The standard Mormon reading of Mark 11:15-19 goes something like this: the temple was corrupt and so Jesus cleansed it by kicking out the wicked money changers so that the temple, now purified of evil, could get back to business. But this may not be the best reading.
First off, let’s talk about the merchants in the temple. It’s Passover time, which means that people are coming from all over the place. They want to worship at the temple. But it’s not easy to bring your sacrificial animal (or even a sack of grain) all that way. And what happens if your animal becomes blemished in transit? It makes more sense to buy what you need when you get there. While it is possible that the merchants were gouging pilgrims, that isn’t stated in the text and it is entirely possible that they are doing nothing wrong but rather providing a much-needed service. The reference to dove sellers is relevant here, since doves were necessary for the sacrifices (see Lev 12:6, 8); again, there is no indication that they were doing anything wrong.
What about the money-changers? Well, the requirement is a half-shekel temple tax. If you lived somewhere where the local currency was not shekels, you’d need to swap your coins at the temple in order to pay. Again, maybe these folks were gouging the tourists, but they might not have been and their role is necessary if Jews from far-flung lands are going to pay what they owe.
When we get to verse 16, it becomes really hard to argue that the people Jesus targets were actually doing anything wrong: here, Jesus prohibiting people from carrying anything through the temple. While it is possible that this refers to non-worshippers using the temple complex as a short-cut (like people today who cut through gas stations to avoid traffic lights), it is more likely that it refers to people carrying anything through the temple. Hard to imagine how the temple could continue to function if people aren’t allowed to walk through it carrying anything!
I think the reason that people assume that the merchants and money-changers were being predatory (and thus needed to be “cleansed”) is because Jesus announces that people have turned the temple into a “den of thieves” or, as I’d translate it, “a hideout for robbers.” But think about that for a minute: the robber’s hideout is not the place where they commit their crimes; it’s the place where they hide from the authorities after they have committed their crimes. The phrase is also a quotation from Jeremiah 7:11, where the context is that people are committing various sins and then hiding out in the temple because of their (false) belief that the temple cannot be destroyed and thus it is a very good hideout, but, as Jeremiah explains, God will in fact destroy the temple for their sins. So while a surface reading might associate the temple’s merchants and money-changers with “thieves” and thus impugn their work, a contextualized reading suggests something different: that people are sinning elsewhere and then hiding out in the temple.
The quotation from Jeremiah, where the context is the coming destruction of the temple, might point to what is really happening here: Jesus is not cleansing the temple but rather enacting a parable of its coming destruction.
You already know what a parable is; an enacted parable is like street theater or an object lesson. In other words, Jesus is enacting a prophesy of the destruction of the temple by kicking out the people who are necessary to the operation of the temple. Kicking them out means the temple can’t function and thus suggests its destruction.
The temple complex was something like 450 by 300 meters. In a word: huge. If this story were a complete cleansing, Jesus would almost certainly have had to turn over a lot of tables and chase off a lot of people. It’s almost impossible to imagine him doing that without getting arrested on the spot, so reading this story as a cleansing causes historical problems. On the other hand, if Jesus just turns over a table or two as an object lesson of sorts, we can more easily imagine that happening without drawing the attention of the crowds or authorities. Now, ultimately, the scribes and chief priests hear about it and want to destroy Jesus, but the fact that there wasn’t an immediate response by Roman soldiers seems to weigh against the spectacle that would have accompanied a complete cleansing.
Also, think about Mark 13. Jesus teaches pretty clearly that the temple will be destroyed. So if Mark 11 shows Jesus cleansing the temple, then you either need to argue that his cleansing effort failed, or that some other mechanism is at work which reconciles a cleansing with a coming destruction.
Lending further support to the theory that Jesus is condemning the temple and not cleansing it is the story that surrounds it: Jesus’ curse of, and the subsequent withering of, the fig tree. Mark will frequently insert one story within another in order to encourage the audience to read the stories in light of each other. When you do that here, the cursing and withering of the fig tree serves as a hint to the meaning of Jesus’ actions of the temple. And what does the withering of a fig tree sound like to you: its cleansing or its destruction?
Additionally, when Jesus talks to his disciples about moving “this mountain” immediately after Peter notices the withered fig tree, it is likely that “this mountain” refers to the temple mount. A temple and mount hurled into the sea sounds more life a destruction than a purification. And as if that weren’t enough, this scene bears a strong resemblance to the beginning of Mark 13 where the topic is . . . the coming destruction of the temple. Further, the fig tree incident seems to allude to Micah 7:1; in that text, the figless fig tree is compared to the fruitless (ha!) search for a righteous person. This is a picture of condemnation leading to destruction, not of cleansing.
One final note: this is why I hate attaching titles to scripture stories. Once someone tells you that this story is called “The Cleansing of the Temple,” it’s like your brain shuts down and can’t think beyond this being a cleansing of the temple. But Mark doesn’t use the language of cleansing. So maybe we shouldn’t either.
(My thinking here was strongly influenced by J. R. Daniel Kirk’s essay “Time for Figs.”)