The story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple is a well-known episode from the Gospels.
In Matthew 21:12-13 we read, “Jesus went into the temple courtyard and threw out everyone who was buying and selling there. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and the chairs of those who sold pigeons. He told them, ‘Scripture says, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you’re turning it into a gathering place for thieves!'” (GWT)
Immediately after this, He began to heal people and blessed children who came up to him. He wasn’t arrested for it, or even physically removed from the temple.
The use of currency in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus was complex and varied, as the city was under Roman occupation and subject to the monetary policies of the Roman Empire.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, a system of temple currency was used for the payment of various temple taxes and offerings. This currency consisted of special coins that were made of a mixture of copper, tin, and other metals, and they were only accepted within the Temple precinct to avoid introducing pagan forms of currency.
In order to give an offering at the temple, people would exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, often at incredibly unfair rates, and it was widely seen as a form of corruption. However, the Romans would not go into the temple to enforce fair rates, and the Temple leaders did not see a benefit to stopping them either.
Jesus became angry when he saw the money changers conducting corrupt business in the Temple, and he used a whip to drive them out and overturned their tables. This event, known as the “cleansing of the Temple,” is often seen as a symbol of Jesus’ opposition to corruption and greed. But it was not simply some kind of show of righteous indignation – it also represented a legal action of physically declaring the money changers to be insolvent in a way that would have made sense to the people of the day. He declared them to be bankrupt and relied on his own authority to do so.
When Jesus entered the temple and declared that “My house” is a house of prayer and that it had been turned into a den of thieves, Jesus asserted His jurisdictional authority over the temple and declared that the system that had perpetuated generational greed was over.
According to Roman law, a moneychanger who was unable to pay his debts was required to publicly break his table, or “bancus,” as a sign of his insolvency. This practice gave rise to the term “bankrupt,” which originally referred to a person who was unable to pay his debts and had to break his table.
Had this simply been a display of vandalism, or even interpreted as some kind of robbery, Jesus could have been arrested on the spot. People had been executed for doing less, and even if he had not been arrested that day, it would have certainly come up in his trials the following week before his crucifixion. But instead, Jesus asserted divine authority over His house and drove out corruption within the walls of the Temple – which would have posed an even greater threat to the leadership that had winked at the corruption for many years.