The Synoptic Gospels relate that Jesus engaged in a violent prophetic sign-act in the Jerusalem Temple on the week of his death. Knocking over tables, upsetting animals, and scourging the money-changers, Jesus signaled the imminent demolition of Israel’s sanctuary by Roman armies (cf. John 2:19, Mark 13:1-2, 11:12-14). Indeed, at his trial and execution Jesus’ enemies would recount that he had arrogantly called down such destruction upon God’s holy place (Mark 14:18, 15:29).
Yet the motivations behind Jesus’ action in the Temple are rather opaque. For some, Jesus repudiated Israel’s whole priestly system—being that it was exploitative, hierarchical, and, of course, bloody. For others, Jesus condemned what he saw as an attempt to replace the “weightier matters of the Law—justice [at the gate], mercy [toward neighbor], and loyalty [to God]” with sacrificial piety alone (Matthew 23:23, cf. 9:13).
The pilgrim’s last hurrah
This latter explanation has its merits but I think more can be said. It is clear from Mark’s telling of the event that Jesus desired a different kind of reception at the Temple than the one he received. He had desired to find ripe figs upon the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) and to collect the produce of a vineyard in full bloom (Mark 12:1-9).1 Instead, however, he found a fruitless tree and murderous tenant-farmers. The welcome he received in the Temple, whatever it was, was unacceptable.
So what did Jesus expect?
The so-called Cleansing of the Temple is the climactic end to the so-called Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. According to Mark, Jesus orchestrated a royal procession meant to invoke Zechariah 9:9-17, an oracular ode to the future Davidic warlord who would conduct God’s battles against the pagans (Mark 11:1-10, cf. Matthew 21:4-5, John 12:14-15, 1 Kings 1:33-39).2 Clueing in to this symbolic gesture, other Jewish pilgrims (along with Jesus’ followers) hailed the wonder-working prophet as the Lord’s king, the son of David (Mark 11:9-10, John 12:12-14). They cried out to him, Hosanna, “save us,” and placed cloaks and palm branches at his feet.3 With Jesus here, so it seemed, the kingdom was about to appear.
Arriving then at the nation’s sacred heart, the Temple, Jesus intended these festivities to culminate in his coronation at the hands of Zion’s holiest men, the high priests. His qualifications finally acknowledged by Israel’s shepherds, Jesus’ reign would at last be secured over a righteous people. God would therefore act swiftly on his behalf to bring about the messianic age, the subjugation of the nations to Israel.
This, of course, is not what happened. The priests did not repent at the sound of Jesus’ populist overture. Rather, they continued to ignore and resist him (cf. Luke 19:38-39, Matthew 21:14-16). Israel’s last chance to kiss the son and receive the blessings of the Davidic kingdom had thus come and went. Now only divine judgement awaited Jerusalem and its Temple. Exasperated by this final and definitive rejection, Jesus lashed out, overturning the very site of his presumptive enthronement with prophetic zeal. Having delivered God’s message to an unworthy people, Jesus prepared his soul for what lie ahead—God’s king set upon a cross.4
1—Luke, for his part, places on Jesus’ lips a frustrated monologue between the Triumphal Entry and the Temple action. Jesus weeps because Jerusalem has not recognized “the time of [its] visitation [from the king who comes in the name of the Lord]” (Luke 19:44, cf. 19:39-40).
2—Jesus reportedly engaged in a similar political-prophetic act in the wilderness. Organizing thousands of men into rank and file, Jesus fed his followers bread and meat, thus invoking Israel’s military engagement with the Canaanite federation.
3—Following a successful revolt, Jews enter a liberated Jerusalem with palm branches in hand: “for a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51). Garments are placed at Jehu’s feet as he is trumpeted Israel’s king, usurper of the house of Omri (2 Kings 9:13).
4—This matter-of-fact interpretation of the Triumphal Entry as royal procession stands in tension with Jesus’ growing insistence that he (and others) must suffer on the way to the kingdom. Still, it is likely that Jesus held out hope that his people and their leaders might have a change of heart.