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Moneychangers in Worship - learning from Jesus in Mark 11 and 12

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 11:15-19, 12:41-44

In our passage this week, we are shown the wrong heart for worship, and we are shown the right heart. The temple leaders allowed merchants to interfere with the Gentiles who had traveled to the temple for worship. And yet a destitute widow still gave all she had to support that worship.

"My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!” Mark 11:17

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Moneychangers in Our Churches?

Churches make plenty of decisions that make the rest of us shake our heads. But there can be a big difference between a questionable choice and an actual sin. In our passage this week, Jesus is going to overturn the tables of the moneychangers; I’m going to suggest that you start with “If Jesus were to show up in American churches today, what things do you think He would overturn and cast out?” When I’ve asked this question in groups past, it seems always to become a referendum on church coffee shops and church ATMs/giving kiosks. Is it that simple? Here's how to approach this: write down everyone's answers, and then after discussing the passage (and learning what Jesus was actually upset about), see if anyone has changed their mind.

[Just so you know: I think Jesus has two main rebukes: (1) the merchants (in cooperation with the temple leaders) were profiting off of the worshipers; (2) the merchants were creating a barrier against the worshipers. Let me apply this to coffee shops and kiosks. Is the coffee shop in the sanctuary such that it distracts worshipers? (Sadly, some churches have done this.) Does the church set high prices to profit off of members? (Rare, but not unheard of.) Does the church require members to buy their coffee? (I haven't heard of this happening.) How about kiosks: does the church require that members give in cash and charge a high fee to use the church’s ATM? (Surely no one is this bald-faced.) Does the church require that people swipe their card before they’re allowed in the sanctuary? (Can you imagine that?) That’s essentially what the merchants were doing. People were coming from all over the world for the Passover. Selling them animals to sacrifice, or offering moneychanging services, was not the problem—those are reasonable and useful services. It was the where and the how that upset Jesus. (We will see that Jesus cares most about the heart.)]

Back to our churches. Coffee shops and giving kiosks aren’t necessarily a problem. But like everything else, we can turn them into a problem based on how we use them (and why we offer them). Yes, we can quickly point to the deplorable practice of some ministries—”send us money and we will pray for you”—but how different is that from the wealthiest church members getting preferential treatment? Do you remember the practice of pew rentals? (How did we ever justify that?) What about churches that consistently use significant amounts of worship service time to tell people to give more money? Posting giving totals? We can create many different barriers to worshipers in our churches if we’re not careful. (BTW: If you see this topic just starting arguments in your group, don’t use it! Let the obvious applications come up in the studying of Jesus' words in our passage.)

This Week's Big Idea: The Monday of Holy Week

Here’s a handy map for our passage this week (as with every graphic, you can click on it to enlarge). From Bethany, Jesus could essentially go straight to the temple complex without having to walk through Jerusalem proper (where He might be “kidnapped”). On Sunday, Jesus had made a grand entrance through the Sheep Gate and put the city on red alert. So on Monday (and again on Tuesday), Jesus likely went directly into the temple through the Shushah Gate. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Jesus did the bulk of His teaching outside the city (eg. The Olivet Discourse).

In these last days, Jesus’ Jewish enemies first tried to trap Him by getting Him to say something scandalous in public—”what authority do you have to do these things?” “should we pay taxes to Caesar?” “what about marriage in the resurrection?” “what’s the greatest commandment?”. But Jesus always “won” those encounters, so they shifted their tactic to straight betrayal, lies, and armed kidnapping. Our passage combines two separate events that happened in the temple.

About The Temple Complex

For your class members’ sake, make sure to explain what Jesus was doing. The largest part of the temple complex was the open courtyard surrounding the actual temple, “The Court of the Gentiles”. Anyone was allowed in here. This is where the merchants would have been set up. This courtyard was some 35 acres! The merchants would have concentrated around the outer gates and around the doors in the inner fence (“soreg”) past which Gentiles could not enter. This would have been a huge area and a huge undertaking on Jesus’ part; I’m assuming that many merchants would have packed up on their own before Jesus got to them. They were there with the permission of the temple leaders, so they would have complained up the ladder very quickly, putting an even bigger target on Jesus’ chest. Secondly, people would use the temple courts as a “shortcut” through Jerusalem (like a gas station parking lot; just look at how congested Jerusalem likely was!). Because the Jews had decided that Gentiles could only worship in this courtyard, these activities were a major distraction to their worship. So, rather than being a house of prayer for all peoples, the Jews had turned the temple into a place of profit, discrimination, and distraction.

Make sure everyone catches that last point: the Court of the Gentiles (where these merchants were) was not like a narthex/atrium. It was a place of worship (the only place Gentiles were allowed to worship). Do you see the distinction? This is nothing like a visiting group setting up a merchandise table in the atrium for their Saturday concert; this is that group setting up their table on the platform during a Sunday morning service. That makes a difference.


Part 1: Cleansed (Mark 11:15-17)

They came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began to throw out those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. He was teaching them: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!”

On the previous page, I describe what these merchants were doing. It’s also significant to know how much; it’s impossible to equate to modern currency, but we can believe that these merchants brought in $10M for the temple, and they would have kept at least $1M of that. That might not sound like a lot in today's economy, but it was a significant percentage of the total available currency. Jesus was messing with Big Business. All four Gospels mention this event (John puts it early in chapter 2; I personally think John is talking about a separate but similar action) because it so clearly encapsulates the difference between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. (And let’s make one thing clear: money should never determine our actions in our churches, but we all know that it does.) In addition to what I mentioned on the previous pages, also note this: The Greek words used indicate force, but not violence. Also, the fact that Jesus drove out both the buyers and sellers clarifies that He was not against the merchants but the transaction.

As far as I’m concerned, Jesus gives an irrefutable defense of His action in quoting Isaiah 56:7. The Jewish leaders should have known better. They had not just turned the temple into a marketplace (in which haggling sellers competed with one another for sacrifice buyers), but they had (unintentionally?) encouraged corruption, oppression, and discrimination. God had always wanted His temple to be a beacon to the world, but the Jews had tried to keep it to themselves. Jesus’ follow-up quote of Jeremiah 7:11 was especially brutal. In Jeremiah’s day, Jeremiah wasn’t just talking about the actions within the temple—he was talking about the Jewish leaders’ entire lifestyle. They were so far from God that the temple could be thought of as an actual den of thieves!


Aside: What Were the Moneychangers Actually Doing?

I’m sure the primary thought from the merchants and Jewish leaders was not “Jesus foiled our scheme!” but “What’s the big deal?”.

Sacrifices. We have talked about the Jewish sacrificial system at length; worshipers had to bring various kinds of animal and vegetable offerings (especially at Passover), and there were all kinds of restrictions on the type of animal acceptable. To be fair, many worshipers who traveled from great distance were not able to bring their sacrifice with them, and many did not have access to the acceptable sacrifice, and so Jewish entrepreneurs made those sacrifices available for purchase. That’s really not a problem. That’s no different than our church saying that we will get the Easter Lilies in bulk and you can pay us back for them.

Moneychanging. In New Testament times, every city (!) had its own currency. But the Temple Tax, which was to be collected from every Jewish male, was a “silver Tyrian half-shekel”. Well, someone had to determine what was the financial equivalent for this shekel, and so there would be moneychangers. (For that matter, most merchants would only accept shekels as payment, so the foreign Jews needed help with that, too—just like we do when we go on a foreign mission trip.) So again, what’s the big deal with providing this helpful and necessary service? Simple: loud haggling and dishonest price-gouging. I’m sure you can see how these things would be a natural tendency for any merchant, as well as how distracting they would be to happen right in the midst of earnest worshipers!


Part 2: Feared (Mark 11:18-19)

The chief priests and the scribes heard it and started looking for a way to kill him. For they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was astonished by his teaching. Whenever evening came, they would go out of the city.

The Jewish leaders had every right to be upset at what Jesus said. Unfortunately, none of them actually listened to Jesus and looked in the mirror, so to speak. (Even if I don’t like what someone has said about me, I always take inventory to see if there might be any truth to it!) “Chief priests” likely refers to the two men who will preside over Jesus’ trial: Caiaphas and the former High Priest Annas. They were all afraid of the people. There certainly would have been common people present who had welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday. And [take a poll of your group] doesn’t everyone like to see a dishonest businessman get outed? Jesus would have been very popular among the people then.


Part 3: Observed (Mark 12:41-42)

Sitting across from the temple treasury, he watched how the crowd dropped money into the treasury. Many rich people were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two tiny coins worth very little.

Your leader guide makes a huge jump into the next chapter. This particular event probably happened on the next day, Tuesday. If the passage we just talked about shows us the wrong heart when it comes to God’s work and worship, then this passage shows us the right heart.

It’s always fun to rain judgment down on greedy and immoral people like the merchants, but it’s more important for us to learn (and do) the right thing. I’ve given you lots of background information to make this passage more “alive”, but make sure you save plenty of time for these last points. The temple treasury was in the Court of Women (see the previous diagram) so that women could give money. This was a public location where everybody could see what was given. And instead of checks (where $1M looks like $1 from a distance), people gave in coins (where big money looked different than little money). We know from elsewhere that at least some people made a show of their giving (Matt 6:2).

So, Jesus was sitting and teaching His disciples from a place where He could see this giving (it sounds like the Jews had retreated from their failed verbal attacks). He noticed a poor widow (probably distinguished by her clothing) who gave an “insignificant” offering of “two small copper coins” that would have been worth very little. It should be easy for you to connect this with your group. Churches require thousands of dollars a week to “keep the doors open” (payroll, utilities, insurance, not to mention actual ministry expense), so every church should be eternally grateful for those professionals who can afford to give large tithes that keep our churches going. But not everybody can give as much. What about our kids? Or our elderly on fixed incomes? Or our young families with multiple young children? We all know that $1000 is more than $1. So how do we encourage our lower-income members to continue to give to the Lord through the church when it seems obvious to everyone that their gifts don’t make as “big” an impact?

This story in Mark has attracted attention since the Gospel was written; we all have an emotional response to the sacrifice of a widow. But we might not appreciate the full extent of her actions. You should remember that women were considered second-class citizens in the ancient world (often lower than her sons). However, her father was supposed to give her husband a “dowry” to provide financial security to the family. When the husband died, the widow would have access to her dowry; also, she would have the choice of returning to her parents’ home. Further, a number of wives helped their husbands manage the family business or property; they were often shrewd enough to know how to keep the money. So—if the widow’s father or deceased husband had been wealthy, there is a good chance that the widow would be financially okay.

However, just like today, some widows had never been wealthy. And some widows simply outlived their wealth. And some widows were targets of unscrupulous men who sold them unnecessary goods or charged them for prayers (see Luke 20:47). Paul establishes the difference between a widow who could take care of herself and a widow who was truly destitute (1 Tim 5). If a widow was destitute, she was in big trouble. There was no social security. No government housing. No assurance of having children nearby. Plenty of widows simply prayed in the temple and survived on handouts. The widow in our passage is one of those destitute.


Part 4: Commended (Mark 12:43-44)

Summoning his disciples, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had —all she had to live on.”

Come on, you all know the answer to my question. It’s not about the size of the gift; it’s about the size of the heart. Below, I give information about the biggest charitable gifts being made in our country—spoiler alert: those people can afford to make those gifts. In other words, to God (and God’s opinion is the only one that matters), the little gifts being made by our kids are just as important as the bigger ones being made by their grandparents. Sure, if we had a church entirely populated by little kids and poor widows, we would have a small budget and we would have to significantly change the way we operate, but we could still do the Lord’s work and make a difference for the kingdom. And one day, those little kids will be able to give significant tithes to their churches—but that’s not the point. The point is, do we see the work of God’s kingdom as important enough to give sacrificially to it? I know what some would say: “Our churches are inefficient; they aren’t perfect users of this money; it would be better to spend my money elsewhere.” Okay. But what did I just say about the Jewish temple leaders? They were actual thieves! But Jesus didn’t say, “That dumb woman shouldn’t be supporting this corrupt system!” He commended her for her faith and generosity. Obviously, her small gift would not make the difference between the temple staying open or closing, which means that Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple at all. He was talking about the widow’s heart of worship. Does that make sense? He wasn’t commending her for keeping the temple running. He was commending her for being a true worshiper in a place that should be set aside for true worship.

This passage is not about how much we should give to church. That’s not the point. Are we giving a sum of money that accurately reflects God’s work in our lives and our gratitude for His many blessings? That’s what God asks of us. Here’s your lesson wrapup: do you see your church building as a house of prayer for all people? When you come to worship, do your actions (and your church leaders’ actions) promote true worship? Ask God to help prepare your heart for the worship service about to begin.


Closing Thoughts: The Biggest American Givers

Some of the numbers I found in this research are astonishing. In 2017, Bill Gates donated $4.7 billion to the Bill Gates Foundation. That brings his lifetime giving to more than $50 billion (!!!). Wow, wouldn’t you say! Well…. That most recent gift represented 5% of his net worth, and he is still the wealthiest person in the world. In other words, do you think he’s even noticed the $50B he’s given away? (Of course not. How much money does anyone really need to live on?)

Here’s more of the list (all in 2017; 2018 hasn’t been released yet):

  • Mark Zuckerberg gave $1.9B to his own foundation (he’s worth $76B).

  • Michael Dell gave $1B to his own foundation (he’s worth $24B).

  • Henry Hillman gave $800M to his own foundation.

  • Florence Irving gave $600M to his own medical centers.

  • Helen Diller gave $500M to UCSF.

  • Roy Vagelos gave $250M to Columbia University.

And the list goes on with more incomprehensible sums of money. In almost every case, the money was given to or from that person’s own charitable foundation/trust.

Let me clearly say that I am thrilled that these people are giving that money; those gifts keep non-profits afloat (and many of those non-profits make big differences). But let’s be clear: it is not heroic for people to give a sum of money that they won’t notice is gone. What we should celebrate are the “regular” people in our communities who have changed their lifestyle so that they can give more to their churches and non-profits. You and I might never give $1M away, but together, our gifts can combine to make a big difference in our communities. (And remember, I said that the size of our giving isn’t the point! We trust that God will help us “stretch” our money as far as possible in our churches, ministries, missions, and non-profits. Again, it’s not the size of the gift, it’s the size of the heart.)


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