“Then Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves.
And He declared to them, “It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)
It is no coincidence, of course, that one of the only displays of Jesus’ anger ever recorded has to do with corruption in the house of God. It is also worth noting that the corruption that so angered him was not outright heresy or idol worship, as one might expect.
What was so evil about providing a little convenience for the throngs of temple worshipers streaming into the temple on a daily basis? Why not make it easy to pick up a pair of doves on your way in to offer a sacrifice or get just the right change for your weekly tithe?
It’s likely that some, if not all, of these sellers and money changers were misusing their prime location, taking advantage of people’s religiosity to over-charge and cheat. When He called it “a den of robbers”, no doubt He was referring to literal dishonesty, underhanded marketing practices, and the deliberate misuse of religion for personal gain.
But He was also referring to something else. These merchants were creating a major distraction. If you know anything of a Middle Eastern marketplace, you know that it is not a quiet place. It is loud and boisterous, full of the sounds of merchants calling you to look at their wares, of customers chattering and asking questions, of all voices raised in animated bartering. Add to that the sound of live animals braying, bleating and squawking, and you have a highly stimulating cacophony of sound, let alone sights and smells. All this had crept right into the house of God. Colorful and exciting for a shopping trip perhaps, but worshipful? Reverent? Peaceful? Conducive to actual earnest, focused prayer? Not so much. In our modern day world, I would compare this to trying to hold a worship service in the electronics department of a store, surrounded by multiple screens flashing and blaring helpful commercials about the newest, glow-in-the-dark Bible cover or portable personal reclining pew you need right now.
Jesus’ passion, instead, was an atmosphere of pure, God-centered worship, free of man-centered worldly distractions. Jesus Himself went on, that very day even, to model the atmosphere He so desired. He taught and discussed the Scriptures, performed acts of healing, blessed the innocent shouted praise of children and honored those who gave offerings from a heart of love.
The sad thing is that a mere forty years later, this magnificent house of God that Jesus so zealously cleansed would be a pile of rubble, “not one stone left upon another”. Israel had disregarded the words of their own Messiah, persisted in their empty religious ways and reaped the consequence. That temple has never been rebuilt.
The good news, though, is that because of Jesus’ work on the cross, the temple of God still lives on, in actually a much bigger and more beautiful way.
Jesus once told the Samaritan woman, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him.” (John 4:21,23)
Later, Paul states it even more to the point: “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (2 Cor. 6:16)
His temple lives on, not in buildings made by man, but in the very hearts of men. And so, with this in mind, consider this question:
If Jesus walked into your heart today, what would He find and how would He respond? Would He find a lot of noisy distractions and pressing to-do lists robbing you of your focus on Him? Would He find a lot of self-centered preoccupation in sad need of being overturned and thrown out? If so, lay it wide open to Him and ask Him to cleanse it with all the zeal of that long ago day in the Jerusalem temple.
Or would He find a carefully maintained atmosphere of peace, with wide-open spaces and time for worship and prayer? Would He walk into your heart, the heart upon which He has written His name, and find that it is indeed characterized as a habitation of prayer?
May this be so, or become so, for each one of us.