On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts 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. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ (Mark 11:15-17)
There are, at least, four possible interpretations of Jesus’ famous actions in the temple. Some have suggested that his primary concern was the religious purity of the temple; other have concluded it was a statement of his authority over the temple; another interpretation is that it a prophetic act signalling the future destruction of the temple; and finally there are those who believe it was a political statement about the economic system that operated in first-century Palestine.
As with many theological debates, there is probably some truth in all four of these interpretations and I don’t think we need to choose between them. Therefore in what follows, I am not suggesting this is the only way to understand Jesus’ actions on that day – but it is one.
What we often don’t appreciate about the Jerusalem temple was that it not just a religious institution. It was also a bank. I mean this not just in the sense that it collected money from the population as they paid for their animals to be sacrificed, but also in the sense that it acted as a location to collect taxes (both Jewish and Roman), and that it received deposits from the people and gave out loans to those who wanted them. One estimate is that as much as the equivalent of $3 million was held on deposit in the temple coffers in the first century.
Hence, we can think of the temple as not just a religious building, but also a commercial and economic one. When Jesus disrupted the business of this temple bank he was not just challenging the sacrificial system of the priests; he was also challenging the whole economic system of Roman occupied Palestine. What angered him so much was the way in which that system used taxes to exploit others, taking revenue from the poorest and funnelling them up, through the temple, to the rich and powerful. When Jesus called it a ‘den of robbers’, he was referring to those who grew their wealth at the expense of the poor through taxation.
The parallels with today’s economic system are obvious. The global south loses out $200 - $400bn a year to tax dodging, over a $1 trillion dollars of profits is hidden in tax havens each year, up to £90bn each year is not paid in tax in the UK that should be paid; and through these mechanisms just 22 men hold more wealth than all the women in Africa leaving many impoverished both in the UK and across the globe.
Jesus’ actions that day did not change the economic system overnight. The next day, the temple bankers were back doing their thing. But his actions did tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of God. They showed us the stand that we must also take if we claim to be his followers. Campaigning for tax justice is part of how we do that.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..