For centuries many people have assumed that Jesus taught only about personal love and private justice, that he did not get involved with the larger injustices of his day, and certainly not with politics. After all, they argue, religion is a private matter that should know its place and not intrude into the public sphere. Such a view is hardly biblical; it is basically Gnostic, separating the spiritual from the material or physical. In fact, the Bible makes no such distinctions. Not that spirit and matter are one and the same, but that our “spirituality” is reflected in everything we do, both publicly and privately, and our love for God determined in how we treat our neighbor.
True, Jesus was “a prophet, and more than a prophet.” He was also the Son of God. Yet any study of Jesus cannot overlook his prophetic ministry as a prophet sent to warn his generation, in the great tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke out against the larger issues of corporate or institutional injustice, greed, corruption, oppression, and violence, in addition to issues of personal holiness and true piety. Yet in doing so, Messiah was not simply carrying on a grand old tradition, but manifesting the righteousness and justice of his Father’s kingdom reign.
One interesting case in point is his cleansing of the temple, an episode that appears in both the Synoptic Gospels and John. Like most of Jesus’ “signs,” this prophetic act has multiple layers of significance. First of all, and perhaps most obviously, he fulfills the promise in Malachi 3: “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple….But who can endure the day of his coming?…For he will be like a refiner’s fire….he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness….”
He also quotes from Isaiah 56:7 and its context, “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations,” reflecting the Father’s heart for the Gentiles and those who had previously been excluded from worship in Israel. In overturning the booths of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals, specifically doves, he was not protesting the changing of money or the purchase of sacrifices per se. These transactions were necessary, for temple taxes, tithes and offerings could not be made with the common coinage of the empire, with its blasphemous titles and images (e.g. “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus”), and worshipers traveling great distances would perforce need to buy their sacrificial animals when they arrived. Instead, Jesus takes issue with where the business is taking place—in the temple court, or Court of the Gentiles, the only place where Gentiles seeking to worship Yahweh could do so. The transaction of these very necessary and highly lucrative businesses, which Caiaphas the high priest had only recently allowed into the temple court, had turned this place of worship into a noisy and filthy bazaar.
Yet there is a third, and indeed a fourth, level of meaning to Jesus’ action, often overlooked by interpreters, but certainly not lost on the temple hierarchy. Jesus concludes his prophetic statement about the Father’s house with “but you have made it a den of robbers.” The quote is from Jeremiah 7: “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.”
In rabbinic teaching a quote from the prophets carried with it not only the meaning of the particular verse, but also the context as well. Here the Lord, through Jeremiah, takes his people to task for their hypocritical worship; they had preserved the outward forms of piety and worship without the inward realities of true godliness and holiness. They permitted oppression, corruption, and violence and yet expected the Lord to receive their sacrifices, as though he were blind and his temple a refuge for ungodliness. But the Lord warns them; they had merely to look to history and what the Lord did in the past when his people strayed so far and so unremittingly from the mark. Was not Shiloh, the place of his tabernacle, wiped clean by the Philistines? So he would do again to his temple in Jerusalem if they did not repent.
In both cleaning out the temple and quoting Jeremiah, Jesus shines divine light on the corrupt practices of the moneychangers and sellers of animals, who were part of an unjust but highly profitable system run by the temple hierarchy. Moneychangers charged a fee for their services (as they do today) and probably an exorbitant one. The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic writings, or “oral law” spanning six centuries) hints at inflated price-fixing for doves, the traditional offering of the poor, during this period. The Jewish historian Josephus has nothing good to say about the Sadducees, the aristocratic and priestly party, who lived in extreme luxury, and no wonder. 90% of the population were poor farmers and craftsmen; yet they supported the priestly elite, who took 50% of the GNP in tithes, taxes and other extra-biblical surcharges. If this kind of racketeering weren’t enough, the temple hierarchy had their own police gangs, called “men of violence,” who terrorized the populace and ruthlessly cracked down on any hint of rebellion (Stassen, Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 356).
In short, the situation was so ripe for judgment, Jesus would have had to have said something. And indeed, his condemnation of these greedy practices within the context of a prophecy of doom on the temple and its priesthood was not missed by the watchful priests, who saw in Jesus a threat not only to their authority but to their livelihood as well. Not surprisingly, we are told they immediately took counsel together as to how they could kill him (Mk 11:18).
Thus we can justly conclude that Jesus was put to death, not only for the charge of blasphemy (from the perspective of the Jewish law) and insurrection (from the Roman), but also for his clear condemnation of the greed, injustice and oppression of the ruling priestly class. While his indictment of their religious hypocrisy and his “peculiar” interpretation of the law caused him to be hated by the Pharisees, like many a prophet before him, it was his prophetic anger against the aristocracy and their systemic injustice that finally ground him under their heavy millstone. The Pharisees were more numerous and popular with the people, but it was the Sadducees, representing the corrupt ruling class, who wielded the real day-to-day power, in collaboration, of course, with the corrupt Roman authorities, who depended on them for keeping order. Thus, the average Jew of Jesus’ day would have had two iron boots on his neck: Rome and the temple hierarchy. And it might be debated that the latter was the heavier and more ruthless.