And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:13)
Perception is a strange thing, one we often put in the place of discernment. As such, it becomes the ‘palette’ with which we colour our faith, our lives in Christ and even our obedience. Sadly, if our perception is skewed, we fill the canvas of our lives with things that are lifeless, painting for ourselves an arid existence that ultimately denies the full character and relevance of God. Perception is most often one-sided. It is fed and fuelled by our personal desires and attitudes, not by truth. It assumes only those things we prefer to see or hear, and denies the things we most need.
It is difficult for many of us to accept that part of God’s character that seems to contradict the image of a loving, merciful God, full of compassion and grace. We struggle to assimilate the truth that, while He may be all those things, but is also a God of anger, of judgement and of wrath. We scoot over the truth that He utterly destroyed an evil world in the flood, focusing rather on the miraculous deliverance and the rainbow sign. We create a ‘nice’ God, thus denying the sovereign, majestic, awesome magnitude of His power, glory and holiness.
Yet today’s verse reveals so clearly the full truth that God does judge and chastise His people. We can accept His challenging and often harsh interaction with the spiritual leadership – after all, they represent a religious order, a spiritual hierarchy, that doesn’t really include us. After all, we’re the people He came to save. He loves us too much to lump us in with the ‘whitened sepulchres,’ right? Yet this passage – one mentioned in all four Gospels – displays a righteous wrath that confronts all. It is a statement we simply cannot afford to ignore.
The first thing we need to take hold of is that it’s not ‘out of character.’ It’s also no less significant because it’s really the only time that we see God’s anger manifest so clearly and so passionately. What were the things that provoked Jesus to wrath, and what does it mean for us as Christians?
A little background helps. The money-changers and those selling animals for sacrifice, first of all, were there for the money. They had no interest in ‘pure sacrifices’ or even in the need for acceptable sacrifice, without which man had no way to God. They simply saw it as an opportunity to line their pockets at the expense of those seeking God. Holiness and seeking righteousness were simply a good business opportunity which they exploited to the maximum. Also, the situation of the temple was such that it provided a handy short-cut between the marketplace and the residential quarter. The temple thus became a convenience, a thoroughfare for people carrying any manner of goods and purchases, many of which might well have been unacceptable to God even outside the boundaries of the temple.
Note the words ‘my house.’ Is that not you and I? We are, after all, the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the place where God Himself has chosen to live on earth. The temple embodied not only the presence of God – which in itself demands an acceptable attitude and holiness of living. It also embodied a place of prayer – the place where God met with His people, the place of communion and intimacy. Prayer is not ‘the place of asking’ as so many define it. It’s the place of ‘oneness,’ of meeting with God, of worship, thanksgiving and praise. It’s also the place of sacrifice.
We are called to be that ‘place of prayer.’ As His ‘house,’ we are called to house the constant indwelling presence of God as living sacrifices. It is time that we asked ourselves what we have allowed the temple to become. Do we diminish the grace of God to a matter of financial prosperity like the money-changers? Do we ‘sell’ our sacrifice to God in exchange for blessings? Do we allow the things of the world to traffic through the temple, bringing things of the world and the flesh into His holy presence?
It’s significant that Christ did not enter the temple and simply ‘lose it’ in a fit of rage. It was a careful, calculated and deliberate act. He did not lash out irrationally, or vent His anger without restraint. The righteous anger of God was revealed in that moment. We know this because He braided a whip of cords – an instrument of chastisement, of punishment, and the same instrument of our healing, deliverance an salvation. Nothing is coincidence with God. It is the instruments of His punishment that bring the blessings of salvation, which enables us to live a sacrificial life with and for Him.
It is written. Those are the same words Christ used to defeat the devil in the wilderness. What is written is absolute. It is a command not a suggestion. God has ordained that His house will be a house of prayer. We cannot expect to disobey and escape the inevitable consequence. He reveals that He will cleanse His house if we do not. It is His immeasurable love and grace that provides us with clear instruction and clear warning. Living lives that take His compassion and mercy for granted does not protect us from the chastisement of a loving Father.
He tells us clearly: My house will be a house of prayer. Will we respond willingly, will we cleanse the temple with a humble and contrite heart, seeking His will and holiness an surrendering ourselves? Or will we continue to trade on the goodness of God, ignoring His command in the mistaken assumption that we are the ‘favourite child’ who is exempt from those things we assume are meant for ‘others.’ It is the favourite child, the heir, whom a Father raises up to inherit all He has. A true heir will be shaped by the Father’s own hand, both the hand of love and mercy and the hand that holds the whip.
Our God desires not to chastise. He prefers that we draw near in love and obedience, that we willing choose the right way and dwell with Him in joyful surrender. But where He commands, we simply cannot afford to knowingly rebel. Will we cleanse the temple, or will be persist until He Himself can no longer withold His hand