Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Matthew 21:12-13 NRSV
This is what happened on the Monday of Holy Week. It’s a passage that often troubles Christians. Jesus seems angry and passionate. We prefer him meek, mild, gentle and calm.
All my life I’d heard this passage used to explain why we shouldn’t sell things at church. And that bothered me, because often the things being sold benefited the church itself or other charities.
I was glad when I read Bruxy Cavey’s book, The End of Religion. Bruxy explained that this wasn’t about whether or not one could sell things to raise funds for those in need. He explained that the money changers and those selling the doves had a bit of a racket going on – the Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. As part of their worship they would make a sacrifice – a dove or another animal. They could, of course, bring their own dove from home. But those selling the doves had a deal with the Temple priests. The priests would reject the dove brought from home, saying that the dove had a blemish and therefore was not fit for sacrifice in the Temple. Then the pilgrim would have to go outside and buy a new dove – at a premium, of course. And in order to buy the dove, they would have to exchange their money at the money-changers tables…at a higher exchange rate, of course. (The priests would get a kick-back from the profits made by charging premiums.) Often the premiums charged by the money-changers and the dove-sellers meant that the pilgrim could not afford the dove and they would have to chose not to worship.
The point, Bruxy explained, was that people who faithfully sought to worship God were turned away – simply because they were not rich enough to play the game.
If you want to see God angry, stop someone from being able to worship him.
This makes sense to me – I can understand Jesus getting angry and passionate about a system that callously makes it harder (and in many cases impossible) for people to be in relationship with God. I can understand him saying that the money-changers and dove-sellers were turning the house of prayer into a den of robbers. They were robbing the people (especially the poorest of the people) of their chance to enter the house of prayer.
It would be akin to charging a rental rate on the pews in our sanctuaries on Sunday morning. And turning those away who couldn’t pay.
God has always been for the alien, the outcast and the widow – those who, just by being who they are, have a hard time belonging and making a way in this world. God has always been against power structures that victimize the poor. And even more so, when those power structures are found in places that are meant to be houses of prayer.
Jesus has always been about bringing people to God. Jesus is always clearing the path, making a way, removing the barriers between us and God.
My prayer this Holy Monday is that churches would be places where the barriers to worship are removed. Places where all people can come into God’s presence, and experience the liberating power of his passionate Son.