A Den of Thieves and a Fig Tree.

Thoughts on the story of Jesus and the moneychangers.

I remember, from Sunday School, the story of Jesus and the moneychangers. From memory, it went something like this: after Palm Sunday, Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem and saw that people were changing money and selling birds for sacrifice. He cracked a whip at them, turned the tables of commerce over, and accused them of being a den of robbers in what should be a house of Prayer. The Temple was not to be a place of business, animal sacrifice or corrupt high priests who let it happen.

The story happens in Mark 11, Matthew 21, Luke 19, and John 2 with some differences. In Mark, it happens on a Monday. On Palm Sunday, Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, and then retires to Bethany for the night before returning the next morning. In Matthew and Luke, it happens just after he enters Jerusalem, apparently on Palm Sunday. There’s no mention of his looking around the night before, but there’s no marker of time.

Jesus cracks the whip. Whooot-tssh! Whooot-tssh!

The gospel of John, not being a synoptic gospel, has Jesus literally cracking a whip, like Indiana Jones, at the moneychangers. In this version, it happens early in his ministry, long before Palm Sunday. According to John, it’s not a Holy Week story at all. Some excuse this inconsistency by saying that he must have upset the moneychangers’ tables twice in his ministry. I feel that’s a mistaken notion, as upsetting a temple is unlikely to be a thing that people forget after it happens once.

Mark’s narrative was the earliest, written 40 years after the crucifixion, in about 70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written later, using Mark as one if its sources. I like the story as told in Mark, especially in its use of a fig tree as a narrative framing device before and after the story (Crossan 106).

Do you remember the fig tree? Just before the story of the moneychangers, in the book of Mark, Jesus is hungry and wants figs, but figs aren’t in season and the tree is barren. Upset, he curses the tree to death. After the temple story, we return to the tree to find it dead, indeed.

Curse you!

It seems petulant to kill a tree for not producing fruit out-of-season, but less so if it is a metaphor. As the tree was not producing the fruit that Christ demanded, so too was the temple not “producing fruit that Christ demanded.” Just as the tree was destroyed, literally, so too were the temple’s activities, symbolically, and for the same reason.*

Before any more talk of the fruit being produced, what about the other stuff? The high priesthood, and the moneychanging, and the sacrificial animals? Wasn’t Jesus angered by all of this? He could have been, but that may not have been his emphasis in wrecking the temple.

The high priesthood was complex. During Roman rule, it was not only an office of representing the Jews before God, but also an office representing Jews before Rome (Isaac, selected papers). Indeed, Rome controlled who the high priest was, and could fire the high priest at any time. Often, it did. It was therefore possible to be against a particular high priest, or the collusion of government and religion through a priest, without being against the existence of a high priest, generally. It becomes ambiguous whether Jesus was against high priests entirely, or the high priesthood of Caiaphas and his relationship with Rome, which seemed cozier than his relationship with God (Borg and Crossan 39).

Blood sacrifice is ambiguous, too. Long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining or restoring good relations with one another — the gift and the meal. How, then, did people create, maintain or restore good relations with an invisible being? They could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as gift, it was given to God by being burned on the altar, the smoke rising into heaven. In sacrifice as meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar, and was then returned to the person offering the blood as divine food to be shared with God (36).

That is, blood sacrifice was not done to promote the suffering of an animal in substitution for a person’s sin or to curry favor with the lord, as is the common misconception. Rather, it was a symbolic way to commune with God. There is little reason to think that this accepted religious practice triggered Jesus’ anger, in a historic context.

What of the moneychanging? Even that was accepted practice at the temple in the time of Jesus. Jerusalem was a busy place full of many people streaming in from distant lands, many of whom arrived to pay their temple tax. With so many different currencies, it was important to the function of the temple that a common currency be bought and sold. Moneychanging was done in the temple’s secular court, not in its holy chambers, and was not considered out of line, as if the temple used to be pure but had deteriorated to a state of commerce(Frank, Tenney, Johnson 224, 247, 256).

So, if Jesus didn’t care about moneychanging, sacrifices and priests, why did he “overturn the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, and not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple,” as Mark states?

Jesus’ goal was to disrupt business as usual, because business as usual was the problem. People were spending too much time going through religious activities and rituals, paying a too much attention to the justice of Rome and the taxes they owed, and not spending enough time making God’s justice real in the world.

As Crossan points out, a den is not where robbers do the robbing. A den is where robbers go after they have robbed. It is a place of refuge for those who have done wrong.

Jesus called the temple a “den of robbers.” We learned when we were young that his statement was directed at the moneychangers, but it may have been more applicable to the people worshiping there. After all, as Crossan points out, a den is not where robbers do the robbing. A den is where robbers go after they have robbed. It is a place of refuge for those who have done wrong (Borg and Crossan 44).

Jesus lived in a time in which average individuals had very little say in shaping society, and were economically shut out by the wealthy minority. There was scant middle class, and upward mobility was limited. Religion was used to legitimize the wealthy. It was said that God wanted the rich to be rich, and that they were put in charge by divine will. In short, there was “political and Economic domination of the many by the few, and the use of religious claims to justify it.” (8)

Is it more likely, then, that when Jesus upset “business as usual” at the temple, he was angered over high priesthood and blood sacrifice? Or were his reasons bigger and broader: an end to economic and political inequality that were given credibility at that time through the church? Is this a story about the ills of commerce in a place of worship, or that the designs of God — love, justice and equality — were not being carried out on Earth?

*In the book of Matthew, the entire fig tree story happens at once. There are no figs on the tree, it is cursed, and it dies then and there. It’s possible that the authors of Matthew, using Mark as a source, didn’t care about the literary device and instead wanted to emphasize Jesus’ divine and miraculous control over nature. Yet, the story’s uncanny parallel to Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in Luke 13 seems to make the metaphor obvious.

Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic. Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. Print.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. Print.

Frank, Tenney, and Allan Chester Johnson. An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1933. Print.

Isaac, Benjamin H. The Near East under Roman Rule: Selected Papers. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Print.