Matthew 21: 12-17 Turning Tables and the Temple Upside Down

By Andrey Mironov 777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24847288

Matthew 21: 12-17

Parallel Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19: 45-56; John 2: 13-17

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem culminates at the temple in Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew’s narration of this scene adds a lot of rich symbolism to the way Mark and Luke narrate this brief scene. Like the previous scene, many people remember this scene the way John narrates it with Jesus making a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple (and John’s location of this event near the beginning of the gospel), but in Matthew, Mark and Luke this begins the direct conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities. Matthew in particular highlights many Davidic and prophetic themes in this purification of the temple.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a way that models Israel’s vision of an ideal king, and the rare good kings in Israel and Judah were responsible for bringing about reform in the temple. For example, Hezekiah’s repair and reform of the temple is narrated:

Hezekiah said, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the LORD, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from this holy place. For our ancestors have been unfaithful and have done what is evil in the sight of the LORD our God; they have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the dwelling of the LORD, and turned their backs. 2 Chronicles 29: 5-6

The connection between this scene in 2 Chronicles and Matthew is strengthened when you realize that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) the word translated ‘carry out’ in 2 Chronicles is the same word translated ‘drove out’ in Matthew. The Greek word ekballo, which is used in both places, is more commonly translated in Matthew ‘cast out’ and is the term used when Jesus exorcises demons. While Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is purifying the temple, he may also be communicating that Jesus is performing an exorcism on the temple. The action is further explained by joining together two pieces of scripture in quotation. The first is Isaiah 56:7:

These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 56 combines a vision of an expansive hope where foreigner and eunuchs once excluded from the temple are now included while the ‘sentinels and shepherds’ (Israel’s leaders-both religious and political) are condemned for their blindness. This is joined to Jeremiah 7:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. Jeremiah 7: 8-11

Matthew is the only gospel when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” to specifically include the prophet Jeremiah as a portion of the answer (16: 14) and Matthew’s narration of the conflict between Jesus and the temple and the temple authorities echoes Jeremiah’s conflict with the temple and its leaders in his time. Both temples will be destroyed (the temple in Jeremiah’s time by Babylon, about 30 years after Jesus’ death the temple will be destroyed by Rome). Matthew will transition rapidly between prophetic and kingly allusions for Jesus throughout the crucifixion narrative, but this is not new in Matthew’s gospel. Just as the crowds in Matthew 16:14 (and entering Jerusalem in the previous section) could understand Jesus in terms of a prophet, Peter in 16:16 can highlight that ‘Messiah’ is an appropriate title for Jesus, and the crowds (as well as a foreigners (15:22) and the blind (9:27, 20:30)) can understand Jesus as the ‘Son of David.’

The moneychangers and dove sellers are replaced in the temple by the blind and the lame. Although Jesus is well known for his healing of the blind and the lame, this action is also symbolically rich when contrasted with David’s story. In 2 Samuel 5, the Jebusites who David conquers to take control of Jerusalem taunt David saying: “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”  (2 Sam. 5: 6) and when David conquers Jerusalem the phrase is now turned around to exclude the blind and the lame from Jerusalem and David’s house (perhaps excluding those Jebusites who were maimed in the battle). Yet, Jesus entering the temple makes space for the blind and the lame, and just as Isaiah 56 expanded the house of God to the previously limited eunuchs and foreigners, now the blind and lame are now made whole and enter into the temple of God with Jesus. Children are also present, just as they have been present throughout the section immediately prior to entering Jerusalem (18: 1-9; 19: 13-15) speaking the words the crowds shouted upon entering Jerusalem.

Jesus has upset the sacrificial system in the temple and has directly overturned the world of the chief priests and the scribes who are responsible for the temple. They are indignant (I translated this term as resentful earlier with the disciples (20:24) and indignant or resentful work here as well).There is probably an element of political danger with the proclamation of Jesus as ‘Son of David’ that may endanger not only Jesus, but they may feel, justly, that anyone acting like a king could be a danger to not only themselves and their followers but to the temple and the city as well. Yet, their conflict with Jesus will often ignore the actions of Jesus (both the symbolic and the healings) and focus on authority. Yet, Jesus invites them to wonder at what is happening in their midst and to hear scripture in a new way. They hear in the crowds proclamation danger, instead of hearing Psalm 8:3

Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’[1]

which helps the attentive reader understand that this is a time for praise because God is at work in the world and in the temple. Matthew quickly ends the day by taking Jesus and his followers outside Jerusalem to Bethany where he spends the night before returning to the temple again the following day.

[1] This is Psalm 8:2 in English/Hebrew, Matthew follows the Septuagint’s wording rather than the Hebrew text behind the NRSV and other translations. The versification in the Septuagint is different from most English translations in the Psalms, here it is only one verse difference but in other places it can be off by a chapter.

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