6And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, the love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath
and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-
7these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted at my altar;
for my house will be a house of prayer for all peoples.
8Thus says the LORD GOD, who gathers the outcast of Israel,
I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
This passage belongs in Holy Week.
The story falls just a day after Jesus parades through the streets of Jerusalem, after the Hosannas have dwindled to murmurs in the shadow of the temple. Jesus began his week with a triumphal entry on Sunday, a first thing Monday morning he heads to the temple to stir things up.
This passage belongs in Holy Week, yet it's also a difficult word to hear when our worshipping lives dwell amid the ritual, tradition, and beauty of an established church. After all, as one of the lunch bunch crowd pointed out, we have tables, we sell things to raise money.
This passage belongs in Holy Week, because Holy Week is the season when we read scripture that should make us uncomfortable, even as we look to the liberation of the cross and the empty tomb. But at the end of August, the discomfort we nurtured during Lent and Holy Week is dwarfed by the ritual and routine of summertime worship and back-to-school rhythms.
But in spite of all the discomfort, and its distance from our minds and routines at this point, when I asked someone at the beginning of the week what their favorite passage of scripture was, they immediately lifted up this story of Jesus flipping over tables.
The generally gentle Christ gets a little violent in this passage. It stands out, folks remember it, are attracted to it even, and oftentimes we bring our own baggage along for the story.
This passage is often used as an invective against false worship. People look at Jesus’s action here and see a man who has lost his temper at all the ways people were misusing the temple for personal gain.
Wouldn’t you know it, every person who looks into this passage sees Jesus condemning the very worship styles they themselves dislike. Each to their own bias, as their limitations give them perspective. The author and theologian Anne Lamott wrote that “You can be pretty sure you’ve created God in your image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”
Commentaries lift up a church that is absent of social justice, or a church that is too accommodating of a culture, or a church that is stuffed up with doctrine, or a church that doesn’t have any discipline. Is Jesus condemning organized religion? Is he condemning religion that supports Imperial authority? Is he condemning a sinful culture that threatens to contaminate pure traditional worship?
Almost every time this passage is brought up, it’s a judgment against folks who aren’t doing church right. Wouldn’t you know it, the folks who aren’t doing church right are always someone else, never the folks doing the judging?
But this story is not just a judgement we can pull out to support our own biases. This little corner of the gospel is good news. I don’t think it’s about false worship, I think it’s about God intervening in our lives in unexpected ways. This story is one where God comes to the center of our community and purifies it.
The temple was the center of Jewish religious life, it was the house of the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This is the throne of the Most High God. The connection with the LORD radiated out from that architectural point to the surrounding countryside and the rest of creation. One could not pass through Jerusalem without passing by the temple. At its best, it was the beating heart of Jewish identity, a grand promise for the promised land. A center where anyone could come and access the Holy One of Israel.
So here's the thing, it's not so much a matter of false and true worship, the temple was a real thing that was the center of life for God's covenant people. The temple was filled with all the reverence and ritual of God's own law and human interpretation. People had to purify themselves even to enter the building.
And yet, even the holy of holies could not contain the Lord of Hosts. Despite humanity’s best efforts to establish and uphold God’s law, the temple still needed cleansing.
We are given some clues as to what practices were going on, but if we get too lost in the content of what Jesus cast out we’ll miss the organizing narrative. Questions about doves and moneychangers and what people were carrying through the temple must not distract us from the whole story.
Then one day, the Son of Man entered the temple. He cleansed it of impurities and reminded those in the temple of what that religious institution was meant to be: just as the covenant people were to be a beacon to all peoples, so the temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations.
Jesus does not condemn the practices from a distance, he doesn’t complain about how things should be better. He takes action. Jesus is the embodied Word of God, and when the Father commits him to cleansing, that means teaching with both the words of his mouth and the movement of his body. The Son of Man, the Word made Flesh, God with Us, chooses a dramatic, disruptive action and breaks the whole assembly out of their stuckness.
The people are spellbound by his teaching. Uncontested amazement at the glory of God that shone through this man, Jesus. For the house of prayer for all nations and the beacon to all people are dim reflection of the light that shines in the darkness, which is Christ. And the darkness does not extinguish the light.
In this passage, Jesus cleanses and lifts up the earthly throne of God. The holiest aspects of human life are not exempt from God’s purifying redemption. A few chapters after this one, Jesus will be lifted up, not on a throne, but on the cross. The depths of human suffering are also not exempt from God’s unexpected and redemptive intervention.
So we can use this passage to criticize others if we choose, although I wouldn't bother. Seems to me like if we use scripture to judge others we forget that we also are subject to judgement. Perhaps instead we should remember that holiness is not a function of who is always right, it's a gift from the one who sits at God's right hand.
So perhaps this passage doesn’t belong in Holy Week. Perhaps the shadow of the cross extends so far that we do not see this cleansing in the joyful light that leaves the people spellbound. Perhaps this little chapter of the gospel belongs in ordinary time, to remind us that neither the heights of human achievement not the depths of human suffering are beyond the reach of our loving and sovereign God.
Therefore we are joined to the LORD, not through our own ability but through the cleansing love of Christ, who casts out so that all may be invited in. It is our Lord Jesus Christ who holds us through his words and his action, and who brings us to God’s holy mountain, and makes us joyful in God’s house of prayer. For the LORD is our God, who fashioned and made us, protects and sustains us, and reaches into all facets of humanity to make us whole, and to gather us in gratitude to sing Praise to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.