42 – Monopoly Pricing

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves (Matt. 21:12-13).

The theocentric principle here is the centrality of the worship of God.

Holy Housecleaning

This was the second time that Jesus performed this cleansing of the temple. The first time was during the week before the Passover, three years earlier. "And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise" (John 2:13-16). Here, He did it again. Liberals argue that the two accounts are scrambled chronologically. Conservatives argue that the priests were slow learners.

Jesus was not arrested either time. This is very strange. He clearly violated other people's property. He used force. He entered a holy place and called the resident exchangers harsh words. By doing so, He was challenging those in charge of the temple. They allowed this to go on. But what, exactly, was going on? Something that Jesus called theft. This was a very serious accusation. Yet the authorities did nothing. They did not formally accuse Jesus of being a false witness.

There was a reason: they were guilty as charged. But what were they guilty of? In John's account, he called them merchandisers. In Matthew's account, He called them thieves. Why was it theft to be a merchandiser? Why would Jesus have twice singled out those inside the temple as the objects of His wrath? Scripture gives no indication that He ever physically assaulted anyone else, yet He used a whip on these people the first time.

Holy Space

The temple was holy space, a sanctuary. Inside its walls a higher ethical standard was to prevail. The closer that men came to the holy of holies, the greater the threat of their own moral pollution. God might bring sanctions against them. This is why the three families of Levi served as guardians of the temple, surrounding it in concentric circles (Num. 3; 4).1

When the merchants set up shop within the walls of the temple they accepted greater responsibility for dealing righteously. They were not selling items in a market with open entry to competitors. Their merchandise had to meet high standards. The body of no blemished animal could lawfully be burned on the altar.2 Thus, the animals sold for sacrifice had to be screened by the priests or their agents. To do this screening conveniently, the priests brought the merchants' tables inside the boundary of the temple.

One of the forms of sacrifice was a coin, the shekel. The temple originally had its own shekel.3 It was the standard of weight and fineness for temple assessments. "This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD" (Ex. 30:13). It was therefore unlawful to bring a coin from outside the temple unless it was of the same weight and fineness.

In Jesus' day, Jews came from around the Mediterranean to offer sacrifice. They brought many different kinds of coins. The Jews did not approve of coins with people's likenesses on them, especially the emperor's, which bore proclamations of his divinity.4 During the Bar Kochba rebellion (133-35), the Jews hammered out the images of the emperors on Roman coins and drew in scenes from the temple.5 To bring a Roman coin to make an offering would have been a sacrilege. These coins had to be exchanged for temple coins.

False Dealing

This would have created opportunities for false dealing. The temple coins could have been sold at a premium beyond the weight and fineness of the coins' metals. It is likely that the moneychangers had been given special a dispensation by the priests. Moneychangers inside the walls of the temple would not have faced competition from rivals who were not authorized by temple authorities. Over decades and centuries, devious practices would have become common. The opportunity for above-market returns is always tempting and rarely resisted for long. Higher prices charged by the temple's moneychangers would have raised suspicion about the priests' collusion. To transfer monopoly power to charge higher than free market prices is to transfer wealth. Those who possess such power are unlikely to transfer it free of charge. Once transferred, such a monopoly is difficult to revoke. Those who pay in advance for it expect to be compensated. They bid up the entry price on the basis of expected future income. They resist any attempt to lower the price unless they are offered refunds.6

Jesus identified their practices as theft. They were stealing from the faithful who came to offer sacrifice. They were also stealing from God. They were undermining His reputation. False weights and measures are an abomination to God. "But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee" (Deut. 25:15). "A false balance is abomination to the LORD: but a just weight is his delight" (Prov. 11:1). The misuse of a monopoly granted in God's name was the judicial equivalent of false weights.

The priests did not prosecute Jesus. Why not? The most obvious reason is that they were in collusion with the merchants who were extracting monopoly returns.

Who Owned the Temple?

Jesus asserted that He was the Son of the Owner. In Matthew's account, Jesus cited an Old Testament passage: "It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer;7 but ye have made it a den of thieves." 8 But in John's account, He made a claim: "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise" (John 2:16). He was the true heir. He was coming on behalf of the Owner of the temple.

Jesus twice invaded the outer court and overturned the tables. This violation of property rights was grounded in law: as the designated agent of the Owner, He was authorized to enforce the terms of the lease. This was a house of prayer; it had been turned into a place where thieves took advantage of worshippers. They were using the sacred character of the temple to extract monopoly profits. They were cashing in on God's name.

Jesus rightly regarded them as squatters. They presumably had been authorized by the chief priest to conduct their operations. By physically assaulting the moneychangers, Jesus was announcing His revolt against the religious authorities. He was challenging the faithfulness of the hierarchy, i.e., the priesthood. They were false priests, He indirectly asserted. They deserved no better treatment than the moneychangers. In fact, they deserved worse. They knew better. They bore greater responsibility. "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47-48).

The agent of the Owner routed the agents of the priesthood. They priests claimed to act on God's behalf in His name. Jesus visibly challenged this claim by forcibly driving out the priests' agents. This was a conflict between authorities: a self-ordained establishment vs. a man baptized by an outsider who was regarded by the people as a prophet. This was one more confrontation between a prophet and the priesthood. Prophets had usually lost these confrontations, and the ecclesiastical winners subsequently perished at the hand of some invading military power. So it would be again, but this time the invader would end the Old Covenant order by burning the temple.

Jesus' violation of the property rights of the economic agents of the priests was based on His superior claim of ownership. He did not appeal to the existing authorities to enforce His claim. He acted on His own authority, for He had been given this authority by the Owner. Soon thereafter, the priests would attempt to undermine His authority. "And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things" (Matt. 21:23-27). Once again, He undermined their authority by His answer.

The priests feared the people. The people respected John's memory. Jesus had been baptized by John. If the people could not be swayed in their opinion regarding Jesus' authority, the priests were powerless to reassert their authority. Their hold on the affections of the people was tenuous. The question was: What about Jesus' hold on the people's affections? Could this be broken? He had used force against their agents. They would soon use force on Him, first in a trial before the Sanhedrin, and then by trials by Roman authorities.

Control over the temple was at the heart of the question of authority in Israel. Through His actions against the moneychangers, Jesus was asserting a superior claim of authority. He had already made this claim: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:56-58). A prior claim is a superior claim. He was asserting a claim that predated the temple.

The Jewish leaders had to silence His claim. If they could not do this, their claim of representation would be undermined. They would be overthrown. To silence Him, they appealed to Rome. They invoked Rome's authority in order to eliminate Jesus' authority. "But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).

Jesus attacked the invaders of the temple. He did so in the name of God. He claimed to be the lawful heir. He referred to the temple as "my Father's house." In the context of what had taken place immediately prior to this confrontation, this was a sensational claim. The people had just proclaimed Him as the heir of David's throne. "And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest" (Matt. 21:8-9). Now He was asserting jurisdiction over the temple. David could not have made such a claim. He had been a king, not a priest. He was of the family of Judah. Levi was the priestly family.

One man in history had possessed such authority: Melchizedek. "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God" (Gen. 14:18). To him Abraham presented tithes (v. 20). Jesus was therefore announcing a new priesthood, meaning a new hierarchy. "Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 6:20). This meant that a New Covenant would be in force, with new laws. "For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life. For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 7:12-17).

Resurrected Temple

The legal right of Jesus to throw out the moneychangers was verified by His resurrection. By this, He demonstrated publicly that He was God's designated agent. He possessed the right to enforce the terms of the lease. When the priestly leaseholders refused to cleanse the temple of thieves, they forfeited their right to represent God. God demonstrated this by tearing down the temple in A.D. 70.

The argument between Jesus and the Jews from beginning of His ministry to the end had centered on the temple. He invoked the language of the temple to describe the resurrection. Immediately following His first scattering of the moneychangers, the Jews asked Him for a sign to validate this authority. "Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said" (John 2:18-22). The Jews remembered this at the time of His trial, even though the disciples had temporarily forgotten. "And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. But neither so did their witness agree together" (Mark 14:57-59).

Which temple was doomed to permanent destruction? Jesus' body or the temple? At the resurrection, the world had half of its answer. In A.D. 70, the world had the other half.

Conclusion

The temple was a house of prayer. By using the sacred authority of the temple to establish monopolistic pricing, the priests and the moneychangers had profaned the temple, i.e., had violated sacred space. Jesus drove out the moneychangers because they were thieves. It was not the fact that there was exchange going on that outraged Him. It was convenient for men to buy unblemished beasts to sacrifice. It was convenient that they could buy coins acceptable in worship. But the moneychangers had become thieves, exploiting their delegated position as agents of the priesthood. Their corruption reflected the priesthood's corruption. Jesus drive them out.

The top priority established in this passage is to avoid using God's holy office of ecclesiastical minister as a means of exploiting worshippers. When men seek church offices to gain income based on a misuse of authority, they violate this rule. Paul wrote: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous" (I Tim. 3:2-3). This is an extension of the top priority in this passage. Men who misuse God's holy office by stealing will be driven out.

Footnotes:

1.
Gary North, Sanctions and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Numbers (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), ch. 3, section on "Hierarchy and the Division of Labor."
2.
Leviticus 1:3; 3:1; 4:3, 23, etc.
3.
Exodus 30:13, 24; 38:24-26; Leviticus 5:15; Numbers 7.
4.
Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars: Historical Sketches (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 125-27.
5. Ibid., p. 126.
6.
This observation applies to all forms of licensing that require extra training or initial payment.
7.
"Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people" (Isa. 56:6-7).
8.
"Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD" (Jer. 7:11).

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