Monday, July 16, 2007

Money Changers and Baptized Capitalism?

Jim Ketchum, a writer for the Times Herald of Port Huron, MI said this:

Remember the Bible story about Jesus driving the moneychangers and other first-century capitalists from the temple in Jerusalem?

They were selling animals for sacrifices and padding their pockets doing currency exchanges.

Guess what: They're back.

Only this time they're in the United States.

There's no denying you can transform a product's desirability by slapping the adjective "Christian" on it - Christian books, Christian music, Christian clothing lines - as opposed to "pagan" or "heathen" books, music and clothing lines, I guess.

The word implies that buying the product in question somehow will help extend the kingdom of God and propagate the faith. What it really does is help pave someone's personal financial streets with gold.

Now while I agree with him on some parts of his article, I took umbrage with his mischaracterization of Jesus' temple thrashing, so I wrote him the following letter.

Jim,

I had to smile after reading your recent article on the sort of baptized commercialism in the market these days. Baptized inflation, you could call it! However, I'm not so quick to lampoon it seeing as similar things could be said of Jewish and Muslim markets. (Ever noticed the Kosher mark on foods, Jewish dating sites, or the recent increase of Halal markets?) Regardless, I do want to challenge you on one aspect of your criticism. You said that Jesus was attacking 1st century capitalists. While there was probably some up-market pricing, I don't think you have a good view of what was happening.

Jewish pilgrims from across the Greco-Roman and Persian world came to Jerusalem at the Passover to worship in the land of their ancestors (much as Muslims still go on hajj today). While the Torah instructed them to bring animals from their own flocks, many of these urban dwellers were no longer directly involved in herding and farming. Even if they had been, it would be quite impractical to drag an animal from home all the way across the desert sands or the Mediterranean Sea just to sacrifice it in Jerusalem. (What would happen if it died on the way?) Therefore, providing a service to their fellow Jews, certain people set up places where people could buy animals when they got to Jerusalem. Were the prices higher than what you would get elsewhere? Yes. But having recently returned from holiday in London, I can tell you that umbrellas, film, and batteries were more expensive near the major attractions than they were at the local pharmacy. That just makes sense - the space to rent is more expensive.

As for the money changers, they also provided a service. Coins from across the realm were carried by these pilgrims. While the precious metals in the coins were easy to value, the image of Caesar (or some other divine image) on the coin made it sacrilegious to use in paying the Temple Tax. Thus, the money changers exchanged the currency so that it was suitable to use in the Holy City. Again, we do the same thing today. There's a "cut" taken by the money changers at airports, and the same was true back then. Maybe it was exorbitant...we can't be sure.


One thing we can be sure of is that part of Jesus' ire was stoked at the place where the money changers were setting up shop.* The gospel accounts note that a bazaar had been set up in the Court of the Gentiles - the only place where non-Jews (commonly called god-fearers) could worship the true God on the Temple Mount. The court in which all this noise and hustling (literal and metaphorical) occurred was the only court of access for Gentiles when they wished to pray or meditate in the temple. They ought to have been able to worship in peace. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that they had the right to worship in peace. Instead they found themselves in the midst of a noisy bazaar. That's why Jesus specifically says that the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations.

*"It is erroneous to suppose that Jesus' action is an attack on the whole sacrificial system. His motive was one of reverence for my Father's house, and of deep concern that the spirit of worship should thus be dissipated at its very door...A place that should have stood as a symbol for the freedom of access of all nations in prayer to God, had become a place associated with sordid pecuniary interests" Wright, quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) p. 195, fn. 68.

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