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A Den of Thieves

 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” Matthew 21:12-13

There are few examples recorded in the Gospels of Jesus getting angry. We develop a picture of him as mostly even-tempered. He displayed displeasure at people who were misleading others, under the guise of religion, about what was required for salvation. He was seemingly frustrated by how slow his disciples were to grasp his message at times. But the top prize for flying off the handle goes to what we refer to as Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.” In the various Gospel accounts, he overturns tables and chairs, runs off the sacrificial animals, and, quoting from Isaiah, says they have transformed God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. In John’s account of the event[1], Jesus even weaves together a whip of cords to aid in the cleansing.

For the leaders of the temple, the business folks, and probably even for the people there to worship, Jesus’ actions were those of a crazed lunatic. The buying and selling of sacrifices and the changing of money was a normal part of the temple experience. Seemingly, no one but Jesus saw anything wrong with it. And that is exactly the trap we can find ourselves in even today – that we become comfortable with and accept without question the possible turning of our temples into dens of thieves. It becomes so commonplace, we don’t even notice until someone comes in, loses his or her temper, and starts throwing tables and chairs.

The concept of what constitutes a temple is worth reflecting upon. In Jesus’ day, the temple was in Jerusalem and was the center of the Jewish faith. Its innermost part, the Holy of Holies, was the residence of God. No one was allowed entry to the Inner Sanctum except the High Priest, and then only once a year. Today, we often consider the buildings in which we worship – our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings – as temples. But the Bible goes much further, naming our bodies as temples of the Most High. For example, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”[2] The temple that Jesus “cleansed” can be seen as a metaphor for us. In what ways have we turned our personal “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves?” In what ways have we blocked the path to our own Inner Sanctum?

Perhaps what Jesus railed against in the temple was the outrageous prices being charged and not just that commerce was being conducted. After all, his accusation was that the sellers were “robbers.” The people were a captive audience in the temple, similar to us in airports today. We pay higher prices because it is more convenient than leaving the area to pay a more reasonable price. Deeper than that, however, one of Jesus’ primary teachings was that the entire sacrificial system – that something else must die to cleanse us of our sins, or that we can buy our salvation – was a sham. God’s love and forgiveness is given freely, and all we must do is receive it. Not only do we not need to earn or pay for it, we cannot earn or pay for it. God’s love is a gift. In that sense, the buyers and sellers were simply expensive and unnecessary distractions from the real point of being in the temple – to be in God’s presence. There should be no cover charge for entry. Everything else simply draws our attention away from the primary purpose. And the leaders of the temple, then and now, smiled because the distractions often accrued to their benefit.

Even so, what about our personal temple? What obstacles prevent our bodies from being houses of prayer? Where are our distractions? Where are we wasting resources and energy to try to earn the gift God freely gives to us? What would Jesus throw out of our temple if he were to enter? Perhaps when we place conditions on the giving of our love and acceptance to others – the very love and acceptance lavished so freely on us – we become more of a den of thieves than a house of prayer. Loving attention is always life-giving and should always be free, whether given or received. Love is not a product for the marketplace.

This is the 27th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] John 2:13-16.

[2] 1 Corinthians 3:16.

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