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Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Cleanses the Temple
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
    15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; 16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. 17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. 18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.
    Compare: Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22

Jesus, the Temple, and the Priests

The two stories about the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree may be Mark’s best use of his common technique of “sandwiching” stories in a manner that allows one to serve as exegesis on the other. Both stories are probably not literal, but the story of the fig tree is even more abstract and reveals deeper meaning to the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple — and vice-versa.

After cursing the fig tree, Jesus and his disciples reenter Jerusalem and proceed to the Temple where “moneychangers” and those selling sacrificial animals are doing a lively business. Mark reports that this infuriates Jesus who overturns the tables and chastises them. This is the most violent we have seen Jesus yet and is quite uncharacteristic of him thus far — but then again, so was cursing the fig tree, and as we know the two events are closely linked.

What is meant by Jesus’ actions? Some have argued that he was announcing that a new age was close at hand, an age where the cultic practices of the Jews would be overturned like the tables and transformed into prayers that all nations could join in. This might help explain the anger experienced by some because this would eliminate the Jews’ status as God’s special chosen nation.

Others have argued that Jesus’ purpose was to overturn the abusive and corrupt practices at the Temple which served to oppress the poor. Rather than a religious institution, there is some evidence that it may have become more concerned with how much profit could be made by exchanging money and selling expensive items which the priestly hierarchy said were necessary for pilgrims. The attack, then, would be against an oppressive aristocracy rather than all of Israel — a common theme with many Old Testament prophets and something that would make the anger of the authorities very understandable.

Perhaps like the cursing of the fig tree, though, this isn’t a literal and historical event either, even though it is less abstract. It might be argued that this incident is supposed to make concrete to Mark’s audience that Jesus has come to render the old religious order obsolete because it no longer serves God’s purposes.

The Temple (representing in the minds of many Christians either Judaism or the people of Israel) has become a “den of thieves,” but in the future the new house of God will be a house of prayer for “all nations.” This phrase references Isaiah 56:7 and alludes to the future spread of Christianity to the Gentiles. Mark’s community probably would have been able to identify closely with this incident, feeling that Jewish traditions and laws would no longer be binding on them and expecting that their community was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

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