Triumphs and Cleanings: Matthew 21
Matthew 21 opens with a familiar scene: the Triumph! Typically, when conquering kings entered cities, they came with a triumphal procession. It was a common practice in the ancient world. It remains a practice to this day—victors are given ticker tape parades in New York City, after all! The other time for the triumphal procession was when the conqueror returned home from conquest. Either image can work for Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem at this point in history. Jerusalem is the place “where God chose to place His name” (2 Chronicles 6:6) and as such is where the returning King comes to celebrate His victory. Jerusalem is also the starting point for His conquest of humanity.
The catch is, victory parades are only moments in time. The Conquering King remains victorious, but so many of the adoring fans go back to work that the celebration ends and is quickly forgotten. This happens here—Jesus is victorious. People are forgetful.
The next thing the King does upon His return is see to the problems that have come up at home while He was out. In this case, He cleans out the Temple. (I would recommend J. Daniel Hays’ The Temple and The Tabernacle for good information on the overall structure of the Temple.) Jesus then curses a fig tree, responds to the challenge of the chief priests and the elders, and then shuts them down with one more parable.
The last parable is a direct jab at how the religious leadership of the Jews have treated God’s representatives over the years. (Matthew 21:33-44). It’s worth its own blog post, but here’s a very clear depiction of Jesus as the Son of God. Remember when you look at parables that most everything has meaning. Some things have layers of meanings—in this one, the “landowner” is a stand-in for God the Father, Jesus is the “son of the landowner.” The religious leaders saw who they were, too.
Dial back to Matthew 21:12-13. I’ve been reading Dr. Hays’ book on the Temple that I mentioned above, and something finally, fully clicked about the cleansing of the Temple here. The money changers and the animal sales people were set up in the Court of the Gentiles of the Temple. This was the closest to the Temple that most people could come—the Jews could go further, but the bulk of humanity are not Jews—and so this is where they needed to pray. Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7, and Mark’s parallel account records that He uses the whole phrase, that His house should be a house of prayer “for all nations.”
But the Jews have taken the area that they themselves had designated for the rest of the nations (i.e., the Gentiles) and decided it needed shared with the market space. This left the Gentiles without a peaceful place to gather. Without a place to draw as near to God as they could, hear His word, seek His face.
Jesus was not going to have this. In what is likely the best example of “righteous anger,” He drives the chaos out of this area of the Temple. It was only the edge of the Temple, it was distant from the allegedly important things. Yet here was where God took His stand for who and what should be involved.
First of all, remember that the answer to “What would Jesus do?” could be “Get rightly angry and drive out religiously false profit seekers.”
Second, think about where we stand in relation to that principle. The Gentiles were barely welcome in Jerusalem, even as it was a city in the Roman Empire. At the dividing wall between the Gentile area and the rest of the Temple (what the Jews considered the “Real Temple”) was a sign warning that a Gentile caught in there was responsible for his own death. For a Gentile to draw near was difficult. Think about those who have a hard time freely coming before God.
And before you get indignant about how location doesn’t matter, realize that it does. Because those we keep from church fellowship and real relationships with believers are going to find out about the Omnipresent God exactly how? We just put up more barriers.
Then God comes along and reminds us: all nations. All people. What are we going to do about it? The poor, the oppressed, the sojourner, the single mother, the biker, the tattooed lady, the interracial couple, the kid living on the streets.
When our religious expectations put a price on their interaction with God, God does not side with us. When we put profits between people and God, God takes that seriously, and it is far better to be on His side than our own.
The Synoptic Problem raises its lovely head here again. First, there are minor differences between Matthew and Mark, like the length of the Isaiah quote. That’s one fun part.
The other, bigger question is this: what about John? In John’s Gospel, the Temple is cleansed at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s at the end. Does it happen twice? Or does one of them, probably John, shift the event in the telling to make a point? That is acceptable in the concept of biography at the time, so it’s no slap about accuracy.
I’m not sure where I sit with that. I can see the valid arguments on both sides, but I almost see Jesus coming into the Temple this last week with the same look as a parent, “I just cleaned this mess up! What are you doing?”