When the love of money corrupts worship in spirit and truth

For Jesus, you either love God or love money. He overturned the tables of the money changers – those tables from which we derive the word for a modern-day bank.

Mar 20, 2021

By Anil Netto
We live in a world where almost everything, it seems, has a price.

You can almost see dollar or ringgit signs hanging over priceless treasures of nature. Our ancient rainforests are clear-felled for timber money. Cranes and bulldozers trample over open green spaces, converting them into concrete jungles. Our hills are cut for construction material, logging and high-end property development. Dredges extract precious sand from our seabed to be used for land reclamation, which destroys fishing waters.

All this in the name of money.

Enormous financial institutions facilitate much of this destruction and the “monetisation” of our lives, extending their tentacles all over the globe. Folks place their hard-earned money as deposits but only reap a small return. But their money is used for loans to power unsustainable economic activities, fuelling emissions and climate change while earning large profits for these financial institutions.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem ahead of Passover, he saw how the culture of money had taken root in the Temple. Money changers had taken over the outer courts of the temple.

Many of the large temples of the Middle East and the Mediterranean back then functioned as banks. The word bank itself comes from banque in Middle French and banca and banc in old Italian and German — which generally means table, bench or counter.

These tables, benches and kiosks were precisely what greeted Jesus when he entered the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The money changers in these temples performed a few main functions: converting largedenominations to small change, changing foreign currency, and even accepting deposits in exchange for interest.

In effect, the Temple performed the role of a royal bank for Judea. It stored safe deposits – excess funds by the elite of the day – in the vaults. It was the safest place for storing money. It also housed the debt records for the region.

Excess funds were probably loaned out as in a bank. Or they may have been invested into commodities like wine and flour, to be sold to pilgrims or others.

We know from 2 Maccabees 3:10-11 that the high priest had to explain to a royal emissary that the funds in the temple were for widows and orphans. But another sum of four hundred talents of silver and two hundred of gold – probably worth a few million US dollars – belonged to wealthy VIPs.

Kings were not beyond seizing temple funds for their own use, and so too with the Roman prefects and procurators who succeeded King Herod after his son was removed from Judea. The Roman prefects, who were ultimately responsible for the financial resources of the district, were not beyond raiding the Temple coffers for themselves, dipping into the funds to finance mega-projects such as aqueducts and towers (as Pilate did), and even using them tofund other needs of the empire.

This occasionally put them into conflict with the high priests, who felt they were responsible for the temple funds.

Market forces were also creeping into the Temple itself. The high priest was responsible for the regulation of the city markets, as we read in 2: Maccabees 3:4. This chapter also shows us that the temple priests probably felt they had divine protection for their role as custodians of the temple wealth and its key role in regulating the local economy.

As decades passed, market forces crept into the Temple even more. The sacrifice of animals fuelled the economy of Jerusalem, and made traders and the elites who regulated the markets wealthy. A few years before the Temple was destroyed, the historian Josephus noted that 255,600 lambs were sacrificed at Passover. Some people were getting very rich from all this, at a time when 90 per cent of the population were peasants or destitute.

For eight decades, the Temple was in a constant state of rebuilding, expansion, renovatoin and maintenance. All this required thousands of workers, as well as purchasing officers and accountants.

You can imagine the ambivalent feelings of Jesus when this scene confronted him. Thiswas his Father’s house, and yet, true worship here had been corrupted and tainted by the love of money. This monetisation of worship was also extracting wealth from pilgrims, many of them peasants from the countryside whom Jesus had largely associated with.

For Jesus, you either love God or love money. He overturned the tables of the money changers – those tables from which we derive the word for a modern-day bank. With this action, he disrupted the economic function of the Temple ‘bank’ at its source. It was highly symbolic.

The Roman prefect and the Sanhedrin who saw themselves as custodians of the temple wealth and regulators of the city markets, could hardly have been amused. This was an interference which they could not tolerate. Not only that, it was a challenge to their status as protectors and guardians of such enormous wealth.

In our world today, enormous wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy elite, facilitated by global financial institutions at a time when many are struggling to get by or are paid low wages.

The love of money and the monetisation of so many facets of life itself challenges us today. Relentless commercialisation is creeping into almost every facet of life, including politics. Even places of worship, as well as educational and healthcare institutions originally set up for the lower-income groups, are not spared. We hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.

How should we respond?

Reference: Judea (Neill Q Hamilton, Temple Cleansing and Temple Bank, Journal of Biblical Literature, December 1964)

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