The Gospel has been building toward a confrontation between Jesus and the leaders in Jerusalem. Now Jesus indirectly confronts the most powerful Jerusalem leaders, who to this point have felt less threatened by him than the more populist Pharisees. Such a move can only foreshadow Jesus' death.
Jesus courageously confronts injustice. First-century Jewish theologians debated various issues, but it was most likely those actions of Jesus which could be interpreted politically that led to his execution (Young 1989:296). Protest actions are common today in the West; in many cases they excite little attention because they provoke little danger. When ancient philosophers like the Cynics criticized the authorities, however, they invited both persecution and general suspicion of itinerant teachers (Liefeld 1967:162). By challenging nationalism and rulers' policy, the biblical prophets had invited retribution even more consistently (despite a frequently observed tradition of "prophetic immunity" in Judah and Israel). Many Christians today are able to avoid persecution in part because some of us live in more tolerant societies and in part because we do little to challenge the sinful practices of our societies.
The money changers probably did not see themselves as taking advantage of the pilgrims. Even in Galilee the varieties of local currency required money changers to convert coinage for use in the temple (and local economy); changing coins was necessary, not an option (see Goodman 1983:57; E. Sanders 1992: 63-65). Further, the temple money changers seem to have made little if any profit (m. Seqalim 1.6-7), though Jerusalem undoubtedly profited from the resultant trade. We have no evidence that the priestly aristocracy made a direct profit (pace Reicke 1974:168).
Because Jesus opposed the buyers as well as the sellers, he probably was not criticizing economic exploitation or high prices (pace Gundry 1982:413). Jesus probably viewed the temple as morally and spiritually impure, as the Qumran sect also believed (compare 1QpHab 9.4-5; CD 5.6-7). Yet Jesus was not simply seeking to renew the temple's holiness (compare m. Berakot 9:5; Mal 3:1-4). He could have symbolized a mere purifying of the temple by pouring out water; overturning tables signified something more ominous (E. Sanders 1985:70).
Jesus defends Gentiles' worship. That the selling occurred in the outer court, beyond which Gentiles could not travel, may have been significant (compare Jos. Ant. 12.145; 15.417). Later reports claim that the front court of the temple was normally to be kept clear as a sacred area (compare m. Berakot 9.5), but the many temporary shops for selling animals inside would have violated this custom even if they took up but a small part of the temple area.
Matthew claims that Jesus quoted two texts, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. In Isaiah 56 God promises to accept foreigners and eunuchs (previously banned-Deut 23:1) as members of his people, declaring that his temple will welcome all peoples; indeed, its purpose had been universalistic from the start (1 Kings 8:41-43). But by Jesus' day (in contrast to the Old Testament temple) a partition with warning signs segregated Gentiles from the Israelite section of the outer court (Jos. War 5.194; 6.124-26; Ant. 15.417), probably for purity reasons (women were similarly considered less pure than men; compare also 11QTemple 3-48). Concern for the sanctity of this outer court, hence for the worship of the Gentiles, may have been part of Jesus' objection to the current temple order (pace E. Sanders 1985:67-68). But that Matthew deletes the words "for all nations" from Mark's quotation may suggest that he wishes to lay the emphasis elsewhere-perhaps especially on the next quotation (Jer 7:11).
Jesus warns that religious symbols cannot protect us from God's wrath. Jeremiah 7 promised judgment on God's people who treated his temple as a safe haven for robbers. Jeremiah warns his contemporaries that the presence of the temple will not stay God's wrath against them; Matthew, probably writing after A.D. 70, wishes to stress judgment against a temple establishment that rejected Jesus (Mt 23:31-36; 24:15; 27:25). Not so much the brigands in the wilderness as the temple authorities are the real bandits. Even today it is arrogance to think that merely having coins that claim "In God we trust," or a state church, or any other mere symbol of religious attachment can prove sufficient to stay God's wrath if we do not live according to his will.
True prophets must face the consequences of their message. Of all Jesus' acts, his attack on the temple came closest to appearing as a revolutionary challenge to the political order, but this action was a prophetic declaration rather than the challenge of a Zealot leader seeking a following. The act itself was undoubtedly more symbolic than efficacious; the sellers undoubtedly set up their tables again soon after the disruption. Jesus probably symbolized prophetically what Jeremiah's smashing of the pot in the temple did (Jer 19): impending judgment (for example, Harvey 1982:131-32; Aune 1983:136; Catchpole 1984:334; E. Sanders 1985:70). Yet Jesus' action was politically dangerous: merely prophesying the temple's destruction invited scourging and the threat of death (Jer 26:11; Jos. War 6.300-309), especially if one had a significant gathering of followers (E. Sanders 1985:302-3).
Jesus embraced the blind and lame. It is easy for readers today to miss the significance of the disabled approaching Jesus in the temple (21:14). Jewish teachers did not require blind or lame people to make the journey to the temple (m. Hagiga 1:1), and at least some traditions excluded them from the temple (2 Sam 5:8 LXX). Here again Jesus apparently challenges the way the temple hierarchy has conducted temple affairs (for example, Hill 1972:294). Even today it is easy for us to marginalize those who cannot participate in our own activities; many of us fail to make necessary sacrifices to give special attention to those whom others leave out, whether it be a blind person or someone whose mobility is limited by muscular dystrophy. When we fail to care for those disabled in this way, we are unlike Jesus (on serving the disabled, see Newman and Tada 1987).
God can speak through children. Jesus' deeds were not the only cause for the chief priests' and legal experts' discomfort; Jesus was accepting public praise as the Son of David, and even if the priestly aristocracy was gentler than their opponents' portraits of them suggest, Roman rule left them no choice but to correct him or betray him to the governor (vv. 15-16). To them he appeared to be simply another charismatic leader whose ego had gotten out of hand; Josephus provides many examples of such leaders in first-century Palestine.
Jesus, who again defends the receptiveness of children (v. 16; compare 18:1-5; 19:13-15), responds from Scripture (since he now addresses those educated in Scripture): from the lips of children God has ordained praise. And if children praise him, how much more (borrowing a standard line of argument from Jesus' day) ought the religious leaders to join in!