So, who do you think the story of driving the moneychangers from the temple is aimed at? Youth group fundraisers? Mission team dinners? Girl Scouts selling cookies?
I suppose under some circumstances any of them could be the proper subject of a lesson from this story, but I think there’s probably some more useful interpretation of it. Let’s check into the background.
First of all, the moneychanging itself was not the real problem. In fact, according to the teaching and the Law of Moses, the money used for sacrifices and tithes at the Temple had to meet some pretty specific criteria. Remember the first commandment, about no graven images? Well, most Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them. All but the strictest followers of the law might use these coins in everyday business, but there was no way they would pass muster at the very Temple itself! When you add in that Roman Emperors every now and again claimed divine status for themselves, you had money that was just plain old-fashioned unclean and unusable for something as holy as paying a tithe or buying a sacrifice.
Of course, everyone else used Roman money, so the problem came in how people changed their unclean Roman money into acceptable Temple coinage. Enter the moneychangers. They’d take your Roman money and give you back Temple coins, less a percentage for themselves. Kind of like those coin-counting machines in the grocery stores, only not as much fun to watch work.
Then there were the sacrifices themselves. The Law was clear – a sacrifice must be an animal without blemish, perfectly clean and whole. You could bring a sheep or goat of your own, but there was no guarantee the priests would pass it as acceptable for sacrifice. Even an animal that looked OK to you might have a flaw that only the expertise of the priests could see.
At the Temple, you could buy animals that were sort of “pre-certified” to be clean and acceptable for your sacrifice.
You can see where the trouble can come in. The moneychangers and the Temple animal salesmen had a captive market – people who wanted to obey their religious duties had no choice but to do business with them.
You give the moneychanger ten Roman coins and he gave you back five Temple coins, who could you complain to? The Temple officials? Where do you think some of those extra coins wound up? Temple lambs cost twice as much as a regular lamb, so you decide to bring your own and show it to the religious examiners, but, oh guess what, your lamb has a nearly invisible blemish here that disqualifies it from the sacrifice. Again, who do you complain to? The same examiners who work with the people who sell sacrificial lambs? Yeah, that’ll work.
Maybe the original moneychangers and original animal sellers had the idea of helping the people out with a needed service. But at some point, someone had seen the cash flow and realized they could make money from it, and there went any possibility the system could ever be fair.
That’s one reason Jesus was so upset with them – not that they were making money, but that they were cheating in order to do so. Remember, he probably worked in the carpentry business some before he began his ministry. He told lots of stories about people who were paid for their work or who knew how to invest money and so on. But there’s no honest exchange of money for goods and services here. There’s gouging so deep it’s the same as theft.
An even deeper issue is one we are more likely to face today, I think. After all, we don’t have any special standards about what people can donate – look at the couch in the average youth room, or see how long past the expiration date some food is when it comes into a food pantry and you’ll see not everybody figures you have to have something special when you're donating to charity. But the cheating and theft were the symptom of the real problem, and that’s what I think we all face quite often today.
That real problem came when the people who started charging extortion-style rates for changing coins or sacrificial animals figured out they could use the Temple for their own purposes. Whose house is the Temple, according to Jesus? God’s house, right? Well, how do we act when we’re in someone else’s house? Do we treat it like our own, or are we aware we’re guests? Would you be happy if I came to your house and starting trying to sell Amway from your phone, or would you think I was rude and ask me to stop?
As a pastor, I know all too well the temptation to use the church for some means or purpose of my own. I know it as a temptation I’ve resisted and as one I’ve given in to and sought forgiveness for.
But clergy are certainly not alone in this failing. We know people, don’t we, who come to church for some need or desire they have. It’s a place to be important. It’s a place to show off. It’s a place to make us feel superior to those who aren’t here, or to be entertained, or score our points with God.
Those other things we use the church for don’t have to be bad. Maybe we use the church to help a cause we believe in, like protecting the environment or helping the poor. Neither of those is bad, nor are a score of others that come to mind. There are certainly parts of God’s work which focus on them both. But when we put our church in service to them, rather than understand we might do them as our service to God, we fall in to the age-old trap of insisting that we know what God should do and we know how God should act.
At the worst end of that choice is nakedly using God for our own ends without caring about it at all, like the money-changers. At the best end is taking a service we do in response to God and moving God from the center of our lives so we can fit that service in the place where God belongs, and that’s still a very big problem.
Because only God should be at the center of our lives – it’s how we’re made, it’s what he wants, and it’s the only way we can find ourselves becoming who and what we were always supposed to be.