"Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? ..." (Matthew 23:16-18)

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ ” (Matthew 23:16-18)

Why is Jesus making this comparison?

As indicated by “Woe to you, blind guides!" Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and temple priests with regard to their teachings and guidance (or lack thereof) to others relating to the Supreme Being. Let's break down the meaning of Jesus' statement:

The word "bound" is derived from the Greek ὀφείλω (opheilō), which means to be in debt or owe something in return.

And the phrase "swear by" is translated from ὀμνύωto (omnyō), which means to 'promise, with an oath' according to Thayer's lexicon. So Jesus is talking about creating obligations by means of pledging one's allegiance.

When a person makes an oath or pledges their allegiance to something, they are creating a subtle debt. Let's say a person comes to us and says they pledge to us that they will fix our car if it breaks down. When our car breaks down, who will we call? We'll call the person who made that pledge. Why?

Because they made a pledge. They created an obligation with their pledge.

Why was swearing by something important?

In modern society, we typically do not "swear by the temple." But some will often swear on Jesus' name or swear on the Supreme Being's Name. Today this has become a blind figure of speech, but the origins of these statements relate to making a pledge on the name of Jesus or the Name of the Supreme Being.

Today we also hear people swear "on my mother's grave" as they commit themselves to a statement. This is the kind of statement Jesus is referring to, except during ancient times, people would not "swear on my mother's grave" - they would "swear on the temple" - which is to "swear by the temple."

Certainly, we also know from Jesus' statement that people would also "swear by the gold in the temple" - as they make a promise or commitment.

So Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are teaching that there is no obligation if one swears by the temple, but there is one if someone swears by the gold in the temple.

The point Jesus is making is to "swear by the temple" should indicate the pledging of oneself to the worship of God. This is because Jesus sees the temple as the house meant to worship the Supreme Being. Jesus takes the temple seriously, which is why he became angry when he saw the temple grounds in Jerusalem being used as a marketplace, saying:
"It is written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'" (Matthew 21:13)
The first part of Jesus' statement is being quoted from Isaiah:
"And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to Him, to love the Name of the LORD, and to be His servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to My holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." (Isaiah 56:6-7)
Jesus takes this statement by the Supreme Being - spoken through Isaiah - seriously. He sees the temple as the place where the Supreme Being is worshipped. The place where offerings are made to the Supreme Being.

What 'gold' is Jesus referring to?

With regard to the "gold" - is Jesus speaking literally about gold? Nope. The Greek word translated to "gold" is χρυσός (chrysos), which means "precious things made of gold, golden ornaments." In other words, Jesus is speaking of gold itself, he is speaking of those things that glitter: In other words, the materialistic elements of the temple.

This can be applied to practically any place of worship. It is not the building or its ornaments that make it sacred: It is the worship of God - and the presence of God - that make that building sacred.

This is also why Jesus was so upset about people holding a marketplace at the temple. They were using the temple as a place of business, rather than a place of worship.

This can also be applied to the use of churches for bazaars and flea markets - along with paying the pastors and priests as though they were businessmen.

Jesus is condemning the notion that the swearing by the temple has little meaning, whereby swearing by the materialistic aspects of the temple - which include its sectarian qualities - is condoned by these temple teachers. This is confirmed when Jesus says:

What does 'the temple that makes the gold sacred' mean?

Jesus is speaking of the personal presence of the Supreme Being. What makes the temple sacred is the presence of the Supreme Being. This makes His temple and the assets within it sacred. This is confirmed by Jesus' statement in Matthew 23:20:
"And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the One who dwells in it."
Jesus is speaking of the Supreme Being's personal presence in the temple. To ignore this while focusing on the trappings of the temple is to offend God.

We might compare this to a person who is interested in how much money we have and what our economic status is. They don't care about us personally. They only care about what we can offer them.

In the same way, most of us could care less about the personal nature of the Supreme Being. We are too busy trying to enjoy the world He created. We are too interested in getting ahead and taking advantage of our situation.

This is Jesus' point regarding these temple priests: They were most concerned about the trappings of their positions in the temple, and the prestige attached to the temple. They weren't focused on having a personal relationship with the Supreme Being. 

This is the purpose of a temple or other place of worship: to approach God and make offerings to Him, glorify Him, and try to re-establish our personal relationship with Him.