For the Jews of Jesus’ time, and indeed before and since, ‘going up to Jerusalem’ wasn’t just a colloquialism such as ‘I’m just going up the shop’; nor was it an accurate geographical statement despite Jerusalem being 2,700 feet above sea level, with Nazareth being over a 1,000 feet lower. Despite literally getting closer to heaven by climbing so high, going up to Jerusalem for the high days and holy days wasn’t ‘just’ a religious experience: going up to Jerusalem meant going home.
Jesus is ‘going home’ for the Passover. This is the place where he belongs, it was here at only a few days old that Simeon and Anna held him in their arms and sang and prophesied over him. Jerusalem is where it began and where it will end.
When he gets there though he discovers that his home has been ransacked. No longer is it a place of peace and worship for all, but a marketplace of disrepute. Passover was the biggest festival of the year, and for those in the hospitality trade a time to make money. For those in the religious trade also a time of wealth – think Christmas shopping and all the additional market stalls that pop up. It was so busy, that even the outer court of the Temple had been transformed into a shopping mall for all the essentials of worship: sacrificial animals and temple coinage.
Jesus is angry: the temple courts are no place for farmyard animals. He forms a whip and drives them out.
The temple coinage was complicated. Jewish law forbade the making of graven images and roman coins bore not just the image of Caesar, but various titles including ‘High Priest’ which would have been practically blasphemous for the religious leaders. Obviously this heretical coin couldn’t be used within the temple treasury, so a holy currency was put in place, the ‘Tyrian Coinage’: and of course business could be found by exchanging the currencies at exorbitant rates.
Jesus is incensed: he turns the tables over, scattering coins everywhere. The courtyard is busy with pilgrims, there is dung from the animals that have just been driven out. Even the temple currency is now scattered and polluted.
Why is Jesus so stirred up by these entrepreneurs?
The outer temple could be thought of as the doorstep to the temple, to home. With the traders in place there is zero curb appeal for sure, it is as though his front door as been vandalised. The sense of peace and sanctuary in the approach to worship is null and void, but there is more here than meets the eye.
The outer court was the only court that gentiles could enter. The Temple was built in similar style to a set of concentric circles: right at the heart was the holy of holies and this could only be entered once a year by a priest whose name was drawn by lot. A rope was tied around the priest’s waist so that should he fall ill whilst performing his duties he could be pulled out, rather than anyone else going in to collect him and polluting the sanctity of God’s dwelling. A thick purple curtain, a wall of wool divided the holy of holies from the next court. The closer the court to the holy of holies, the more limited the people who were able to enter. The women’s court was one of the further out, but the one right on the very edge was the only one that gentiles could enter. This is the closest that people who weren’t Jewish could get to God, and this outer court, this crumb of temple worship has been eaten up by the traders. Jesus isn’t just angry, he is incandescent.
When the infant Jesus was held in the arms of the prophet, the song sung over him told how he would be a light to lighten the gentiles, and here at the holiest time of the year, they are kept out. This man made temple, designed to glorify Herod more than Yahweh, is designed to keep people at a distance from God.
At the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, as he dies on the cross, that wall of wool will be split in two, from top to bottom, from heaven to earth. No longer will there be a holy of holies kept distant and aloof from God’s people, from here on in everyone is welcome into God’s presence.
Read the story here.