Have you ever wondered if Christianity in our day and age is polluted? Or is it pure? These are wide statements, and Christianity is so diverse that one word, like “polluted” or “pure” cannot possibly describe the whole of it. But take a look at trends in the faith. Consider the larger movements within the faith in our day. And when you do that you can apply words like “polluted” and “pure,” and a great many other words, to how we contemporary Christians practice the faith. Of course these designations will not apply to all Christians, and that is not the purpose of this thought project. Instead, I raise these questions to help us envision how Jesus might evaluate us, and if he might take action against us, like he did against the religious practitioners of his day. Why? Because the faith of his day was polluted.
This week we have been reflecting on the story of Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as told in Matthew 21:1-17. After arriving in the city to the cheers of the crowds who wanted to crown him king, Jesus heads to the temple, and he was not happy. Instead of a place of worship, in the temple courtyard designed for Gentiles to worship, he found a market. The leaders of the temple allowed two specific businesses to set up shop there.
The first business was Money-changing. If that seems like an odd business to set up at a temple, there was a reason. Money-changing was necessary because Jerusalem was the Jews’ holy city, precisely because the Temple was there, and Jews from all over the world would regularly make pilgrimage to worship there. On their journeys, of course they brought currencies from their homelands. At the temple, Jews all had to pay a tax to worship, but there was only one kind of currency that the priests allowed for payment of the temple tax. Jews with different currencies from their homelands had to exchange their money for temple tax money.
While money-changers operated throughout in the city, it was very convenient to set up money changers right there in the temple. In our day and age, we can use credit cards very easily internationally, but if you’ve ever had to exchange money in another country, you know how handy it can be to have an exchange right there in the airport. So on one level, the priests just wanted to make worship more accessible, except that’s not all they were doing. Scholars tell us that they were profiting off of this business, as were the money-changers. Commerce and greed infringed upon the purposes of the temple.
What about the other business at the temple, the Sellers of Doves? This, too, can be viewed as a necessary and helpful business because some people came from long distances to worship at the temple, and it would have been very inconvenient for them to bring their animal sacrifices from far away. So the priests invited merchants into the temple to sell offerings for sacrifices. Like the money-changers, these merchants were helping people worship. Sadly, this business also had a dark side. The priests and merchants were making handsome profits off people, selling animals at premium prices. Unless you go to dollar dog nights at the stadium, you know that your food and beverages are going to be astronomically priced at the stadium concessions stand, right? The same thing was happening at the temple.
The rates the money-changers offered were terrible, and the prices of sacrificial animals were way inflated. All this was happening right in the temple courtyards. Under the guise of facilitating worship, the priests had allowed commercial enterprise to fleece the people as they came to meet God.
Jesus wasn’t having it. He drove them out, over-turning their tables and benches.
This is not the normal picture of Jesus, right? He wasn’t saying, “Excuse me, sir, will you please leave the premises? Allow me to remove your items from your table top and stack them neatly on the ground here while I gently tip your table over.”
No way. One of the other gospels tell us he made a whip! We can see Jesus, filled with righteous anger, getting a bit wild.
Why does he do this? Thus far it might be obvious, but just to make sure there is no doubt about his motivation, Jesus himself declares to the people watching him the reason for his actions.
Look at verse 13 where he quotes two passages from the Old Testament prophets that explain his motivation. First, Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be a house of prayer for all the nations.” Matthew doesn’t depict Jesus as adding that last bit (which I placed in italics), but Mark does. Jesus’ use of this quote insinuates something very insightful. God’s heart desire was that the Court of Gentiles was supposed to be a place where non-Jews could worship, but the leaders of the temple had made a mockery of that. The Gentiles couldn’t worship and pray in a courtyard that had been repurposed into a noisy, concessions area.
We also learn Jesus’ motivation in his quote of Jeremiah 7:11 which even further indicts the leaders, because that prophecy refers the temple as a den of robbers. That’s exactly what the leaders had become, as they allowed the money-changers and sellers of sacrifices to rip the people off, profiting off worship in the process. Jeremiah 7:11 concludes with a warning to temple leaders: “The Lord is watching.” Jesus was watching that day in the temple, and his heart for the Lord and for the people, moves him to action.
Jesus, in other words, steps into what might be called a priestly role. He does what the priests should have done. He cleanses the temple, recapturing the essence of what the court of Gentiles was always supposed to be, a place of prayer for the nations.
By telling us this story about Jesus, Matthew is now not only declaring that Jesus is Prophet and King, but Prophet, Priest and King.
Verses 14-16 put an exclamation point on this whole episode. Right there in the temple, Jesus heals many, clearly displaying the victory of the Kingdom of Light over the Kingdom of Darkness.
Have commerce and greed corrupted our practice of faith in Jesus in our day? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How would Jesus view American Christianity? Are we at all like the religious leaders, allowing consumerism to infect our discipleship to Jesus, perhaps more than realize? Maybe our practice of Christianity is polluted?