In the midst of cleansing the temple and driving out the merchants in Matthew 21:13, Jesus proclaims:
“It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.”Matthew 21:13 NABRE
In the absence of any Old Testament context, these words naturally seem to fit with other criticisms that Jesus leveled against the scribes or Pharisees. Consider Luke 20:46-47:
“Be on guard against the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and love greetings in marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”Luke 20:46-47 NABRE
A similar passage is in Matthew 23:4-5:
They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.Matthew 23:4-5a NABRE
In light of these criticisms, Jesus’ words at the cleansing of the temple seem to be directed at the worldliness of the scribes, Saducees, and Pharisees. Their craving for wealth and prestige has overtaken their calling to worship God, and they have corrupted the temple as a result. When Jesus drives the money changers and merchants out of the temple, it seems all too clear: Jesus is saying that economic activity and selling for profit have no place in the house of God.
There is a deeper meaning here, though, which rises to the surface as soon as the Old Testament context is revealed. Jesus’ statement in the temple is a compound allusion to two passages: one in Isaiah, and one in Jeremiah. “My house shall be a house of prayer comes from Isaiah 56:7. Here is the broader passage for context:
And foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him,
To love the name of the Lord,
to become his servants—
All who keep the sabbath without profaning it
and hold fast to my covenant,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Oracle of the Lord God,
who gathers the dispersed of Israel—Others will I gather to them
besides those already gathered.Isaiah 56:6-8 NABRE
The focus of this passage is on God welcoming foreigners as worshippers at his temple. God will welcome people who were not born Israelites into his people and gather them together to worship. This passage actually fits better with Jesus’ words in Matthew 8:11:
I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.Matthew 8:11-12 NABRE
The second half of Jesus’ statement during the cleansing of the temple alludes to Jeremiah 7:11. Here is the broader passage for context:
Do you think you can steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, sacrifice to Baal, follow other gods that you do not know and then come and stand in my presence in this house, which bears my name, and say: “We are safe! We can commit all these abominations again!”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I have seen it for myself!—oracle of the Lord. Go to my place at Shiloh, where I made my name dwell in the beginning. See what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have committed all these deeds—oracle of the Lord—because you did not listen, though I spoke to you untiringly, and because you did not answer, though I called you, I will do to this house, which bears my name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your ancestors, exactly what I did to Shiloh. I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast away all your kindred, all the offspring of Ephraim.Jeremiah 7:9-15 NABRE
These are strong words for Jesus to quote as he drives merchants out of the temple — a thinly-veiled prophecy that the temple will be destroyed!
A final detail that affects the meaning of the passage is the Greek word (transliterated in English letters as “lestes”) which the NABRE translates “thief” or “thieves.” N. T. Wright points out that Josephus uses this word for Jewish revolutionaries in the first century AD. The word also shows up in John 18:40 to describe Barabbas, who was released to the crowds as Jesus was waiting to be sentenced to death. Evidently, this word enjoyed broader meanings than the English word “thief.” It’s possible that Jesus was including revolutionary movements in his criticism. One could paraphrase his statement as “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a stronghold for revolutionaries.”
This reading should not be taken as the only connotation of the passage. Indeed, the Jeremiah passage criticizes the Israelites of his day for many different sins. Jesus was probably intending to criticize many failures of the scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees of his day. But the Old Testament passages he alludes to provide a rich and shocking meaning that would otherwise be hidden to our modern eyes.