The second week of Stephen Cottrell’s book looks at Matthew 21:12-17. Why did Jesus overturn the money changers’ tables in the Temple courts? And what might that action mean for us today?
I’ve heard this applied in many different ways. For some – Jesus was against capitalism. For others – Jesus was against table top sales at church. However, that all assumes the money changers were acting illegally or immorally. What if they weren’t? What if they were simply there to help good faithful Jews in their worship of God?
Why would Jesus turn over the tables and say that they are making the Temple’s outer court a “den of robbers?” What were they stealing? Who were they robbing?
Often we say that they were robbing the people of their money. They were rigging the books or being dodgy with the weighing scales. What if there might be another way to see this story? What if Jesus was getting at something even more important when he turned the tables?
What if this is about calling?
What was Israel’s calling? Isaiah 49 tells us that Israel was called to be God’s servant, to bring His people back home to Him. But not just the Jews, also the Gentiles. See Isaiah 49 v 6.
Ezekiel affirms this calling, putting the Temple at the heart of God’s salvation plans. In Ezekiel 47, Ezekiel has a vision of a river flowing from the very throne of God, through the Temple, and to the surrounding lands and beyond. See especially Ezekiel 47 v 12. And further along we learn that “foreigners” – those perceived to have no legal status to be there or inheritance rights – who were living in the land were to be treated as “native-born Israelites” (Ezekiel 47:22 NIV). Living waters flow from the Temple and touch the lives of the Jews and even the Gentiles.
So part of their calling was to help God reach the Gentiles, to provide space for the Gentiles to draw close to God.
The Temple had a physical space for this to happen. In the Temple, a space (an outer court) was set aside for Gentiles to come and pray and seek God and to grow in relationship with Him. Such is God’s hospitality.
It’s in this provided space that Jesus makes His move. This space of God’s hospitality and generosity, a place set aside for Gentiles – this is the space that Jesus calls a “den of robbers.”
So who was being robbed? Well, God was being robbed.
What was God being robbed of? Relationship with the Gentiles
We see in scripture time and again that God’s heart is relationship – with individuals, with family units, with communities and with nations. Israel is God’s chosen vehicle, and the Temple was His chosen home on earth.
By using that outer court space to help the Jews provide sacrifice and to help increase their closeness to God (a worthy and good cause!), they were also not living out their calling and robbing God of opportunity to reach the Gentiles that were coming to Him in prayer.
Now – as Christians and especially of a non-conforming tradition, our understanding of the Temple of God and where God dwells and use of sacred space will probably be very different from the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Jews today will probably have a variety of views that differ also. But for us to simply look at the economics of the situation misses a bigger far more important point – calling. As God’s people – Jew and Gentile – we should be making space for people who are outside of our perceived fellowship.
So – in this action of overturning the tables, Jesus sees a space being used by the religious authorities to help God’s people fulfil their religious responsibilities and reminds them of their calling – to be a light to the nations. To let the living waters of the Temple to flow even to them, those on the outside of the perceived family of God.
What might this mean for us in 2020?
In our particular church tradition, the church is not the building; it’s the people. God’s presence is with us wherever we go. Prayer and relationship with God can happen anywhere. We don’t segregate our worship on a Sunday morning with those who know Jesus in the sanctuary and those who don’t out in the foyer, do we? No.
Now bear with me, I realise that this analogy only works so far. Jesus tore the curtain that separated the people from God’s holiest space when he was crucified. But truth is – in our lives and in the life of our church community – we should make room for both the inner court and outer court stuff.
The inner court was where the sacrifice was made, where repentance happened. As followers of Jesus, we should want to be in relationship with God, keeping in step with Him. Checking our footing every now and again. Ensuring that we are following Jesus.
But what about the outer court? That space where you bump into people who don’t put their faith in God and Jesus. Sometimes when people come to faith they set up a spiritual wall around themselves to try and keep the non-Christian influences out. They are using the ‘outer courts’ like a buffer, to protect themselves from the world. When we do that – we are robbing God.
We are called to love God and love our neighbours. And I don’t know about your experience of neighbours, but in my experience of neighbours, they are not all like me. Some are Christian, but some are not. Some are sympathetic to faith, and some haven’t thought about God since singing All Things Bright and Beautiful in school. They don’t listen to a lot of Bethel Music, but they know who Billie Eilish is. They may not read the Bible, but in the style of RuPaul, they may know how to read you.
Do we make space in our lives and in our church building for our neighbours who don’t yet know Jesus?
Yes, it’s important to nurture our relationship with God. However, what is our calling?
Matthew 28: 19 and 20 reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)
So – let’s overturn the tables…
As a church, we might want to stop and reflect on our church life. Is there space for people who are not Christians to come in? Also, do we put up barriers that make it difficult for people to come in and hopefully to discover God? Barriers can be physical like lack of disabled access. Barriers can also by intangible, like the language we use or unexplained traditions.
On that day, Jesus attempted to remove the physical barriers that were preventing the Gentiles form being a part of what God was doing. I don’t know how successful this was, as they probably carried on trading again once he left the Temple.
But – we retell this story over Holy Week every year for a reason.
How are we doing with our calling to be a light in this community?
What barriers need to be removed today – in our lives and in the life of our church?
What changes do we need to make?
How can we be better neighbours and make space for people?