“Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'” ~Mark 11:17
What made Jesus so mad that day at the temple? What riled him to the point of flipping tables and scattering coins and driving out doves and sheep? We generally speculate that pilgrims and travelers were being ripped off. Religious officials were probably cheating worshipers on the exchange rate between their Roman coins and the temple-approved currency. Sellers of cattle and sheep were overcharging and taking advantage of those who had come so far to sacrifice and whose animals had been harmed or blemished in some way along the journey.
Those things may very well be true. And if they were, that would surely upset our Lord. The only problem is that none of those things are attested to in Scripture. We have no scriptural evidence that anybody was being cheated out of money. The Gospels don’t speak or even hint at any economic wrongdoing.
We get the idea, I think, from Jesus’ statement about the temple being turned in to a “den of robbers.” But I believe we’ve missed the point. Jesus is not talking about money or possessions here. He’s quoting the Prophets. And if we go to the passages he quotes, it’s pretty clear what’s got him so angry.
Isaiah 56 is about God’s holy provision for those outside the nation of Israel. God loves the whole world, not just the Jews. And he’s going to take care of them, too. Isaiah 56 promises the “foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord” that he will never be excluded from God’s people. Eunuchs who keep God’s commands will always have a place “within my temple and its walls.” All foreigners who love the Lord:
“these will I 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 56:7
God has provided a place at his temple for Gentiles to gather and worship. God has promised covenant to these Gentiles and has sanctified a place for them to participate in the community life of God’s people. Gentiles, too, can experience the glory of God. Gentiles, too, can make sacrifices to God in faith that he will accept the offerings and forgive them of their sins. Gentiles, too, have a place in the Kingdom of God.
But it’s in these very temple courts — the Gentile courts, the Court of the Gentiles — where religious leaders are setting up shop and selling animals. They would never allow the inner parts of God’s temple to be turned in to a noisy, smelly, chaotic mess. They would never do anything to disrupt the expressions of praise and sacrifice from their own people in their special places. But these Gentiles? Yeah, let’s sell the animals there.
They are interfering with the divine provision of God. They are compromising God’s promises to the world. They’re messing with God’s plan. They’re depriving people of the space God has given them in which to worship. It’s a house of prayer for all nations, not just for people who look like me and talk like me and dress like me and behave like me. It’s not just for people who worship and sing and pray just exactly like us. It’s for everybody!
No wonder Jesus was so angry.
So, what’s it like at your church? Are the Hispanics relegated to an upstairs classroom in the back of the building? And is that classroom cluttered with leftover chairs and three ice chests from the youth trip? Where do the deaf worship in your church? Is it just understood that the homeless and the jobless and the “unchurched” won’t fit in? So nobody really tries?
Forget about the actual physical space for a minute. Do the ones who are not just like us — the new members, the move-ins, the poor, the young people, the old people, the divorced, the minorities — have a forum in your church to express their praise to God? Are they stared at, talked about, isolated, and discouraged from worshiping God? Or are they smiled at, hugged on, sung with, and encouraged to worship? Sometimes our haughtiness and complaints, our snide comments and dirty looks, our letters and threats rob our own brothers and sisters in Christ of their God-sanctioned forum and venue for giving him thanksgiving and praise. As Jesus says in John 2:16, “How dare you!”
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” ~Romans 15:7