Then 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; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He 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.’
Mark 11: 15-17 NRSV
Many of us are aware of the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. It is one of those rare stories where we see righteous anger flash from Jesus. Our Lord took the extraordinary step of overturning the tables of those who had turned the temple into a public market. I can imagine the sounds of the coins spilling across the large stones on the ground.
Why did Jesus employ this highly unusual step of flipping tables? The simplest explanation is that he didn’t like seeing the temple turned into what we would call a strip mall today.
What Jesus observed was not an occasional bake sale, or fund raiser. The temple had turned into a seven day a week shopping experience. It was customary for small animals to be purchased for sacrifices, but things had literally gotten out of control. Jesus had seen enough!
The problem was that the primary purpose of the temple had been lost. Instead of a house of worship and prayer, it had become just another market. The temple’s purpose had become distorted. It was being misused. Having walked through some of the marketplaces in Jerusalem, I can imagine that the sellers were trying to convince people walking by to purchase some of their goods. Their invitations, and bartering between buyers and sellers would have been noisy! This would not be an ideal background sound during quiet prayer.
This story certainly has something to teach us about church buildings, and other “holy” places. Yet its application may be far wider. One primary manifestation of sin is to take something pure, and to defile it. Or to take something meant for one purpose, and misuse it for something else.
I believe this is one of the reasons our country has a separation of church and state. This is also why our Session and I try to keep politics out of church proceedings. Everyone is entitled to their own political beliefs. Yet when we entangle worship and prayer, with the emotions of politics, things can go off the rails somewhat easily. It could very be argued that our modern obsession with politics is a form of idolatry.
The purpose of a church is first and foremost to be a place of worship and prayer. It ought to be a safe place where we can unfold our lives before the Lord, and not feel as if we need to defend ourselves at that same moment.
Jesus wanted to make sure that the people had a safe place to worship and pray. A sanctuary, if you will. Prayer does not have to occur within the walls of a church. However, when we join together though to worship and prayer, the sense of community is heightened. We draw close to one another, and especially to the Lord. During this pandemic, has prayer continued to fit into your life? Praying for the end of the pandemic has most likely been first and foremost on our minds. Yet, there is a deeper prayer that takes time: interceding and pleading for the needs of others and our own needs through prayer. This is what Jesus was seeking to carve out for His people when he cleansed the temple.
There were few doors on homes in Jesus' time. Most houses were small. The living quarters were tight, and there was little privacy. Jesus wanted to make sure people had a peaceful place to worship. He also knew the importance of worshiping in the temple.
Perhaps some of us have had too much quiet and alone time. This is one of the reasons I am thankful that we will be going back to in-person worship. It is essential that we find our way back to worshiping together, not only for our own strength, but for the support we can offer to one another. Jesus knew we needed the support and fellowship, and time to worship together, without the distractions of the world.
If Jesus flipped tables in order to protect prayer and worship, perhaps we need to do some shuffling around in our lives. Finding time to pray, and finding time for worship were so important to Jesus that He made such a dramatic statement. Are we making dramatic statements with our own walk with the Lord? Are we seeking time to pray? Are we digging deeper into the prayer and intercession that the Lord desires for us? As we begin to reopen our church, may we daily reopen our hearts to Him. He made a big deal about the priority of prayer. Let us heed of actions, and honor His wishes.
Thank you, Jesus, for Your passion and for Your desire to be one with me. Forgive me when I am distracted, or place other things above the time You wish to spend with me. Help me to seek You on a daily basis, in order to grow with You in my faith. May I open up my heart, and turn over to You the things that prevent me from learning about You, and serving You. May I be as faithful to You, as You are to me.
Gratefully I pray these words in Your holy name, Amen