“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:13-15, NRSV)
Occasionally there are passages in the Bible that challenge our understanding of Jesus. Jesus' seemingly violent behavior in the temple found in John 2 is a case in point. Often, our confusion lies in the fact that we're trying to interpret scripture written in the 1st Century from our vantage point in the 21st Century. It's essential to understand the context, lest we draw inaccurate conclusions about what's really going on.
The temple was the center of commercial life in Jesus' day. John tells us when Jesus went to the temple just before Passover, he made a whip and drove the sheep and cattle from the area. He turned over the tables and poured out the coins of the money changers. Then, Jesus turned his attention toward those selling doves:
"[Jesus] told those who were selling the doves, 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'" (John 2:16, NRSV)
Poor people were allowed to substitute a dove or pigeon in place of a more costly lamb as their Passover sacrifice. Those who were selling the doves were likely exploiting the poor by hiking their prices during the religious festival. Jesus' anger was for those who were taking advantage of others who could least afford it.
Many of these same poor people had various foreign currencies In need of exchange to pay their half-shekel temple tax. Exorbitant exchange rates were applied when they presented these coins to the money changers. Jesus was angry that a system whose primary purpose was to help people worship God was enriching others at the poor's expense. Jesus' anger was over a broken system, and he wanted the unfair treatment to stop.
The temple played a vital role in the economy of Jerusalem. The temple treasury purchased the vast amount of goods and services required to maintain its operations from local merchants who benefited from the business. Of course, the temple treasury received its support through the half-shekel tax provided by worshipers.
The temple also operated a banking system. Although creative fees were used to get around the Torah's restriction on charging interest on loans, these loans added to many people's quality of life despite those fees. We have no evidence that Jesus was against the commercial system that was the engine that drove both the temple and the local economy. What we know for certain is that Jesus was against any use of the system to exploit the poor.
This passage in John 2 is still difficult to digest; however, we must see Jesus' true character revealed whatever conclusions we draw about Jesus from this text. In this episode in the temple, we see the consistency and intensity of Jesus' willingness to stand up for the poor and the marginalized against those who would take advantage of them. This stance is good news for the poor and all those willing to conduct their business with compassion. If this is how you do business and Jesus shows up at your door, you have nothing to fear. But it's not good news to those who justify business practices that exploit others—especially the poor. If that's the way you do business, you may want to keep an eye on the door and be ready for when Jesus shows up.