He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” [Mark 11:17 (NLT)]
Seasoned travelers know the worst place to exchange their money is at the airport. With no easy option to get local currency, the unsuspecting tourist gets the worst exchange rates at the highest fees. Seasoned travelers also don’t buy suntan lotion or Dramamine onboard the cruise ship or a face mask and goggles at the ski shop on top of the mountain. Knowing their customers are desperate for their products, those shops tend to gouge them with inflated prices.
That’s what was happening in the Temple when Jesus cleared it of money changers and merchants. Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who’d traveled long distances to worship, offer sacrifices, and pay their annual temple tax. With the Tyrian half-shekel the only coin acceptable for the tax, people had to exchange their foreign currency. Because traveling with animals was problematic for the pilgrims, they had to buy their sacrificial offerings in Jerusalem. The priests solved the problem, not out of the goodness of their hearts but as a way to fatten their wallets.
They rented out spaces in the Court of the Gentiles to money changers who charged excessive fees for their services and to merchants who sold sheep, lambs, goats, doves, pigeons, grain, and anything else necessary for a sacrifice at exorbitant prices. Since sacrificial animals were to be unblemished, the priests had to approve them. They charged an additional fee for the inspection and, if an animal wasn’t purchased at the Temple, chances are that it wouldn’t be approved. What should have been a service to the pilgrims had become a scheme to swindle them. The priests who looked for flaws in offerings were blind to the flaws in their own behavior.
With the commotion of the animals and vendors competing for business, the courtyard was no longer a place of worship. The inevitable animal odor and excrement was considered defilement of a sacred place; people weren’t even supposed to pray, recite blessings or study the Torah if urine or feces were visible within a range of six feet. That the sanctity of the Temple was profaned by this filth and exploitation or that the worship of Gentiles was disturbed in the mayhem of this stockyard and marketplace didn’t seem to bother the priests. It bothered Jesus enough so that He chased the offenders out of the Temple.
Today’s equivalent of that first century corruption can be found in those churches that don’t operate with financial oversight or fiscal responsibility. Whether out of ignorance, irresponsibility, or dishonesty, they use smoke and mirrors with vague budgets and no accountability or audits. The church has been given a sacred trust both to raise and spend money with integrity. Let us never forget that people’s tithes and offerings come at a cost to them. By the time the money exchanger took his cut, the half shekel Temple tax represented four days wages and the widow who put her two small coins in the Temple treasury gave all that she had. The church must recognize the sacrifice that comes with every dollar and take their duty to be good stewards seriously. As congregations, we must demand fiscal responsibility and transparency; we have an obligation to keep God’s house from becoming a den of thieves.