The week of Passover feast was in full swing. Devout Jews from all over the region, travelers from as far away as Athens and Rome, were crowding into Jerusalem for the annual celebration. It was a time for family reunions, for eating and drinking with old friends, and, of course, a time for inspiring worship to revive the soul. It was the highpoint of the Hebrew calendar when all of Abraham’s children remembered how Yahweh delivered them from slavery and death in Egypt. The city was alive with activity. Caravans of rural families streamed through the gates leading prime specimens of sheep and oxen to be offered as holy sacrifices at the Temple. Travelers from distant places adorned in colorful garb of exotic cultures came with satchels bulging with spending money. Every street was lined with shop keepers and hucksters displaying a dazzling array of fresh fruits, wines, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, and most every other commodity that tourists would buy. Every bed not occupied by visiting relatives was rented out to guests. The Temple, of course, was the main attraction. Rebuilt with Roman imagination and engineering prowess, its size and scale far exceeded the grandeur of Solomon’s temple. Its towering sanctuary, its expansive courtyards and porticos inspired the awe of worshippers. From its altar, high above the crowds, billowed the smoke of thousands of sacrificed animals, bled and sectioned according to the ceremonial law, some parts consumed by the flames and the others braised for feasting. At this glorious feast, everyone would eat and drink to the fill — even the poor who could offer only a dove to Yahweh.
Many worshippers who lived within easy traveling distance brought their own sacrifices with them. But many others depended upon the Temple exchange service to provide acceptable animals, though at a premium. It was not difficult to find competitively priced livestock on the open market but one could not always be assured that their quality would meet sacrificial standards. That was the benefit of the Temple exchange service — animals were already priest approved. And the inflated cost went to support the Temple — somewhat like making an additional offering unto the Lord.
The Temple was the center of both Jewish worship as well as government. Here the Mosaic Law was interpreted and enforced and the economy regulated. Rome may have imposed military control on Judah but the Temple provided order to the culture. Especially was this important at chaotic times like Passover week. A stable institution was essential to regulate confusing issues such as the monetary exchange rate for foreign currencies that flowed into Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean world. Certainly visitors could take their chances with shylocks working the streets offering attractive conversion rates but at the Temple one could be assured of a safe, standardized (though hardly a bargain) exchange ratio
Passover was also the time of the year when the annual Temple tax was collected. By ancient law every Jewish male 20 years and older was required to contribute a half-shekel for the maintenance of the Temple and its programs. Though Roman coinage was a common medium of exchange in the Jerusalem economy, the traditional half-shekel coin was the only approved and acceptable method of payment for the Temple tax. This policy assured a certain purity in this sacred obligation, keeping the “graven images” of foreign kings and unholy icons out of the Temple. Coin conversion was one more important service the Temple provided. Who could argue with such an arrangement? The profits made on this exchange went directly into the work of the Lord.
That’s why the religious leaders found it so incredulous when the young Teacher from Galilee came storming into the Temple courtyard at the peak of the Passover celebration, swinging a whip over his head, hollering about the place being a den of thieves. What on earth possessed him to wreak such havoc in this holiest of places — stampeding the sacrificial animals, upending the money changers’ counters and kicking over the dove-sellers booths, sending everyone running for cover! What was this troublemaker’s problem anyway?
“My Father’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer. You’ve made it a den of robbers!” the Teacher glared at the clergy who had come running to see what all the commotion was about.
Robbers? they challenged. Are you calling all these good staff and volunteers and approved vendors robbers? Are you calling all these Temple services robbery? These systems have been put into place to enable God’s people to worship. And there’s nothing at all wrong with the Temple generating a little revenue from the people it serves. How dare you call us robbers!
It was the beginning of the end for the Teacher. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” he had told the leaders when they demanded that he give some validation for his actions. Another absurdity that they would soon use against him to silence him permanently.
This young Teacher was entirely too radical to fit into the religious norms of his time. And so He was eliminated, using legitimate religious-political systems to do the job. A case had to be made against him, of course, but that was not too hard to do, given his outlandish teaching and his flagrant disregard for established doctrines.
One has to wonder — how would the young Teacher fare in our contemporary religious culture? Would His teaching about turning the other cheek seem as outlandish in our day of personal rights? Would His instructions about not laying up treasures and about giving away our second coat seem as ridiculous in this materialistic culture? And how would His “house of prayer” purity be received by our user-friendly, tax-exempt, health-club amenitized, professionally marketed churches created to support our production-oriented, personality-driven worship enterprises on which we spend 95+ percent of God’s tithes? One has to wonder, doesn’t one?