Den of Robbers

Rembrandt Christ Cleansing the Temple 1635

Rembrandt’s Christ Cleansing the Temple (1635).

Matthew 21:12-17

On the Monday before he died, Jesus got mad.

 

Well, I guess it doesn’t say “Jesus got mad” in Matthew 21, but that’s the only way I can picture this scene going down.  Jesus walks into the Temple – not the inner sanctuary but the outer courtyard where people are selling animals for sacrifice and exchanging currency.  Jesus walks in and drives all those people out.  He turns over their tables and chairs.  He makes a big, fat mess of things.  I can’t imagine doing all that without any emotion.

So it’s fair to say – don’t you think? – that on the Monday before Jesus died, he got mad.

Let’s talk about why he got mad.

Growing up, I always figured Jesus was mad because there were some shady things afoot.  There’s money involved, and when money’s involved things can easily get shady.  And they are buying and selling in the Temple.  That seems so weird to me, like having a Starbucks in our church entryway or something.  No offense if your church has a Starbucks in it, but I’m just not used to it.  And if it made Jesus so mad, then surely they were charging too much and generally being unethical about it.

Right?

Well, maybe not.  There was legitimate need for those animals being sold and coins being exchanged.  People traveled long distances to the Temple, and it was often impractical to carry their own animals with them.  They needed to buy one once they arrived.  And in order to make offerings in the Temple people needed money – money that didn’t have a forbidden “graven image” on it like the Roman currency did.  They needed to swap out their everyday coins for special ones to use in the Temple.  In other words:  the animals for sale and coins for exchange helped faithful Jews be faithful Jews.

This still leaves the possibility that these services were done in a corrupt way.  That is certainly possible – but if you look at the text, there’s nothing to indicate that fowl play is involved.  Matthew isn’t afraid to give us an explanatory aside when needed; look at 16:1, for example, where he says point blank that the Pharisees and Sadducees were asking Jesus questions “to test him.”  If something was amiss here, wouldn’t Matthew give us a helpful, “for they were dealing falsely,” or something?

If there isn’t a problem with the sellers or exchangers then that creates a problem for us as readers trying to understand, because then we don’t have a clue as to why Jesus was mad.

Actually, we do have a clue:  Jeremiah 7.

That’s what Jesus is quoting:  “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”  So we can flip over to Jeremiah 7 and get a bigger picture.  In that passage, the prophet Jeremiah is condemning Jews who acted like jerks in their everyday lives and then came to worship at the Temple.  Specifically, Jeremiah says they are stealing, killing, sleeping around, lying, and worshipping other gods.  He’s fed up with them acting like that and then coming into God’s house – using it like a robber’s den.

The first time I really understood this was when someone explained to me what a den of robbers was.  Picture a cave, a hideout – the place where the robbers live.  This hideout is not where they do their robbing.  Right?  They leave and go somewhere else to do their dirty work.  The cave is the place where they bring their plunder home.

So what Jeremiah is seeing – and condemning – is not a bunch of people doing terrible things within the Temple walls.  He is seeing – and condemning – people doing terrible things outside the Temple walls, and then coming back home to God’s house.  They’re robbers, and they’ve made it their den.

This is the Biblical reference Jesus is making, so perhaps this is also why Jesus got mad on that Monday:  not because of what was going on inside the Temple but because of the way people were living outside the Temple.  They were making it a den of robbers, and when he made a mess of their buying and selling he essentially brought Temple activity to a halt.  They couldn’t make offerings, they couldn’t make sacrifices – they couldn’t be at home in God’s house.

This makes a lot of sense to me.  I like everything about this way of understanding why Jesus got so mad on that Monday, except for one thing:

It makes me wonder if Jesus would get mad at us.  Are we making our churches the same kind of dens?

This is a genuine question, and one we each have to answer for ourselves.  At Andrews United Methodist Church I can attest that we have a wonderful congregation.  We welcome visitors of all kinds, and we make generous offerings, and we sing God’s praise the best we can, and we pray intently together.  Worship on Sunday morning is a joy and I look forward to it each week.  But – if this reading is correct – Jesus wasn’t getting mad at what was happening at God’s house.  It was the stuff happening elsewhere that made him and Jeremiah so put-out.  And I don’t know how you act when you’re not at church.

But you do.  So this is a question for you.

Are you making God’s house your robbers’ den?

Jeremiah says the people are stealing.  Are you taking from others what belongs to them?  Are you withholding from others what you ought to be sharing?

Jeremiah says the people are murdering.  Jesus likens murder to anger and insults (Matthew 5:21-22).  Are you angry with someone?  Are you throwing around mean words?

Jeremiah says the people are committing adultery.  Jesus says lust is as good as the same thing (Matthew 5:28).  Are you flirting with people you shouldn’t be flirting with?  Are you nurturing daydreams about someone else’s spouse?

Jeremiah says the people are swearing falsely.  Jesus said don’t make oaths at all (Matthew 5:34).  Are you in the habit of telling lies?  Do you do it often enough that it doesn’t feel wrong anymore?

Jeremiah says the people are worshiping other gods.  Jesus said to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:38).  Are there things in your life more important to you than God?  Do you give them more of your heart, soul, and mind than you give to God?

None of these things are things we do in church.  If you are stealing, murdering, sleeping around, lying, or putting your faith in other things, you are probably not doing it during Sunday morning worship.  So this is a question for each of us to consider, personally:  Are we making church a den of robbers?

Let me be clear:  coming into church does not require perfect behavior outside of church.  We come here as the imperfect, hot messes that we are.  But neither do we come here to be satisfied with our poor behavior, just as we wouldn’t go to an AA meeting resolved to keep drinking or to a Weight Watcher group with no intention of losing weight.  We come here not to hide out safely from our sins, but in order to be forgiven from them so we might change.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent is a perfect time to take an honest look at ourselves.  One of the traditional habits of Lent is repentance.  If you think there’s a chance that you are making your church into your robber’s den, then make it a practice, each day, to pause and reflect on what you need to apologize to God for.  Turn away from those things and try to do differently.

May each of our churches be a house of prayer for all people, not a den of robbers.

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