When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. (New International Version)
Jesus seems a bit like an actor in an old western movie. He’s the sheriff who drifts into town, sizes up the situation, shoots up the bad guys, defends the women and children, and cleans up the town.
It’s a side to Jesus that might surprise some.
Jesus is no simple one-dimensional person, as if he’s always calm and picking dandelions. Christ is fully human and fully God – a complex person full of both human and divine anger. Today’s Gospel lesson 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 only the merciful servant who graciously heals at the temple; but he is also a mighty judge who is intolerant of unjust systems and cleans house.
Because Jesus is superior to everything, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use. He did not come to this earth as some sort of spiritual vitamin supplement, or to be on call 24/7 in order to bail us out when we need it, or help us get ahead in life.
Instead, zeal for his Father’s house consumes Jesus. (John 2:13-17)
Christ sought to please the Father. Jesus oversees what the church and Christians are supposed to be.
It’s our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around.
That happens whenever we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and, at the same time, the town doctor who brings the needed healing to our lives.
Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw operating.
It was Passover, the time when all pious Israelites made the 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. This meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling.
Over time, a system was set up: Vendors established kiosks which lined the Temple courts; and they sold animals for the required sacrifices, as a matter of convenience.
Since there were thousands of folks who 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.
Perhaps that all sounds practical. A little capitalism which provides a service for the people doesn’t seem all bad. So, what’s the problem?
Jesus didn’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 western movie scene out of it because the vendors and money-changers, even if using sound business practices (which they weren’t) should not even be there. For Jesus, it trivialized the Temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.
Here’s how the system was supposed to work:
Coming to the Temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient.
Making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was supposed to be difficult. For the past year, since the last Passover, a family raised a newborn lamb in their house. Parents and children all took part in caring for it.
Then, when it was time, they all journeyed to Jerusalem together, taking turns carrying the year old lamb over their shoulders. Everyone knew what was coming. Their precious lamb, now a cherished part of the family, would be given in sacrifice at the Temple.
It was all a very powerful reminder of sin’s cost and how terrible it truly is.
Entering Jerusalem with no animal, and only money to buy one, is a cheap facsimile of real worship.
It misses the entire point of the system. It hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer. And Jesus will not put up with it – to the point of violently driving the whole system out of the Temple.
Jesus didn’t mess around with the sinful system. He didn’t politely ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals to market them at cost. No. Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was a blasphemous act 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 (e.g., selling indulgences).
We might feel good by simply attending a worship service, or offering some obligatory prayers, and giving money without having done anything to meaningfully connect with God. Our devotion may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice by using our spiritual gifts and laying our lives down for others.
It’s really a heart issue. For example, we might rightly give to missionaries or mission projects. Yet, if we give without any thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having a clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts.
Jesus cleaning house was not an end in itself; he did it so that the Temple could be used for its intended purpose: A house of prayer. A place of healing. A gathering of collective praise to God.
Whenever an existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.
The religious leaders were incensed by Christ’s systemic change. The behavior of Jesus challenged their authority, and they were angry about losing some of their power – not to mention jealous and envious that the people hung on his every word.
Jealousy rots the bones. Envy and selfish ambition accompany every evil practice and are behind every evil system. (Proverbs 14:30; James 3:14-16)
The real culprit behind the Temple system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is our selfish anger, our abject jealousy that someone else is receiving something which should be mine, and our insidious envy of wanting what another has.
Jesus knew he would upset and anger the religious leaders. But he cared enough about the proper place of worship that he attacked the contrived Temple system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was. Christ was willing to take on the establishment and reestablish a house of prayer for all people.
The way for us has been made clear through the death of Christ. Jesus has removed the old system and replaced it with the new. (Hebrews 8:13)
Therefore, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise. We must eliminate any system, rule, or practice that eviscerates true worship.
May we follow the Lord Jesus by being active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God. And the first step to doing so is by having God clean house on our own hearts.
It’s what a good deputy sheriff would do.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Amen.