Book Excerpt: Was Jesus Really a Critic of Capitalism and Finance?
This is an excerpt from my new book, The Makers Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.
Jesus’s confrontation with the moneychangers has been used as political ammunition in an ideological war against the financial industry. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address extensively referenced this text:
Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.
Is this really a sound application of the event? Was Jesus really engaged in a general indictment of finance?
Not really. If you’ve read this far, you already know we have been tracing Jesus’s progression (or is it regression?) from Galilee into Judea, escalating His confrontations in direct proportion to His proximity to Jerusalem, the center of political power. The denunciations of wealth correlate both with geographic proximity to Jerusalem and social proximity to the ruling class.
Jesus is tough on the rich in politically connected Judea and, when in Judea, toughest on the politically connected wealthy people: Those who are members of religious and political elites (typically the same people) who live off extracted wealth. Those who do not receive His verbal ire are those who created wealth through labor, commerce, or even investment. That last point—a tolerant attitude toward financial activity—was out of keeping with the culture in two ways.
The “conservative” aristocracy were land based and skeptical of the nascently forming financial markets.
David Fiensy makes this point very well in Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy. The ancient economy of the Mediterranean was overwhelmingly agrarian. It was based on land and farming. In such a system, more land, more wealth. There were very few options to deploy wealth but to buy land. One of the few alternatives was to invest in trading and shipping. But that was viewed as highly risky. Land, on the other hand, was viewed as the culturally acceptable and financially less risky investment.
But Jesus conspicuously goes against the grain on this point by telling a number of parables that involve finance, as opposed to agriculture, being placed in a positive light. Examples include the Parable of the Unfaithful Steward and the Parable of the Talents, as well as several smaller parables. And they all present a positive view of the investor character in the parable. Probably both of these parables put God in the investor role. Would Jesus talk this way if He thought of finance as an unrighteous profession?
Given Jesus’s decision to break with conservative impulses in His culture and portray finance in a favorable light, it is unlikely His confrontation with the moneychangers was simply because He allegedly disapproved of the fact they dealt with finance. Given Jesus’s criticism of the temple and its elites, it seems more likely their location on temple grounds was at least one part of His objection. The account specifies He confronted them when He entered the temple, therefore they were on temple grounds. He specifically criticized their presence there, contrasting it with Solomon’s temple, which was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Instead, it was turned into a “robbers’ den”—a reference to Jeremiah, who also criticized the temple elites of his time. The text makes clear that this activity taking place on temple grounds was an issue.
And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves;
and He would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple.
And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.”
And the chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for all the multitude was astonished at His teaching.—Mark 11:15–18 (emphases mine)
And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves.
And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.”—Matthew 21:12–13 (emphases mine)
I’ve emphasized several phrases to draw attention to some points that might be missed otherwise. One of them, which I’ve already discussed, is the fact that the moneychangers were confronted after Jesus entered the temple, therefore they were on temple ground. Also, please note the phrase “robbers’ den.” I’ve already mentioned this is borrowed from Jeremiah. But it’s important to see how appropriate this designation was. Jesus called this a robbers’ den because they were robbers. The temple system was dishonest in numerous ways, which we can discuss in greater detail elsewhere.
One matter that stands out is the dishonest nature of the currency transactions. According to Alfred Edersheim’s monumental tome, The Temple:
...But by far the largest sum was derived from the half-shekel of Temple tribute, which was incumbent on every male Israelite of age, including proselytes and even manumitted slaves. As the shekel of the sanctuary was double the ordinary, the half-shekel due to the Temple treasury amounted to about 1s. 4d. (two denarii or a didrachma). Hence, when Christ was challenged at Capernaum for this payment, He directed Peter to give the stater, or two didrachmas, for them both. This circumstance also enables us to fix the exact date of this event. For annually, on the 1st of Adar (the month before the Passover), proclamation was made throughout the country by messengers sent from Jerusalem of the approaching Temple tribute. On the 15th of Adar the money-changers opened stalls throughout the country to change the various coins, which Jewish residents at home or settlers abroad might bring, into the ancient money of Israel. For custom had it that nothing but the regular half-shekel of the sanctuary could be received at the treasury. On the 25th of Adar business was only transacted within the precincts of Jerusalem and of the Temple, and after that date those who had refused to pay the impost could be proceeded against at law, and their goods distrained, the only exception being in favour of priests, and that ‘for the sake of peace,’ that is, lest their office should come in disrepute.…
So, the temple shekel was double weight, which no doubt had pious justifications about the glory—literally the heaviness—of the matters of God. But the bottom line is worshippers had to pay twice the amount, due to dishonest weights and measures. And the mechanics of this financial abuse were carried out by the moneychangers. That is why Jesus calls them “robbers.”