Prayer is one of those things in church ministry that gets assigned a lot of value and importance, but when it comes right down to it prayer often gets lost and sandwiched in a worship service between the singing and the preaching. Church meetings get the bookends of opening and closing prayer, with the “real” work of business and ministry taking place on our own. Our own contemporary reality of church ministry and prayer may not be far off from the ancient world. When Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he strolled into the temple area and found a situation that disturbed him to the point of making a whip and driving out all who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice. Christ’s reasoning for taking such violent action was: “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
This bit about Jesus in the temple sounds a lot like an old western where the sheriff strolls into town and acts like he owns the place, shooting up the bad guys, defending the women and children, and cleaning up the town. This is a side to Jesus that might surprise some. It can be tempting to reduce Jesus to one-dimensional qualities like ‘compassionate’ or ‘accepting.’ But this story reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.
Jesus is not just a merciful and modest king who graciously heals and forgives people; he is equally a mighty and awful judge who does not tolerate sinful systems and cleans house. Because Jesus is superior over the temple and Lord of the church, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use. He did not come to this earth to simply supplement our lives with some occasional answered prayers, to hang around in order to bail us out when we need it, or to help us get ahead in life with the thing we want.
Instead, John’s Gospel tells us that zeal for his father’s house consumes him. Jesus is all about pleasing his father and seeing that his church is what it is supposed to be. It is our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around. That will happen as we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and restore prayer to its place so that people can truly and genuinely connect with God. Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw in operation.
At the time of Passover all pious Israelites would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices and the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the temple in Jerusalem. That meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling. Over time, a system was set up in which there would be vendors that would line the temple courts who would have animals for sale as a matter of convenience. Since there were folks that came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.
This situation all makes a good deal of sense, so what is the problem with a little capitalism taking place by providing a service for the people? Jesus doesn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the temple at all! Jesus attacked the system and made a huge scene because the vendors and money-changers, even if they were using sound business practices (which they weren’t), should not even be there because it trivialized the temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.
Here is how the system was supposed to work: coming to the temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient; in fact, it was supposed to be difficult. A family would spend the whole of a year raising, for example, a lamb. The lamb would actually become part of the family, much like a beloved family pet. But when Passover came, the family would pack up, bringing the lamb along – to be slaughtered as a sacrifice. The miles and days of walking to Jerusalem would be a sober reminder of sin, and a time of contemplation anticipating worship at the temple. Coming to Jerusalem with no animal, just money to buy one would be like entering into the Lent season by paying someone off to not eat chocolate for you, so you don’t have to go without it. It misses the entire point of the system, and actually hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer. Jesus will not put up with it to the point of rather violently driving the whole system out of the temple.
Jesus is not one to play around with sin. He didn’t ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals and doves to sell them at cost. Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was an act of terrorism against the right and true worship of God!
It has been the sin of the Church through the centuries to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (just think of the Reformation and the abuse of selling indulgences). We might feel good by coming to a worship service and giving money and going home without ever having done anything to meaningfully connect with God because our orientation may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice, using our spiritual gifts, and laying our lives down. It is really a heart issue. For example, we might give to missions, and that is right and necessary, but if we give without any real thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having Jesus clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts.
So, what sacrifice do you bring for worship? What would we do if Jesus came in to our churches, started moving the furniture around, and driving the whole system out of the way we do things? Jesus will actually put up with a lot, but the thing he will not tolerate is having obstacles to worship so that people do not genuinely connect with God. Not only was the business done in the temple, it was done in the Court of the Gentiles so that non-Israelites were not able to pray. So here is the question that this story creates for us to ask: Does the way we do things help people to connect with God, to pray, or does our system prevent other people besides us from worshiping God?
In order to be a house of prayer, the first step is to identify any systemic change that needs to take place. Trying to lay elaborate plans for a prayer ministry, or just trying to motivate people to pray in the church will bear little fruit until the systems underlying the lack of prayer are dealt with. I wouldn’t suggest taking a whip into the next worship service you attend, but I would encourage us all to think about what changes need to take place that will put people in a position to hear God, and help them to truly pray and know God.