Signpost for Sunday Oct 1, 2017: Exod 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4, 12-16; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21:23-32.
It’s funny that when I read stories in the Bible I often forget the timescales involved. Take Exodus. I know that the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness, but when I’m reading this I just think, ‘Oh come on guys, you just got the manna, the quails, and now you’re moaning because you need a drink of water.’ They really get on my nerves, and I think for a chosen people, Yahweh should maybe have chosen someone else. Then again, maybe they’d been living on quail and manna for yonks before they got desperately thirsty.
Then we come to the passage from Matthew and it’s interesting that Jesus is surrounded not just by the chief priests but also the elders of the people, as well as the people themselves who had seen what Jesus did in the Temple.
Why are the chief priests and the elders of the people so annoyed with Jesus? We’ve heard this story so often we probably just think it’s because Jesus is seriously challenging their authority, overturning tables and all the rest of it. All that is true. But it’s not just authority the chief priests and elders stand to lose, it’s the money, lots of money.
Historians tell us that the money-changers’ business was based on exchanging Roman money for Temple money. It was a great scam that seemed reasonable enough to any Jew at first. After all, Roman coins were not allowed inside the temple because they were stamped with the image of the Emperor, who called himself a god. But here comes the scam: the money-changers were charging the small exchange fee of roughly 50%!
It wasn’t just a coin exchange scam either. Most people couldn’t possible afford to sacrifice a sheep, so they opted for a dove instead. Again, history gives us the details of the scam. There is evidence that a certain Rabbi Gamaliel, later in the first century, led a protest because of the outrageous mark-up on sacrificial doves. The protesters won and the price was lowered 99%. Which apparently still left the dove sellers with a very tidy profit!
And, of course, all those tidy profits had to be shared with the chief priests and the elders of the people who gave out the licenses to trade to the money changers and the dove sellers.
No wonder the chief priests and the elders of the people were cheesed off with Jesus. No wonder also that the people themselves were delighted with the story the man who had two sons, which follows. Jesus completely debunks any power those who have colluded in ripping off the people for years might lay claim to.
A popular uprising looks imminent.