Why Jesus was furious with the money changers

The curtain blocking the Holy of Holies was torn down when Jesus was crucified. No longer would the presence of God be restricted to only a handful. This was a Father who cared for all who were suffering.

Mar 13, 2021

By Anil Netto
The Temple renovated by Herod the Great was a sight to behold. Around 18BC, Herod had arranged for 10,000 workers to expand the Second Temple. They included hundreds of priests, who would handle the renovation of the holiest areas.

For the project, limestones from a quarry nearby, varying in weight from a few tons to over a hundred tons, with most of them weighing 30 tons, were hauled in, probably by oxen. Herod added a huge plaza, doubling the area around the Temple building on a platform over the Mount in Jerusalem to up to 20 football fields. The perimeter walls soared a hundred feet above street level.

It was an engineering feat, which in today’s prices would have cost billions of ringgit. 

This magnificent edifice awed Jesus’ followers, who marvelled at the temple and its massive stones. Gold vine trimmings decorated the main doors of the inner Temple building. The goldplated building shimmered at sunrise, and under the blaze of sunlight, it dazzled the pilgrims. Golden trappings adorned the rooftop of the temple, while multi-coloured floor tiles in geometric designs added further luxury. A hundred and sixty-two thick marble columns lined the sides inside the temple walls, each wide enough for three adults to link arms around it.

But unlike his followers who marvelled at this spectacle, Jesus was not impressed. He had seen the poor old widow placing small coins in the Treasury.

Every Jewish male had to pay a temple tax of half a shekel a year. This was the equivalent of about 1.5 Roman denarius. In Matthew Chapter 20, we know that a casual worker was paid one denarius for a day’s work at the vineyard.

Using a modern-day equivalent, a casual worker in Malaysia might earn about RM80100 for a full day’s work.

Let’s assume that half a million adult males paid the temple tax. That would be tens of millions of ringgit pouring into the temple coffers. Some of this would go for the temple upkeep.But instead of using the rest of the money from the temple tax to help the poor, it was used for never-ending temple expansion and to enrich the already wealthy and powerful.

That’s not all. Pilgrims from afar couldn’t use their own local currency within the Temple precincts because of the graven images on the coins of secular rulers, who considered themselves divine beings. Moreover, some of these coins would have been of questionable value and weight. 

So, the pilgrims had to exchange money for Temple coins to pay the temple tax. Ironically, these Temple coins were those of Tyre bearing the image of Melqart or Baal, whom the Jews derided as demonic or idolatrous – which were even more offensive! But hey, these coins of Tyre were of quality silver and reliable weight – so money talks!

In the exchange of coins, the money changers at the Temple profited as well, probably charging a fee, known as the kalbon, of about four per cent.

This fee was charged even if you had a full shekel but wanted to break it down to half a shekel. And so an additional kalbon was charged, and the effective fee would have been, perhaps almost  nine per cent.

Not only that, the Temple allowed traders to sell animals for sacrifice, turning it into a marketplace. More opportunities for money-making! Multiply all this trading and money changing by three – that was the number of major festivals every year.

Tens of thousands of animals would be slaughtered as blood sacrifice, and the pilgrimswould then be able to have a decent meal from the roast – a rare treat. It was safer to buy the animals from the traders here. You could bring your own animal for sacrifice, but if it had the slightest defect, it would be rejected. 

This slaughter of animals was great business for the city as thousands of animals, from near and far, would have to be bought and sold. The merchants were doing brisk business, and the city was prospering. 

But remember, at the time of Jesus, about 90 per cent of the people were peasants from the countryside, and some had even fallen into destitution. Most had barely enough savings for a rainy day. Some may even have lost their land due to poor harvests and heavy debt.

The Temple itself functioned like a bank, even storing the debt records of the people. (When rebels seized the temple decades later, one of the first things they destroyed were the temple’s debt records.)

The elite running the Temple were extracting huge sums from the poor, exploiting them in the name of religion.

The money changers were the “frontliners”, so too the animal traders, and they and other merchants and developers made lucrative profits from all this, burdening especially the poor.

Echoing Jeremiah 7:11, Jesus bellowed “den of robbers” to everyone within earshot, as he toppled the tables of the money changers and traders.

The Temple also barred Gentiles and women from the inner courts, which were on progressively raised platforms.

Both Jews and Gentiles could enter the complex, but the Gentiles could not go beyond the Court of the Gentiles. Archaeologists have found plaques with inscriptions reading: “Let no foreigner enter within the parapet and the partition which surrounds the Temple precincts. Anyone caught [violating] will be held accountable for his ensuing death.”

The Jews were allowed closer, but Jewish women could only get as far as the Court of the Women, while the males could proceed to the Court of Israel.

Only priests were allowed nearer the Temple building proper, where the altar of sacrifice was located, just outside the entrance to the building.

Inside the building was the Most Holy, and this was separated from the Holy of Holies, by a thick curtain, where once a year a priest could enter to sprinkle the blood of sacrifice.

These physical barriers restricted ordinary people’s access to God’s enduring presence, at least in their minds.

The extractive profiteering racket near or in the Court of the Gentiles in the name of religion and the restriction of access to the Holy of Holies ran totally counter to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “But the hour is coming — indeed is already here — when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks.

God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4: 23-24)

The curtain blocking the Holy of Holies was torn down when Jesus was crucified. No longer would the presence of God be restricted to only a handful. This was a Father who cared for all who were suffering. 

As for that magnificent Temple complex, Herod’s crown jewel, it was finally completed eight decades later, long after Herod had died. But just a few years after its completion, the Romans almost completely destroyed the Temple in 70AD.

––This article is dedicated to the memory of the activist Aegile Fernandez, champion of the downtrodden

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