The Temple: A Robber’s Den

By: Rev. Sam Harris; ©2003
A reader questions why Jesus would have called the Temple “a den of thieves” or “a robber’s den.” Rev. Harris helps us understand.

The Temple: A Robber’s Den?


This may sound like a dumb question, but your column is titled “Bibles for Dummies,” so I am asking you this question: In Matthew 21:13, Jesus said to the people in the Temple: “It is written, My House shall be called a House of Prayer; but you are making it a robbers’ den.” Help me to understand why Jesus is calling the Temple “a robbers’ den.”


The reason that this column is written is because there are no dumb questions. Yours is a very good question and deserving of an answer.

In many amusement parks and stadiums around the country today, you are not allowed to carry in any coolers, food, etc. Since 9-11, one of the reasons is for security purposes. Once inside the park or stadium, you often will pay greatly inflated prices for food and souvenirs. A coke might be $4 and a bag of popcorn $3. To feed a family of four might cost $25-$30. Obviously, they need to cover the cost of their products as well as pay salaries, etc., to keep the park or stadium open. Enough said!

Much the same was true in Jesus’ day. Some of the merchants were honest, but there was, and always has been, a segment of society desiring to gouge those with little or no money or those whose sacrifice might not meet the “purification requirements” of the Temple priests.

The “Court of the Gentiles” is the location of our passage. Anyone desiring to offer a sacrifice during the Passover feast could enter here, and booths were set up for the moneychangers and those selling doves and lambs which would be offered for sacrifices.

Why moneychanging booths? Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of one half-shekel, which was always due around Passover time. This tax must be paid in a currency that was approved by the Temple priests. Jews, coming throughout the region, had to change their particular currency into that which was acceptable at the Temple. This is very similar to our need to change US currency into the accepted money of the particular country you might be visiting. For example, it cost us about 7% to exchange US for Canadian dollars when we visited there last year. If you exchange your foreign money back into US dollars when you return home, it will cost you an additional percentage.

This was the case with the moneychangers in the Temple. No doubt, there were prob­ably some who were honest, but many took advantage of the situation and charged a large conversion percentage. Some of this they kept, and the rest they might turn over to the corrupt priests in the Temple. It “angered” Jesus they would take advantage of people— especially the poor people who had little money.

The selling of doves was worse. When you visited the Temple you usually brought an offering with you. Doves were a common offering from women coming for purification after the birth of a child and a leper who desired to be certified as been healed of the dreaded disease. As you may recall, any animal or bird offered had to be without blemish. They were readily available outside the Temple area, but when you arrived in the Temple, an inspector might very easily find something “wrong” with your purchased sacrifice, and you would have to buy one inside the Temple area, again, at an inflated price. The merchant possibly would buy your dove at a much-reduced price while selling you “a perfect” one and when you were done, he would sell the next worshiper your dove without blemish. How dishonest the merchant could be! This, too, angered Jesus. His house was to be a house of prayer and not a house of robbers.

Though we no longer offer sacrifices, there are still plenty of dishonest merchants who, as I recall from one of the Andy Griffith “Mayberry” shows, sell poor quality goods out of the back of their car as “genuine” merchandise.

It was this kind of exploitation that caused Jesus to run the dishonest merchants out of the Temple. This was a good question; thanks for asking.

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