What does the Bible say? Reading from the Gospel of Mark:
"And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. And when even was come, he went out of the city." (Mark 11:15-19)
In the Gospel of Mark, it is this act that sets off a chain of events leading to his crucifixion. This event, often known as the "cleansing of the temple", was not atypical for Jesus. And it was highly significant for him as a symbolic act and a teaching opportunity.
Jesus was a very controversial figure in his day, a fact that we often forget today, as we tend to domesticate his teachings and ministry. But this shouldn't be at all surprising. He was crucified after all. People don't crucify those who just say nice things. They crucify the ones they find threatening. Marcus Borg, made this very point: "Jesus’s teaching is often reduced to very general moral precepts that could be put on a greeting card: 'Love one another,' 'Do unto others as you would have them do to you,' 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' No doubt the world would be a better place if we lived according to these principles. But Jesus's teaching was edgier than this. After all, it got him killed. Authorities do not commonly execute somebody whose message abounds with benign banalities: be kind, be nice, be good. A persuasive image of Jesus must make sense of why he was crucified by the powers that ruled his world." 
After Jesus made a scene around the temple he certainly got people's attention. The scripture says "And he taught, saying unto them..." He took this opportunity to teach. His lesson tied directly to his actions, the dramatic commotion he had just caused. As was his way, he taught from the scriptures. Marcus Borg's commentary again:
Jesus's interpretation of his action combines two passages from the Jewish Bible. The first is from Isaiah 56.7, which says the purpose of the temple is to be "a house of prayer for all the nations." The second echoes Jeremiah 7.11, part of what is called Jeremiah's "temple sermon." Standing in the gate of the temple, Jeremiah said, "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD'" (7.4). He warned that it would be destroyed unless those who worshipped there began to practice justice:
"If you truly amend your ways and doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I [God] will dwell with you in this place." (7.5-7)
Then, still speaking in the name of God, Jeremiah said, "Has this house [the temple], which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?" The phrase in Hebrew suggests not just thievery, but robbing with violence. In what sense had the temple become "a den of robbers," a cave of violent ones? In Jeremiah, the meaning is apparent: it was "a den of robbers" precisely because it had become the center of an oppressive system that did not practice justice, but exploited the most vulnerable in society. It was an indictment of the powerful and wealthy elites of his day, centered in the monarchy and temple. Their everyday injustice made them robbers, and they thought of the temple as their safe house and place of security.
Thus, when Jesus called the temple "a den of robbers," he was not referring to the activity of the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Rather, he indicted the temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination system. They had made the temple into a den of robbing and violence. Jesus's action was not a cleansing of the temple, but an indictment of the temple. The teaching explains the act. Indeed, it was the reason for the act.
It was the kind of deed that could get one in trouble, and it did. The temple authorities decided that Jesus must die: "And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him." But they do not take action immediately. Why not? "They were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching" (Mark 11.18). The crowd, the people, were with Jesus. The implication is that they too resented the role that the temple played in the imperial system. 
Very much like the most tenacious prophets from the Old Testament-Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos-Jesus had a vision of the way things should be that was radically different from the way they were. His ministry was centered on the coming of the Kingdom of God, in which everything would be reversed: "Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:20-26)
Jesus said many things that, if we take them at face value, were quite radical. He told a rich man: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21) Like his Old Testament counterparts he valued core principles over tradition and ceremony. He said, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." Jesus condemned putting tradition over responsibilities to family: "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, Honour your father and your mother; and, Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die. But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on." (Mark 7:9-13)
Jesus was passionate about the core principles of the Kingdom of God, which he saw being neglected everywhere around him. Worse still, he saw that many were making a sanctimonious pretence of piety even as they were violating the core principles. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:23-24)
When I think of Jesus' core message I think of compassion. But he was not just about compassion. He was also about justice. Both judgment and mercy are listed among the "weightier matters" of the law. That these two principles must go hand in hand was put very well by John Dominic Crossan:
Yahweh is a God not only of justice by also of compassion. It is crucial, however, not to confuse those aspects-justice and compassion-in either God's divinity or our humanity. It is impossible (fortunately) to have justice without compassion, but it is possible (unfortunately) to have compassion without justice. That sequence of justice and compassion is, therefore, significant. We are back, in fact, with the distinction between, on the one hand, individual good or evil and, on the other, systemic good or evil. Where there is justice without compassion, there will be anger, violence, and murder. A thirst for justice without an instinct for compassion produces killers. Sometimes they are simply believers in a Killer God. Sometimes they are assistant killers of a Killer God. But compassion without justice is equally problematic. In any unjust system, there are people needing immediate assistance. And, even in a perfectly just system, there would still be those who would need compassion. But compassion, no matter how immediately necessary or profoundly human, cannot substitute for justice, for the right of all to equal dignity and integrity of life. Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified. 
And that's the key. Jesus' passion for justice ultimately led to his execution. But the story did not end there. Easter morning followed, the Resurrection, and the teachings of Jesus have filled the world. But they are still not followed throughout the world. The uncompromising passion for justice still leads to resistance and death as we can see in the lives and deaths of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But the Gospel is a message of hope and it is empowering. Jesus showed us the Way (John 14:6). And the Kingdom of God is imminent. Where do we find it?
"Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.'" (Luke 17:21)
Studying the life and death of Jesus and his message we can learn of the power that is already among us. The Kingdom of God is within our power to realize. Following His example, we need to have the same commitment for compassion and justice that Jesus has, the same bravery. That's something worth remembering for Easter.
1. Borg, Marcus J., Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Revelations of a Religious Revolutionary. 13-14
2. ibid. 234-236
3. Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity. 586