Theme: Sin in the Temple
This week’s lessons contrast the unbelief and unrighteous behavior of the religious leaders with the humble dependence of those who came to Jesus in faith.
Scripture: Matthew 21:12-17
Isn’t it interesting? These religious leaders, the ones who were behind all of this and for whom it was profitable, would in that day have looked down on Matthew the tax collector. They would have said, “That Jew has sold out to the Roman armies for money.” They would have had nothing to do with him, politically, socially, or religiously. Why, they wouldn’t have let Matthew even come into the temple enclosure.
But when Matthew was collecting taxes for the Roman government he was doing something that was not wrong. He may have been doing it in a wrong way. He may have been cheating, but we’re not told that. There’s nothing wrong with collecting taxes, you see. As a matter of fact, that is one of the things the state has to do, and it’s endorsed even in the New Testament. But as they were looking down on Matthew, not only were they guilty of the same thing—loving money, if that’s what they were accusing him of—but they were even much worse because they were allowing that love of money and the desire for it actually to pollute the temple worship.
Here is what went on in the temple. When you came to Jerusalem you paid the temple tax, which every Jew had to do. You did it once a year you had to pay it in temple coins. You couldn’t use a Roman coin or another Gentile coin, which meant that there had to be people there in the temple courtyard exchanging the money. If you’ve ever done that when you go abroad, you know that profit is always made on it. Today with our free trade that profit is generally kept in bounds and the money that is made by currency changers does not get out of hand, but it was out of hand here in Jerusalem.
There was a monopoly on this, and so they could charge whatever rate they wanted on the exchange, and it was a very profitable thing. Not only that, as we read here, they sold animals—it mentions doves, but there were other kinds sacrificial animals as well. When Jews came up for the feast and to worship at other times, they presented sacrifices, which had to be considered acceptable. It means that the lambs, for example, had to be without blemish and without spot before they could be accepted. In order to be able to sacrifice them the priest would have to pass upon them, examine them, and say they were alright.
What that really meant in practice was that most Jews who were coming from a distance didn’t bring the animals with them. For one thing, it would be inconvenient. It was much easier to buy an animal in Jerusalem. For another thing, if you did bring the animal with you, you wouldn’t know when you got up to the temple whether the priest would approve it or not. He might tell you that your animal is no good. Then you would have brought your animal all that way for nothing.
If you bought your animals there, you knew they would be accepted, but the sellers made a great profit at your expense. The costs were very, very high. Some of the scholars who have looked into this say that these doves that are mentioned here should have sold for about a nickel; but were being sold for four dollars. So you understand what was going on. The people knew it, too, and they didn’t like it. They called this great area in which the trading took place the Bazaar of Annas, who was the high priest. They called it his bazaar because they understood perfectly well that the money changers who were there, and the people who sold the animals and made a great profit, paid a portion of their profit to the priests for the privilege of being able to do that in the courtyard of the temple. And it’s interesting that shortly before the overthrow of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, as part of the uprisings that took place in Israel before Rome put it a stop to them, the people themselves cleansed the temple area and drove all this commerce out. This kind of thing was a very great offense.
Jesus explained it by a reference to two Old Testament texts. The first is Isaiah 56:7, and that text tells us that the temple was intended to be “a house of prayer.” But instead of it being a house of prayer it had become what Jeremiah describes in 7:11, namely, a den of robbers. Of course, that was exactly what was going on. The high priests were robbing people who came up honestly to seek God and to worship him.
Well now, what did Jesus think about this? Obviously he didn’t like it because he drove them out. But what did he actually think? By what categories did he understand what was going on? I ask that question because what follows in the remainder of chapter 21 is all about it.
How were the religious leaders demonstrating a sinful view of money relative to the temple?
Review the process of how the buying and selling worked.
For Further Study: To learn more about money and both the proper and improper use of it, download for free and listen to James Boice’s message, “Believe Me, Rich Is Better.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)