"All the people were hanging on his words" (Luke 19:48).
In many respects the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Israel's economy. Returning pilgrims exchanged foreign currencies for the local coin, votive offerings and animal sacrifices tied to annual liturgical feasts created a market for birds and livestock. The Roman occupation skimmed the temple tax generated to support the high priests and Herod's court. Major holy days like Passover must have created an unholy cacophany and crowdlike atmosphere in the outer courts.
Luke tells as that Jesus was teaching daily in the temple after his arrival in Jerusalem toward the end of his ministry. Jesus observed everything, including the trumpeted announcements of a major donor dropping coins noisiy into metal cauldrons, or the humble offerings of widows and the poor.
The Temple itself, buit by King Herod to ingratiate himself to his Jewish subjects, was a focus of protests by purists who regarded it as an affront to the covenant and a constant reminder of the complicity of wealth and power. Jesus' decision to stage a symbolic "cleansing" of the Temple was one expression of that ongoing protest. It dramatized the claim that the Temple, instead of being a house of prayer, had become "a den of thieves." Jesus' public action was serious threat to the authority of the high priests, and it must have hardened their resolve to put a stop to his ministry at any cost.
Jesus' "zeal" to restore the Temple to its purpose as a house of prayer was a visible expression of his core mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God-- the full reorientatin of Jewish life back to the covenant. It was his call to restore every Jewish heart to being a house of prayer, a place of obdience to the commandment to love of God and neighbor. Without this organizing principle, the essential identity of Israel was being corrupted to a kind of consumer culture focused on hypocritical show and material competition rife with injustice and the neglect of the poor.
We can draw our own conclusions about whether our own society is a house of prayer or a den of thieves, but the judgment should begin within our own hearts. Where is the focus of our time, treasure and talent? Are we defined by our principles or our possessions? Today's reading is an invitation to cleanse our own houses in preparation for Advent, our annual chance to restore God to a central place in our lives. If we do this, everything else will take care of itself.