Q&A: Do Matthew 5:21-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 contradict each other?

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:21-26)
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.  He said to them, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

It looks like the apparent contradiction is Jesus teaching us not to be angry, but then he attacks the money-changers in the temple.

Let’s look back at the previous day, Palm Sunday. Jesus had just ridden into Jerusalem on a colt. The crowds were going wild and the pharisees were livid. but we have a small, easily overlooked verse in Mark:

“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And When he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:11)

Big deal, right? But let’s think about this a bit. Jesus purposefully looked at the temple. This is the same temple that he had been to every year of his life. The temple that everyone came to for Passover. So what was so important that Jesus had to look around at everything?

At that time, the temple of Jerusalem was the focal spot of Hebraic worship. everyone that followed the Jewish religion, whether Jew or Gentile (yes, Gentiles worshiped the Hebrew God as well) came to the temple each year to celebrate Passover. Because the Gentile were “unclean”, there was a separate area of the temple for them. This was the area that Jesus looked at. He surveyed the outer court on Sunday, but because it was late, he left for the night and came back on Monday.

So, what did Jesus see in the outer court? The high priest Caiaphas had authorized a market within the outer court to accommodate the sale of ritually pure items for sacrifice. Sacrifice was the core of the Mosaic law and there were many rules that governed what was acceptable for those sacrifices. There was also a temple tax required, which was to be paid in the local currency.

Let me illustrate:
Imagine you are a Gentile who worships the Hebrew God. You have traveled a long way to offer sacrifice and tax as part of the your celebrations, but when you get to the outer court reserved for Gentiles, you are told that the animal you brought isn’t clean enough for sacrifice. Not to worry, though. There are merchants right there in the court that are selling clean animals. Now, when you go to pay your temple tax, you are informed that your Roman currency is not accepted, but there is a money changer who can exchange your money to the approved local Jewish currency… for a nominal fee…

Simply put, the Gentiles were being extorted. Many of the money changers took extra fees to pad their pockets. This is what Jesus saw on Sunday evening, and then slept with this image of honest seekers of God being had by the priesthood that should be loving them, not taking them to the cleaners.

Jesus is displaying righteous indignation, a response to the injustice that he observed. As God, he had the right and obligation.

In contrast, Jesus is teaching in Matthew 5 about human anger. We are instructed to not give into anger, and that God will bring to justice those that deserve it:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27)

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19–21)

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20)

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:14–17)

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