The Cleansing of the Temple (19:45-48)

This event is like a stick of dynamite in the relationship between Jesus and the leadership. As if throwing a flame onto oil, Jesus raises the issue of his authority most directly by his act of cleansing the temple. In fact, the leadership clearly sees this as the issue, as 20:1-8 makes clear. Their plotting in verses 47-48 follows the cleansing and shows the action's importance in pushing them to act. In the other Synoptic Gospels, when the trials of Jesus start it is his attitude toward the temple that is the prosecution's launching point.

The custom Jesus attacks is the selling of various items necessary for sacrifice: animals, wine, oil, salt and doves (Jn 2:14; m. Seqalim 1:3; 2:1, 4; Eppstein [1964] notes that some of these practices may have been just recently moved into the temple courts). Money changers also collected Roman and Greek coins and exchanged them for the half-shekel temple tax required by the Torah (Ex 30:11-14). The exchange had a built-in surcharge, a portion of which may have gone to the high priest's family.

Is the cleansing of the temple prophetic or messianic? It must be admitted that little in the event itself has a messianic character. But its literary and temporal juxtaposition to the entry is crucial to an understanding of its character. Jesus has just left a dispute over whether the disciples should call him king—a confession he accepted. Now he is acting on the temple. Though his temple actions are prophetic in character, his acceptance of the earlier acclaim cannot be ignored. The confession is still ringing in his opponents' ears.

Many historical-critical scholars are used to treating events in Jesus' life in isolation from each other, as independent units of tradition. However, in the case of these Jerusalem events of Jesus' last week of ministry, such a separation is historically artificial. The connection between Jesus' entry and his first public act in the temple should not be ignored. The linkage makes Jesus' act one of messianic and prophetic authority. It may well be that Jesus acts here as a leader-prophet, much like Moses.

Now prophets, even those like John the Baptist, could be tolerated. But a prophet who also saw himself as a king had to be stopped, especially if he was going to impose himself on the nation's worship. If the nation had to repent for its actions at the temple, the priests would have to acknowledge their own culpability before God. They could not accept such a challenge to their authority.

Luke's version of this event is very concise. He does not supply many details the other Gospels include, especially the descriptions of how physical Jesus' actions were. Rather, Luke goes right to the heart of the event, focusing on Jesus' rebuke with its Old Testament allusions: "It is written," he says, " `My house will be a house of prayer,' but you have made it `a den of robbers.' " The quote combines Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. Isaiah expresses the hope that the temple will be a house for all the nations, while Jeremiah condemns the Israelites' hypocrisy and injustice as they worship at the temple. (Interestingly, here Luke does not develop the point about Gentiles, even though he loves the theme.) The Jeremiah speech is one of that prophet's most scathing. It calls the Jewish people "robbers," bandits just like the thieves of Luke 10:30.

It may well be, given Jesus' lament and the leadership's protest which precede this event, that Jesus' rebuke for hypocrisy is not limited to commercial practices in the temple but extends to the nation's refusal to worship God and recognize the day of visitation. Either way, Jesus is the issue, and the subject is properly honoring God. Israel thinks God is honored at the temple. Jesus claims the exact opposite. The nation is divided; choices are required. They cannot both represent God's will. The warning also illustrates the danger of combining religiosity and commercialism at the expense of true worship—a danger to which we also must be sensitive today.

The leaders begin trying to kill Jesus before he becomes even more dangerous (the Greek means "to destroy"). The plot to get Jesus, originally raised in 6:11 and 11:53-54, is hardening. Something must be done. Jesus is appearing at the temple daily. But because of his popularity the leaders cannot yet act. All the people hung on his words. Believing they have power, the leaders are in fact powerless to act until they get a break. That break will come from within the ranks of Jesus' inner circle.

Nothing has changed between Jesus' declaration that the nation's house is desolate (13:34-35) and his weeping for the nation upon entering the city (19:41). The nation's rejection, like the plot against Jesus, has hardened into resolve—and as sin calcifies it becomes even more dangerous. The "Jesus problem" goes in search of a "final solution." But like the Iron Curtain, this attempt to control the situation through isolation and containment will fail; even death cannot hold God's agent back from doing God's will.

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