Turning the tables

They came to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.
(Mark 11.14-18)

It was a day for the big statements, at the fig tree and now in the Temple, at the very heart of the establishment. It is impossible for us to imagine a similar context, though St Peter’s Basilica in Rome comes close to it. But there was only one Temple and therefore it was the focus of the religious and national attention in a way that Westminster Abbey for us isn’t quite.

It was the week of the festival and the place was busier than usual, a perfect time to make this kind of grand gesture, this statement of intent, the throwing down of the gauntlet, the acting out of the manifesto for change that Jesus had brought with him into the city.

What the Temple might have looked like

What the Temple might have looked like

The Temple complex was made up of a series of courts – the outer one where Gentiles were permitted and then successive ones which were progressively for more and more important people, women, men, the priests, the High Priest. At the very heart of the place was the Holy of Holies which only the high priest could enter and then only once a year. It was a physical representation of a particular view of heaven in which only the chosen could get close to God.

It was in the outer courts that the selling would be done and the money changing and the business. Holy places tend to attract that kind of thing but here it was not simply the first century equivalent of the selling of postcards but selling access to God and fleecing those who wished to make their offering.

St John says that Jesus made a whip of cords (John 2.15) and drove out the sellers and the money changers, overturning their tables, scattering the animals and in justification screaming out a passage from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 56.7). That passage gives the game away. Jesus wanted to overturn the whole system that kept people away from God – ‘a house of prayer for all nations’. Jesus says in St John’s Gospel

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12.32)

The whip of cords would soon be turned on Jesus and he would be made a sacrificial offering rather than one of these animals. But as it all happens the veil of the Temple will be torn in two and all will be overthrown as the earth itself quakes. The cleansing of the Temple was just a first, violent step in a violent but revolutionary week.

But are we still keeping people away from God; is our church as inclusive as Christ desires it to be?

Loving God,
your arms extend to including even me.
May your church be a home for all people
and may none be turned away.


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