Jesus Turns the Tables
He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. (Mark 11:15)
This particular Monday may have felt like the proverbial Monday morning in the modern Western world — a time to reengage the grind and get back to work. Jesus, indeed, walked into Jerusalem to take care of business.
The meek and mild Jesus of progressive “tolerance” that so many of our contemporaries have come to prefer was nowhere to be found when he made a mess of the money-changers. There was nothing soft and tender on display when Jesus, in Jeremiah-like fashion, pronounced a resounding judgment on Israel.
In no uncertain terms, his rebuke fell on their worship.
Pigeons! Get Your Pigeons!
The Christian tradition in which I was raised regularly had visiting musical groups play concerts. As you can imagine, these groups would have their albums and other merchandise to promote on the circuit, but at our local church, they weren’t allowed to sell them — at least not in the church foyer where most attenders entered. The rationale came from Mark 11:15–19 when Jesus cleansed the temple. Jesus clearly didn’t like it when folks hawked their wares around the temple, and therefore we shouldn’t sell stuff around the sanctuary.
To be sure, the place of worship in first-century Judaism and the auditorium of a rural Baptist church in America don’t exactly correspond, but true to Jesus’s words, my home church didn’t want the place of worship to be co-opted as a place of commerce. And that much is right.
So this is one temple problem going on in Jesus’s day. If you can imagine, the city would have been packed with pilgrims because of Passover. They would have come to the temple to offer sacrifices and, seizing an opportunity, pigeon-vendors set up shop. It might not have been too different from a sporting event today when sweaty salesmen walk the aisles and herald their popcorn — except these were sacrificial birds, their motive was sinister, and the prices were probably jacked even higher. “Pigeons! Get your pigeons!” they would have hollered.
Without doubt, this is a far cry from what the place of worship should have been, and Jesus wouldn’t have it. Turning heads by his claim of authority, Jesus spoke for God and turned over tables. And central to it all was what he quoted from the Old Testament, from Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? [Isaiah 56:7–8] But you have made it a den of robbers [Jeremiah 7:11].”
Out of Sync
The co-op for commerce was a problem, but that wasn’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that Jesus was addressing. The real fiasco was how out of sync Israel’s worship was with the great end-times vision Isaiah had prophesied — the new age that Jesus had come to inaugurate.
Jesus quotes a portion of that vision from Isaiah 56: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”
The context of Isaiah 56 tells us more. According to Isaiah’s vision, eunuchs would keep God’s covenant (Isaiah 56:4), and foreigners would join themselves to him (Isaiah 56:6), and the outcasts would be gathered with his people (Isaiah 56:8). But Jesus approached a temple pulsing with buying and selling. The court of the Gentiles, the place designed all along for foreigners to congregate, for the nations to seek the Lord, was overrun with opportunists trying to turn a profit. And the Jewish leaders had let this happen.
Their economic drive, and their false security in the temple as an emblem of blessing (Jeremiah 7:3–11), had crowded out space for the nations to draw near, and therefore Jesus was driving them out. The great sadness of this scene wasn’t so much the rows of product and price-gouging, but that all this left no room for the Gentiles and outcasts to come to God. This place of worship should have prefigured the hope of God’s restored creation — a day when “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob’” (Isaiah 2:2–3).
In other words, the ultimate vision of God’s people in God’s place would look a little more motley than it did when Jesus stepped foot into Jerusalem. And because their worship was so far removed from this vision, Jesus had enough. The worship of God’s people was so out of line with God’s purposes that zeal consumed God’s messiah. It had to stop.
What About Us?
And here is the lesson for us on this Monday of Holy Week, or really, here is the question.
How well does our worship prefigure the prophetic vision of the new creation? Do our relational investments and our corporate gatherings reflect, even in a small way, the heart of a God who gathers the outcasts?
This question is no more relevant than on Easter, when our churches try especially to look their finest. When we assemble for worship this weekend, no one will set up tables to exchange currency. No one will lead in their oxen in hopes of getting rich. No one will tote a cage of high-priced pigeons. But our decorations may be elaborate. Our attire may be elegant. Our music may be worldclass. We may put exuberant energy into these things, and make it an impressive spectacle, but if Jesus were to come, if he were to step into our churches this Sunday, he’d be looking for the rabble. Where are the misfits, the socially marginalized, the outcasts?
There is plenty of life in the veins of Easter to propel us beyond our comforts, our cliques, and our Sunday best, and send us powerfully out in the pursuit of the least.