Den of Thieves
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 4, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Mark 11: 15-19
1 Chronicles 28: 1-19
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
(Mt 21:12–17; Lk 19:45–48; Jn 2:13–22)
15 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; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 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 thieves.”
18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
I've had trouble wrestling with this text this week. This scene is an important one because it represents a definitive action of Jesus ministry. In many ways it is the high water mark. He has just entered Jerusalem in triumph, and it seems that he goes straight for the temple. When he gets to the temple, instead of praying, he empties the place out. He over turns tables, and sends out all of the people, proclaiming this house to be a house of prayer for all nations, and instead they have made it a den of thieves. It is this that is the last straw for the chief priests and scribes, because they are now looking for a way to kill him. What is interesting though, is that it seems here that his message is popular with the people, I mean it "spellbound" them. That seems good right? Here are the questions I have been struggling with. 1. (is basic) What is the statement Jesus is making by going into the temple and cleaning house? and 2. Why if it is popular with the people do they follow the Chief Priests and the Scribes at the end of the week?
To get to a place where it would be possible to answer these questions let's look at the history of the Temple,. What it is; what it means; what it has been; and what it has become by the time Jesus enters it and turns the tables. Let's begin by looking at Temples in general. Temples throughout the ancient world were places where gods lived, places where people and gods came together, places where heaven and earth were joined as one. The temples were the turf of the priests. Priests dominated the temple, controlled the worship, and set up the rituals. Temples were also places of great wealth. The best of what was produced in the land would be placed in the temple as a kind of a sacrifice to the gods. It would be hoarded by the priests, and plundered from time to time by kings and emperors, when resources became short, or when one group of people invaded another. This being the case, temples were very much the central identifying body of a city or a state.
The first temple of sorts, that is found in the biblical narrative is the Tower of Babel. Human beings were attempting to build a bridge to God, and it seems that at least in the Biblical Hebrew tradition this is very bad. Why? Apollo has no problem with the Greeks building him a temple, in fact he seems to relish it. Zeus, too, and Baal, Ashtarte, all of the ancient gods are thought to like their temples, why not this Hebrew God? Worship of this Hebrew God begins with God having no name and no temple. Why? The answer, I believe, comes down to confinement and control. One of the main components of ancient religions, chiefly paganism, is the idea that the gods are human creations, and are therefore made in the image of human beings and animals. . . images of what we would consider created things.
The Hebrew God on the other hand cannot be confined to such things because God was not made, but instead made all things. . . is not made in the image of creation, but rather is the chief agent of creation, making human beings in his own image. This is a major and important distinction. Look at it this way, if you make a temple, you are confining God, and controlling the place in which God becomes manifest. I'll use a crude analogy, but yet effective in getting to the point: it is in a sense that the priests are the zookeepers and God is the caged attraction you pay to go see. The priests determine where God lives, the priests determine who gets to see God, the priests are in a sense in Control, and God, though powerful certainly, exists within very confined human set parameters. The Hebrew God does not fit into these parameters, cannot be confined within a temple, or a box, or an idea, not even a name. The name of God simply means God is, that God is being, try if you will to capture the present, you try and it is gone, already past, such it is with God. So what changes between here and the construction of the temple?
After God had led the Israelites out of bondage, the ark of the covenant, resided in a Tabernacle, a movable tent. The Levite Priests had constructed this movable tabernacle based on direct specifications given to Moses. Since those times, this tabernacle had been with the Israelites as they built with God's help and direction a great kingdom. David became king, consolidating a kingdom and building for himself a fine palace. David did not think it right for himself to live in palace and for God to live in a tent, so he says so, quoted in 2 Samuel 7:2, " the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan tells David to go ahead, but that night God comes to Nathan, the prophet, telling him to tell David,
Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
In this passage from 2 Samuel we get the description for the commissioning for the construction of a temple. It will not be David to build it but instead for Solomon, David's son. It seems as if the purpose of the temple is not as a house for God, but instead for God's name, and in the name it seems to mark the covenant between God and David's family. There is a major distinction hear suggesting again that God is in control of the situation, rather than the king or the priest. God sets the parameters for the building of the temple, not David. In the Chronicles passage that Paula read, the set parameters are given for the construction, also directly proceeding that we get the reason as to why David is not allowed to build the temple. 1 Chronicles 28: 2-3.
Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building. 3 But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’
So this is the beginning of the temple in Jerusalem. No blood, set plans, limits placed on this temple, so that it will not become a corruption, and not become like the other temples of other ancient gods, and not a place where treasures are hoarded, and raided, and captured, but instead it becomes just that. The temple becomes a symbol of the nation of Israel, and when that nation crumbles so too does the temple. . . The following is taken from the book of Lamentations. . . the Jeremiah's lament for the fall of the temple.
Enemies have stretched out their hands
over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
to enter your congregation.
11 All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
how worthless I have become. (Lamentations 1: 10-11)
He has broken down his booth like a garden,
he has destroyed his tabernacle;
the Lord has abolished in Zion
festival and sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned
king and priest.
7 The Lord has scorned his altar,
disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
the walls of her palaces;
a clamor was raised in the house of the Lord
as on a day of festival. (Lamentations 2: 6-7)
And the Jews fall into exile. . . If the temple was connected to the covenant, does this mean that God has abandoned them, or that God has been defeated? What are they to think? But the exile ends and they rebuild the temple. That account is found in the book of Ezra. And in there it says that this new temple was commissioned by the Persian Emperor. It makes you wonder as to whether the Persian Emperor did not have blood on his hands, or if the standard had somehow been changed. . . This temple stood for 500 years, and had 500 years of weathering and assaults on it. Then 18 years before the birth of Christ, Herod set to work rebuilding the temple. Herod did so to gain favor of the Jews he wished to rule. You can see that throughout this long history this Temple had existed on shaky footing. And by shaky, I mean, whose job is it to build a dwelling place for God? And what should such a dwelling place's purpose be? Is it to house God? Is it to claim God? Is it to appeal to God? What is the purpose of the temple?
Jesus upon riding into Jerusalem goes straight for the temple, this building that is supposed to be his dwelling place. He finds within a very different purpose from what he imagines, at least it appears: the exchange of money. . . the wielding of power. Exactly what a temple has always been, but exactly what this temple was not supposed to be. He says, "My house was to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves."
So now that I've given some background let's return to our two questions: 1. What is the statement Jesus is making by going into the temple and cleaning house? and 2. Why if it is popular with the people do they follow the Chief Priests and the Scribes at the end of the week?
It seems obvious to me that the statement Jesus is making is that things need to change because the temple has become exactly like the other pagan temples, places where power is brokered over people, and where God is wielded rather than worshiped, where God is confined, boxed, and sold. You can see how threatening this setup would make the chief priests and the scribes upset. Their power is tied to the temple, just like the ancient pagan priests. They are in league with the Roman occupiers. Money changers is a concept that we may not completely understand, but what they are doing is changing money from the unusable Jewish money to the Roman Money. You can imagine the types of corruption that would occur during this process. People are being swindled by those people who should protect them, in a place that is supposed to be sacred. Jesus seeks to end this, restoring the only model that can be for the temple. . . one that does not confine God, or wield, God, or use God, but one that is a mark of the covenant, a sign on Earth of God's steadfast love for his people.
But this would be good for the people, you would think. It is my second question that is so much more difficult to answer. Why, if Jesus' message is popular with the people, do the people decide by the end of the week to follow the Chief Priests and the Scribes instead and demand that Jesus be crucified?
Let's expand the Jesus message. One of the things that Jesus represents is the new covenant, the new revelation of God's steadfast love. In the Matthew and Luke gospel accounts of this scene, the idea that Jesus claims that he will tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days is conveyed along with this story. Look at this claim. There will be a new temple, and if we look at the rest of the story that new temple, the new symbol of the covenant of God's steadfast love would be Jesus himself. I think we are almost there. What makes this message so hard is what it means. . . God is with us. . . not in some temple under the control of priests, but really with us, and even more than that also God is in us. Jeremiah and Paul both testify to the count. Jeremiah 31
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Paul writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth. . .
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
If God's spirit dwells within us, and we are his temple, take another look at this passage. Jesus comes into your town on a donkey, you wave palms, you sing hosanna, and shout praises. Then though Jesus enters into your heart, the temple of you. What does he find? Does he find a house of prayer, or does he find a den of thieves? Do we prefer the temple the way it is because it doesn't challenge us the way we are? It seems to me that this is the answer to the second question, and the reason why the cheers changed. The status quo was safer because it did not force the people to look at themselves. Is that still the case? Are we content with the way that we are and the way that the world is? Is there no room anymore for a God let loose from the temple to run free in the world, freeing people, healing people, and changing lives? Would we rather seek to control God? The rest of the story shows us that our desire to control God is futile, misguided, and destined to always fail because God cannot in the end be nailed to a cross, nor sealed in a tomb, and oh the wonders that He can do let loose within the temple of our hearts. Amen.