On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
Mark 11:15-16 (New International Version)
The 3 synoptic gospels tell us that after Jesus had made his grand entrance into Jerusalem, he went to the temple and chased out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. It’s a story that many Christians are fond of. Here is none of that wimpy turn-the-other-cheek guff. This is a kick ass Jesus who knows how to sort out the bad guys. Time and again, this incident has been used by Christians to justify their participation in violence. Faced with the exploitation of the temple courtyards, Jesus forgets the idealistic nonsense and gives them a taste of the only language they’ll understand.
First, forget any assumption that Jesus is objecting to commerce in the temple. This was essential for two reasons. First, the law demanded the sacrifice of unblemished animals. Having animals available for sale ‘on the spot’ made a good deal of sense. How irritating would it be to drag a basket with a couple of doves in it all the way from Galilee to discover when you arrived in Jerusalem that they weren’t up to scratch? Like the animal sellers, the moneychangers provided an essential service, turning Roman money (with its image of the emperor) into something which could be taken into the temple without breaking the Law of God. So these weren’t corrupt practices, but essential to the running of the temple.
What we see when Jesus goes to the temple is not a violent confrontation with evil-doers. Like Palm Sunday, it’s another bit of street theatre — or enacted prophecy, if you’d rather. Jesus is declaring the end of the temple and its sacrifices, not acting decisively to protect its purity. Here he stands in a direct line which runs from the prophets, who were ever suspicious of the temple and its hierarchy. For this reason, the title ‘cleansing of the temple’ is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus isn’t seeking to reform or renew the Temple. In this prophetic act, he’s declaring its end.
To try to use this incident as a justification for Christian involvement in violence is an act of utter desperation. Faced with the overwhelming evidence of the life and teaching of Jesus, the only way such reasoning can be sustained is by giving priority to an existing commitment to pursue violence over the Lordship of Christ. It’s as simple as that. No one can serve two masters, he said. And he meant it.