reasons for Jesus turning the tables are summarized by saying that Jesus was moved to take this action because the Jews demonstrated profession of faith without practice of faith. That is the essential message of the enacted parable of the fig tree.
Mark tells us that when Jesus and his disciples were on their way from Bethany to the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry. Seeing a fig tree in leaf, he went to it to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
This was not a case of Jesus cursing something because it did not comply with his personal whim at that moment. I believe that Jesus was enacting a parable by this action. The fig tree is traditionally symbolic of Israel. And the fig tree, by its green leaves, was professing that it ought to have fruit, but it did not have that fruit. And I think Jesus was saying by his cursing of the fig tree, and by his subsequent action in the Temple: cursed is everyone who professes to have faith in the Lord but who produces no fruit, no practice, in keeping with that faith.
There are many people in the world who talk a good talk about religion but not all of them walk the walk. Things are not always as they appear to be with religious people.
I am reminded of the story of the cowboy who was riding along and came upon an Indian lying flat on the ground with his ear pressed to the earth. The Indian said, “Wait. Wagon. Two miles off. Drawn by two horses. One black. The other grey. Four people on board: man in a red flannel shirt, his wife, and two kids.”
The cowboy was very impressed. He said, “It’s amazing you can tell all that just by listening to the earth.”
The Indian said, “No. They ran over me thirty minutes ago. Go after them!” (Bruce Thielemann, “Because,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 105)
Things are not always as they appear to be! Some people appear to be very religious; they talk a good talk, but underneath there is no walk to match their talk. That’s the way it was with some of the Jews of Jesus’ time, and it made him mad enough to turn over the tables in the temple.
The question is: What is our response to Jesus? The chief priests and teachers of the law saw what Jesus did in the temple and they began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him. They feared what he was going to do to their business; they feared what he was going to do to their power; they feared what he was going to do to their religion. The question is: will we too look for a way to kill him, to remove him from our life, like the chief priests and teachers of the law?
Or are we amazed at his teaching like the crowd was? Even to be amazed at Jesus’ teaching is not enough. He demands a total surrender of our life to him. We must surrender our life to him and accept his forgiveness for sin bought by his perfect life and his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Then we must let him come into our life, control our life, and lead us in obedience to himself.
We need to remember that after Palm Sunday, Jesus went into the temple to clean house. He was like a hurricane, storming through the religious establishment of his day. He was telling people, by this symbolic action of cleansing the Temple, that the Temple system was not only corrupt, but also redundant. He was giving people notice that the Temple was going to be replaced. There would no longer be a need for a place of animal sacrifice, for all those animal sacrifices were about to be replaced with the sacrifice of his own body.
As a result of this symbolic action, some wanted to kill him, others were simply amazed. But Jesus wants something more of us in response. I think he wants us to pray in the spirit of George MacDonald who once wrote:
Lord, in thy Spirit’s hurricane, I Pray,
Strip my soul naked—dress it then thy way.
(Diary of an Old Soul)