In a ministry marked by great mercy and kindness, the incident involving Jesus and the moneychangers stands out.
In a recent comment thread on another site, one commenter alluded to the story to argue against the notion that Jesus’ message was one of nonviolence. It’s not the first time that such inference has been drawn from the story: the gospel account has also been invoked as a justification for the crusades.
So what is the real meaning of the story?
First, an exegetical clarification is in order. Although the whipping is sometimes read as applying to the money-changers themselves—as in the El Greco painting of the scene—a closer and more accurate reading of the original Greek indicates that the whipping was primarily directed at the sheep and the oxen. Still, Jesus flipped over the tables of the moneychangers, so they were certainly not spared his wrath, even if the physical brunt of it was borne by the livestock. (Here, I am reading the version in John 2, where the use of the whip, or scourge, is specifically mentioned.)
A basic interpretation of the event takes it at face value: Jesus was justly angered that worldly commercial activities had corrupted the holiness of the temple. (Remember, one of meaning of holiness is that which is set apart.) As one commentator, D.A. Carson, explains:
Instead of solemn dignity and the murmur of prayer, there is the bellowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep. Instead of brokenness and contrition, holy adoration and prolonged petition, there is noisy commerce.
But there is a deeper meaning to this story and the context makes it clear. In the Synoptic gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the cleansing of the temple comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry, upon his entrance into Jerusalem, which culminates in his crucifixion. The story is recounted in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but the gospel writer makes the same connection more explicit for us:
At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this (John 2:18-22).
The connection is clear, but what does it mean? How does Jesus driving out the livestock and moneychangers lead to his own suffering?
Here Augustine, in his sermons on John, makes a helpful observation about the sacrificial system then in place at the temple:
For you know, beloved, that sacrifices were given to that people, in consideration of the carnal mind and stony heart yet in them, to keep them from falling away to idols: and they offered there for sacrifices oxen, sheep, and doves: you know this, for you have read it. It was not a great sin, then, if they sold in the temple that which was bought for the purpose of offering in the temple: and yet He cast them out thence.
Why is this? Augustine hints at it, but does not explicitly say so. The key is so obvious it goes overlooked: note that it was not only the moneychangers that were driven out but the animals as well. Given that the animals were, in fact, necessary for the sacrifices of the temple their expulsion is a bit odd, as this scholar notes: was it not the commercial activity itself that was the real source of offense?
This detail points to the deeper meaning of this passage: is it not most fitting that this challenge to the old way of sacrifices preceded their replacement—which was Christ’s one-time self-offering on the cross? The scholar concludes:
As we have already implied, the expulsion of the beasts symbolized the new order of worship whose temple will have no sacrificial rite. If we do not understand the expulsion as a symbolic act, we have no reason for it since the animals were necessary and were not in themselves an abuse of the temple’s sanctity. Their removal was meant to symbolize the end of mediation toward God by sacrifice; the Mosaic system was not condemned but rather it was displaced as a result of its being superseded by the presence of Jesus.
Read in light of this interpretation, the text makes more sense. Just as Jesus was the new temple, who would be ‘destroyed’ and ‘rebuilt’ in three days, so also He was the new Lamb of God slain for our sins. The scourging itself then becomes another symbolic act that foreshadows the Passion of Jesus: to paraphrase Augustine, He who scourged the sheep Himself was scourged for us.
image: Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons