Jesus and the International Currency Traders in the Temple

Lent 2, Year B

John 2.13-22
Midway through Lent, pretty much every year, we clergy types have to look once again at an extremely odd story of Jesus taking a whip to the “Money Changers” in the Temple in Jerusalem. This year it's found in John 2.13-22, and it's just as odd as ever. It isn't easy to get a hold of, given our penchant for meek and mild images of Jesus, and that’s probably why most of us (okay, maybe some of us) try to just talk about it's “spiritual” side (purifying the religion of the day) instead of its more gritty, political, and economic underbelly.

Though “cleansing of the temple” is the common title for this passage, that is not really what is going on here. “Cleansing” implies something has been cleaned up or changed or reformed. But, in John’s version of the story (and probably in the Synoptics’), Jesus doesn’t appear interested in cleaning up the market system that operated at the Temple, but in doing away with its idolatrous economic infrastructure altogether.[1]

The story occurs when Jesus enters Jerusalem for the first time. It is evocative to note that his first (and probably last) visit to the city was to celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery. As we noted earlier, the “spinal cord” for ethical behavior for Hebrews was that God liberated them from slavery, and now their task was to do the same for others. This was the basis for the Sabbath and Jubilee legislation: God freed us, so we must now free others. So, hundreds of years later, Jews from all over Israel were required to return to Jerusalem on the festival known as “Passover” to be reminded of that covenant promise.

In Jesus’ case, he made his trip to Jerusalem after an extensive ministry in Galilee, preaching a spiritual and economic egalitarianism. He appears to have entered Jerusalem expecting (or at least wanting) to see a celebration of the Exodus liberation acts of God and saw instead a corrupted system that maintained the economic caste system. According to all four canonical gospel accounts, he enters the temple, sees the activities being performed there, and is enraged.[2] John Dominic Crossan says that Jesus’ message of radical equality and liberation “exploded in indignation at the temple as the seat and symbol of all that was non-egalitarian, patronal, and even oppressive on both the religious and political level.”[3]

But what exactly did he find that enraged him so? According to John, Jesus found two things: those who were “selling” and those who were “changing.” The sellers sold things like cattle, sheep, and doves for the offerings, and the changers changed money from international currency to local currency. Both were corrupt, and both were central to the economic idolatry that sustained the nation as a whole.  

The sellers (tous pōlountas) were those who sold animals for the offerings made at the temple (sorry, but that was the tradition; they would probably think that I-pads and high heels were immoral too). People were required to make sacrifices for a variety of festivals and rites. If you were wealthy you gave a large animal, like a cow or ox. If you were poor you gave doves or pigeons.[4] However, to ensure “unblemished” animals, you were required to purchase your animals at the gate of the temple where the prices were higher than the country-side. And, as with any regressive tax or price system, the costs tended to be felt more by the poor than the wealthy. To purchase one pair of doves at the temple was the equivalent of two days’ wages. But the doves had to be inspected for quality control just inside the temple, and if your recently purchased unblemished animals were found to be in fact blemished, then you had to buy two more doves for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages![5]

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells a story of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel (son of Gamaliel, Paul’s personal spiritual trainer), who went on a campaign against price gouging. But unfortunately stories of someone trying to protect the poor from the practice are rare. More common was the reference in the Jewish Mishna that the costs of birds rose so fast in Jesus’ time that women began lying or aborting their babies to avoid the required and punitive fees.

The changers (kermatistēs) were needed because neither the animal offerings nor the temple tax could be paid with the Roman currency in use for most of the national commerce, because it had pictures (read “graven images”) of the Roman Emperor on them who claimed to be a god. So, the money had to be changed into usable local currency.

The money changers sat outside of the temple proper, in the “court of the gentiles.” They bought and sold money as a part of the functioning of the general economy. Jerusalem, in fact, required a money changing industry because it was an international city that dealt in a number of currencies and people had to have a system by which they could buy and sell them. They used the money changers both for basic commerce and also for currency speculation. Insider traders could make fortunes when a new Roman battalion came to town carrying a glut of new coins which depressed the value of the local currencies. Ched Myers calls the money changers “street level representatives of banking interests of considerable power.”[6] Indeed, because there was no one else to perform the function, the money changers were the banks in first century Palestine.

However, the Money Changers were also corrupt. They would not only exaggerate the fees they had to charge for the transactions, they would also inflate the exchange rate. The result was that for a poor person, the Money Changer’s share of the temple tax was about one day’s wages and his share of the transaction from international to local currency was about a half-day’s wages. And that was before they purchased their unblemished animals for sacrifice and then had to buy them again (at an enhanced price) because the inspector found a blemish or otherwise inadequate for the offering.

All tolled, a one day stay in Jerusalem during one of the three major festivals could cost between $3,000 and $4,000 dollars in contemporary value, and Jews were required to attend at least one of them each year. Josephus estimated that up to 2.25 million people visited Jerusalem during Passover, which would generate the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars.[7] The money-changers opened their stalls in the country towns a month before the feast and then moved them to the temple by the time of the first arrivals. While all of this may appear immoral, none of it was illegal. They were business men operating within the law. But it took Jesus and a few radical rabbis to point out that the law itself was unjust.

Two last notes on the tables used by the money changers. First, it's interesting to note that the word, “table” trapezes, had just two usages, one was for reclined eating and the other was for conducting financial transactions. It functioned like a loan office where people invested and borrowed money, and was sometimes translated simply as “Bank” (cf. Luke 19:23).[8] The second thing is that in Isaiah 65:11 God condemns those tables. He says that people who forget God and God’s holy mountain are like those who set up “tables” to “Gad,” the name for the God of wealth.

So, what was Jesus’ response to the situation he found in Jerusalem? He made a whip, drove out the money changers, poured out their coins, turned over their tables and demanded that they “Stop making the realm of God into a realm of commerce." It’s interesting to note that he doesn’t say “stop abusing a good system,” but simply “stop the system.”

Those who today believe the current global economic system has failed, often fall into three types. First, those who believe that the system itself is wrong (the very fact of markets creates wealth and poverty, and that’s wrong); second, that this particular model of economic globalization is wrong (other systems could be designed to be more fair, but this one is not); and finally, that the system is fine, but there are abusers of it and discontinuities within it (if we could just get markets to work right then eventually all boats will be lifted). Jesus seemed to be in at least the second camp, and maybe even the first: the very existence of the market at all was what caused evil. According to what we know of him in this text itself, he would most likely be against the marketization of life itself.

To make his point stronger, he followed his actions with the dramatic pronouncement that the temple, which was the national center of worship, trade, and finance, would be destroyed.[9] In Mark’s version he even sets up a type of boycott of all goods and commerce coming into the temple, which starved it of the funds it was using to fatten the rich.[10]

So how would you preach on this passage?
First, walk through the story with your congregation, using the background information in this essay. Most people, even if they know of the story, have no idea of the economic ramifications of the “cleansing” story. Given the confrontation at the temple, it is no wonder that the Synoptics believed it to be the key event that turned the authorities against Jesus.

Second, tie this ancient oppressive system to today’s global system that continues to keep two-thirds of the world in poverty. Read up on how the austerity programs imposed on poor countries as a requirement of receiving debt relief has in many instances actually caused more poverty, and weakened their ability to pay those debts. The recent revolt in Greece is a good example of that which you can cite.

Another less frequently reported example is the Ebola-hit countries of West Africa. For decades the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multi-lateral financial agencies, have imposed strict restrictions on these countries’ public spending so that they can continue making payments on ancient loans (often taken out by long-dead dictators for personal use). The result has been that these countries have had to make dramatic cuts in spending on infrastructure, education, and health care, which meant that when the crisis hit, their resources with which to address the problem had been seriously diminished.

For the last two years the faith-based Jubilee USA Network has been lobbying the Obama Administration and the IMF to get them to cancel at least a portion of the debt burden that is crippling these countries. Finally, in February of this year, the IMF announced that it would release $170 million in debt-relief (and more in less restrictive loans) to three Ebola-affected countries—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. That the relief will be a major contribution in their ability to turn back the epidemic more quickly than experts had predicted. This would be a good story to cite for your congregation, and you can find updates and other stories about Jubilee’s work on their web site,[11]

You could then conclude by saying that as people of faith, we cannot ignore the world beyond our doorstep. God stands with the powerless against the powerful. Isaiah attacked those who were rich for their opulence: “Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures” (2:7a). Jeremiah said they “have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness” (2:8). Amos said that unchecked, the wealthy would “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4, cf. 2:7, 4:1). According to Amos, the special, spiritual sin of the economically powerful was that they could lounge on couches, eat lambs from the flock, drink wine from bowls, but “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph [their poor neighbors]” (6:4-6).

Jesus railed against the abuses of power by Herod and the religio-political leaders of Jerusalem. Both he and his cousin John demanded great financial sacrifices of those entering and modeling the coming “Realm” of God. I suspect that a number of us, of whatever religious stripe (not all Christian) could see ourselves as their offspring and followers, if we understood this as the path they were leading us in. With a world still wracked in pain today we can do a lot worse than to walk with faith in their footsteps.

[1] Among others, see Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, “This incident represents ... prophetic actions symbolizing the temple’s destruction,” p. 73. And John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), who says it attempted to symbolically end the temple’s “fiscal, sacrificial, and liturgical operations,” p. 358.
[2] The Synoptics are probably more historically accurate when they place the story at the end of their Gospels instead of at the beginning as in John. But all four agree that it is his first visit.
[3] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991), p. 360.
[4] You may recall that Jesus’ parents, who were very poor, brought two turtle doves for the dedication of Jesus (Luke 2:24).
[5] Jerry Goebel, “The Gospels: The testimonials of Jesus Christ” (2002).
[6] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1991), p. 301.
[7] Jerry Goebel, “The Gospels: The testimonials of Jesus Christ,”, 2002.
[8] It might be interesting to learn that according to Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” Jesus invented the “tall table” to be used for sitting.
[9] This is debated, but see above on n. 1. Within the ancient texts the range runs from Mark, who denies that Jesus said it so many times that it resembles “damage control,” to Thomas (71), which simply states that Jesus said it with no qualifications. Crossan believes Thomas to be the more historical because it is simple, straightforward and unapologetic.
[10] Mark 11:15-19. See especially, Mark 11:16 “and he blocked (aphiēmi) anyone from bringing any goods, equipment, or vessels (skeûos) from coming through the temple.”
[11] For an article specific to Ebola-related debt relief, follow this link:


Russell Meyer said...

Great article, Stan!

I've concluded that whenever Jesus pronounces forgiveness in Galilee according to the Synoptics, he's actually relieving someone of paying the debt-penalty established on top of the torah.

NT forgiveness generates economic freedom.

Stan G Duncan said...

You may well be right about that. A number of scholars have noted that the language of forgiveness in the New Testament is based on the debt forgiveness passages of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. Luke's version of the Communion language makes this pretty clear, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.