Matthew 21:13, The Den of Robbers

“It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

//These words were spoken by Jesus to the money changers and vendors in the temple courtyard. I’ve always assumed Jesus was just a bit miffed about the temple system and the way it extracted money from visiting pilgrims for high-priced sacrifices. This understanding stems primarily from John’s Gospel. There, Jesus says nothing about a “den of robbers” and instead shouts, “Get these [items for sale] out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” He is alluding to the promise in Zechariah 14:21 that one day there will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord.

But this doesn’t jibe with what Jesus says in the other three gospels. In these gospels, Jesus complains about a “den of robbers,” which is a direct quote from Jeremiah 7:11:

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

As Jeremiah makes clear, a den of robbers is not where robbers rob. It is where they retreat to for safety, perhaps with their ill-gotten prize. What is Jesus protesting then by using this language? Was John correct or incorrect in reading the mind of Jesus?

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