“I like the Jesus who overturned the tables most of all,” my colleague said. I think he was being a tad facetious, but there is also truth in his words. I hear folks using this incident in the gospels as a justification for anger or acting ugly. So what does it really mean?
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”Matthew 21:12–13 NIV
A clear timeline of Jesus’s actions is helpful in this case. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11), Jesus enters the temple. He looks around and sees what’s happening. Of course he notices (or already knew about) the money changers. But, contrary to popular thought, he does not fly off the handle and immediately begin whipping crowds. Instead Mark’s Gospel tells us he goes to Bethany for the night (Mark 11:11), and returns to Jerusalem the next day (Mark 11:12).
Only then does he overturn the tables. And he only upsets the tables of those selling doves. Doves were the poor person’s offering (Leviticus 5:7) and the moneychangers were charging prices they could not afford. Jesus is protesting the extortion of the poor. He’s reacting to the fact that the marginalized are being sidelined and kept from worshipping God.
No people are harmed. Jesus is not violent (unless you consider some destruction of some tables and the scattering of animals as violent). And remember this act was directed at the religious legalists, not the unbelievers.
“But what about the whip?” you ask. The whip is mentioned only once in John 2:15 in an earlier incident of clearing the temple. And while it looks like Jesus is violent here, there is evidence that his whip was a small tool used only to drive out the animals and not an Indiana-Jones-whip used on people.
Jesus upset the tables to prove a point. It was controlled, calculated, and targeted at one thing. It was not a violent outburst of emotion. Not a random destruction of whatever was in his path. It was a prophetic hint to the destruction of the temple and a disruption of their unjust system. And remember, this act set things in motion for final week of his life.
Let’s not take one incident in scripture with a specific point to overshadow all the other references to Jesus. He came as a ransom, to die for sin (Matthew 20:28), not to overthrow the human empire.
I believe there are times when righteous anger is appropriate (such as when supermarkets in poor sections of town charge higher prices than in the suburbs or when religious legalists burden us with rules), but we would be wise to be guided by the Holy Spirit, not our emotions or agenda.