Usually on Palm Sunday I preach on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. One drawback to that plan, however, is that between Palm Sunday and Easter we miss all the important things that happened in the last week of the life of Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection. So today I want to focus on an event that actually took place on Monday of what we call Holy Week—the cleansing of the Temple.
Most of us are familiar with this story of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple. But the even raises the question: What moved Jesus to do this? Let’s look into Mark 11:12-19 and see if we can find out the answer. Listen for God’s word to you….
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples[a] went out of the city.
I see four things here that moved Jesus to turn the tables in the Temple. First, there was exploitation. I think Jesus was angry over the exploitation of the Jewish pilgrims gathered at the Temple for the 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 uner the cloak of religion.
What do I mean by exploitation? Perhap a simpler phrase, one that my boys used to use when they were small, is “rip-off”. When James 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, this is what 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 the disciples 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 a fire of revolution that has not burned out for two thousand years.
The second thing that 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 commercializing the sacred they were violating it.”
Jesus quoted two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, 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 that Jesus had just walked was notorious for 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? Maybe we don’t do it by making the church a place for commerce. But I think that any time we get away from the Scriptures as our guide for worship we lose touch with our essential foundation for worship.
When he was 48 years old, Johann Sebastian Bach acquired a copy of Martin 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.”
Now, I don’t think this means that we have to do church music like Back did it 250 years ago. But I think we would be wise to return to the Bible as our guide to worship as Bach did.
A third thing that drove Jesus to turn over the tables in the Temple was, I think, the exclusivity of the Jewish religious establishment. You see, this whole incident of money changing and selling animals took place in the Court of the Gentiles in the Jewish Temple. 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 (a non-Jew) passed that point, the penalty was death. So this was the only place in the Jewish Temple where a Gentile could worship and pray to Yahweh, but it was being totally commercialized and secularized. That is why Jesus recalled the Jewish leaders to Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” What Jesus was saying was that the Lord wants all people to worship him, not just Jews, and you Jewish leaders are being too exclusive by pushing my Gentile children right out of your temple with all your money-changing and selling of animals.
And don’t we do the same thing today when we make it difficult for outsiders to come into our church and worship? We make it difficult for them to join in our worship when we don’t warmly welcome them. We make it difficult for them to join in our worship when we worship in ways that are foreign to them and don’t explain what we are doing.
Fourth, I think Jesus was moved to turn over the tables in the Temple because his fellow Jews were demonstrating 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. You see, 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.
It’s like the story of the cowboy who was riding along and came upon a Native American lying flat on the ground with his ear pressed to the earth. The Native American said, “Wait. Wagon. Two miles off. Drawn by two horses. One black. The other gray. 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 Native American said, “No. They ran over me thirty minutes ago. Go after them!”
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 Jewish people 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, because they feared him. They feared what Jesus was going to do to their business; they feared what Jesus was going to do to their power base; they feared what Jesus was going to do to their religion. The question is: will we too look for a way to kill Jesus, 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. Jesus invites us to make a total surrender of our life to him. Jesus invites us to surrender our life to him and accept his forgiveness for sin bought by his perfect life, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. Jesus invites us to 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 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.