Day two of Jesus’s final week was a Monday. I’m just going to pretend today is Monday and follow the advice to “slow our pace a little, walking through Scripture’s narrative of the events that took place between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday . . . [stepping] purposefully with Christ . . . as He approaches the cross of His sacrifice and our salvation” (She Reads Truth, “The Work of Christ,” Lent 2016, p. 115).
Today I spent time reflecting on Matthew 21:12-22 and Isaiah 56:1-8 for the “Holy Week in Real Time: Monday” meditations. We know from the collection of gospel accounts that after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday, He visited the temple briefly and then spent the night in Bethany. Monday morning, He left Bethany and headed to the temple again. At some point before arriving, He was hungry and found a fig tree that was mature but not bearing any fruit. He cursed it and kept going. When He got to the temple, he found it overrun with merchants and money changers. It was the week before Passover (which was actually three feasts in one), one of the three great feasts for which all Israelites were required to celebrate at the temple in Jerusalem. This meant pilgrimage for many and an overrun city for all. It also meant booming business for those who sold the animals needed for sacrifices and for the Passover Seder meal. Where did they set up their stalls and tables? Where did they rob the people blind? Right in the temple courts. No access to their God without going through the marketplace first.
Reading this story and imagining the exploitation going on in that scene stirs to flames a deep anger and indignation that overwhelms me. It makes me simultaneously want to weep and scream for the depth of the injustice being committed in the temple courtyard. I can’t imagine how the God of the universe in the flesh must have felt. I imagine His emotions were still fresh from the day before and still swirling in anticipation of all that was to come throughout the rest of the week, and the time was right to finally do something about it. Jesus starts flipping over tables and running those merchants and money changers out of the temple. Animals and birds are escaping and creating chaos and people are shocked: some are probably watching, others—those on the receiving end of His righteous anger—are trying to get away from him or trying to confront him. I can only imagine the chaos, and I’m sure that the visions in my head don’t even come close to what that moment must have really been like.
Jesus yells at them,
“It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it a den of thieves!” (Matt 21:13)
Just after this event, Matthew goes on to tell us that while Jesus was still in the temple complex—whether before or after the previous episode, Matthew doesn’t say—blind and lame beggars came to Him for healing and children were still shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” as had been shouted at His arrival the day before. The chief priests were angry about this and asked Him if He was hearing what they were saying about Him. Of course He was! What a dumb question! And Jesus makes sure they know He is fully aware and in full support of what is being said about Him by asking (emphasis mine), “Have you never read” ‘You have prepared praise from the mouths of children and nursing infants?'” Basically He lets them stew in the truth and implies, “Of course I know what they are saying, and I accept it because it’s true. The bigger question is why don’t you know and accept it? Or maybe you don’t know as much as you think you do?”
At least I hope that’s the effect His words had on them, and I’m pretty sure it is because they just got angrier over the week until they finally got what they wanted: Jesus dead on a cross. Although, they also got way more than they bargained for: the fulfillment of all the prophesies despite their best efforts to thwart God at achieving this cosmic purpose.
Insert an ironic facepalm gif here, please.
Jesus’s accusation to the merchants and money changers that they had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves directly references Isaiah 56:7, in which God says:
“I will bring them to My holy mountain and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for the nations.”
But the driving point of this accusation wasn’t that these people had, with the approval of Israel’s so-called religious shepherds, defiled a sacred and holy place of worship. Though that was in fact true, the offense was much deeper than that. They were turning faith into a commodity and pimping out God’s promises for their own personal profit, toying with the very real eternity of the souls standing in front of them as if it were merely playing a child’s game of “Market.” Even the children knew better than that!
Isaiah 56 is part of a much bigger prophetic dialogue that starts around Isaiah 50 and progresses through the final sixteen chapters of the book. In Isaiah 50-53, we see prophesy about the coming of the Messiah and the suffering He is destined to endure on our behalf. Isaiah 54-56 contain invitations. Isaiah 54 is addressed to the barren woman, which is the old covenant reality, which was marked by faithlessness and failing even in the best efforts; it prophesies a redemption those under that covenant couldn’t imagine through the new covenant that would be ushered in by the Messiah. It is an invitation into an eternal peace, security, acceptance, and love. Isaiah 55 is addressed to all those who are not sufficient in and of themselves; they are hungry, thirsty, poor, and needy, and they are spent. It is an invitation to come and dwell in the abundance freely offered by the God of all compassion, again, through the new covenant to be ushered in by the Messiah. Isaiah 56, specifically addresses foreigners and eunuchs—in other words, outcasts, rejects, and the marginalized, no matter the nationality or religion—and extends those same invitations to them. In verses 1-8, God says:
Preserve justice and do what is right, for My salvation is coming soon, and My righteousness will be revealed. 2Happy is the man who does this, anyone who maintains this, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. 3No foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord should say, “The Lord will exclude me from His people”; and the eunuch should not say, “Look, I am a dried-up tree.” 4For the Lord says this: “For the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold firmly to My covenant, 5I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give each of them an everlasting name that will never be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord minister to Him, love the name of Yahweh and become His servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold firmly to My covenant—7I will bring them to My holy mountain and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8This is the declaration of the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: “I will gather to them still others besides those already gathered.” (HCSB)
Do you hear it? Isaiah 56 is an invitation to the freedom and joy of belonging, of home, of identity found only in the presence of God. It is an invitation to relationship, both with Him and in communion with fellow tired souls finding rest in God’s presence and promises. That accusation that Jesus zinged at the merchants and money changers was drawn directly from God’s discourse with His people about what it would look like to live in freedom rather than in bondage to the law and their inadequate self-saving efforts and the means by which He intended to secure that for them.
And in those three chapters He levels the playing field: “Just because you are the people of the covenant doesn’t mean you are doing any better than the rest of the nations of the earth. You are just as needy as they are. Hear me well: they are just as invited as you are.“
Enter Jesus. It is the last week of His life. He is on His way to the exact suffering foretold in Isaiah 53, and He is watching the temple—a space that should be about drawing close to God and belonging to Him in freedom and rest—be turned into a place of rejection and marginalization. We aren’t talking about transgressions born of ignorance, here. No, this was willful, unadulterated exploitation, and there is just no room for that in God’s house!
“Oh, you want to go in and obey God? Well, you have to buy the right animals to sacrifice, first. How much? Definitely more than those measly coins you’re trying to convince me to accept. Sorry! Keep moving!”
“Hey gentile dog! Get out of here! This is a place for God’s chosen people! Not for the filthy likes of you!”
“Ok, you look like an Israelite, but I can’t understand a word you are saying, and I sure as heck cant take that money. What country is that even from? Go over there to those money changers. They’ll give you the right kind of money. They’ll charge you more than the amount you actually need in order to do it, but at least you’ll have the right kind of money. And then you can buy the right kind of sacrifices and stay in the right kind of inn and do faith the right kind of way.”
Oh it makes me so angry to think about it. I have endured those lies, both inside my own accusing mind and from those around me who still hadn’t figured out how poor and needy they themselves still were. And I believed those lies, because surely those people knew God more than me, right? They knew the Bible more and did quiet times every day! They mentored others and quoted Scripture and explained deep theology; surely they had earned the right to peddle their wares, right?! Their quiet times followed the right kind of structure and pattern, and the way they worshiped or talked to God sounded super holy and biblical. So, that must be the way, right? Dress the right way, talk the right way, associate with the right people and the right activities, have the same right opinions and insights. You know this drill. You have probably heard these things too. Hopefully, you’ve also figured out they are lies straight from the pit of hell, sent with the sole purpose of alienating you from God so that you will never know the freedom He has secured for you.
Yes, just for YOU!
And definitely for me too!
Believe me when I tell you that cleansing the temple was not easy. It made people mad! It caused chaos and left a massive mess in its wake. Imagine having to clean that up, with all the throngs of people milling about, confused about how to properly fulfill their requirements now that everything was in upheaval and nothing was what they were used to.
I wonder how many of them took advantage of the chaos and the distraction and just snuck past it all into the places of quiet prayer and abiding in the presence of God that their hearts longed for. And then there are those who sought out Jesus, in His grief and righteous indignation—to receive healing, to enjoy His company, to worship Him—because they knew. They knew He was the only right one, that He knew the only right way. It didn’t matter that they were sick, small, rejected, foreign, or just tired and fed up. He heard them. He accepted them. He let them come close and be with Him, and He gave them healing and freedom.
Cleansing the temple of our hearts wasn’t easy either. That require much more than the mere flipping of some tables and chasing people away. That required a journey to the cross, a sojourn in the grave, and the conquering of death forever. And it takes a lifelong partnership between God and us, one that requires us to live in that house of prayer, to rest in our belonging, and to trust Him when freedom means walking through upheaval for a while.
When I read this account in Matthew during my meditation this morning, I was immediately reminded of a song I loved a long time ago. It touched me quite deeply then, and it still does today, over a decade later. In fact, I still can’t listen to it without dissolving into tears. It is called “Lover,” and it’s from Derek Webb’s album She Must and Shall Go Free. The title of the album is enough for you to go buy it, or at least listen to it, but let me also add my personal recommendation; it is on my top-ten albums list, for sure!
The song is written from Jesus’s perspective as He comes into the temple on that Monday to find it overrun with thieves and salesmen, rather than reconcilers, pilgrims, and worshipers abiding in the refuge and fellowship of God’s presence and promises. It’s reflective, but it also peels back the layers of the intensity of the emotions He must have been feeling that day, that entire week. The truth is, He died for all, even for those thieves and salesmen and those Pharisees and religious leaders that had Him killed. He prayed for their forgiveness, and His invitation remained open for them then just like it does for us today. This song says it so well: He has always been a lover, even when that meant loving us to death. Literally. And He invites us to bring all our baggage, history, failings, fatigue, and flaws and exchange them for the bread and the wine, for joy and rest, for freedom, and for acceptance, love, and belonging offered to us at the banquet table. It is there for all of us.
Don’t let the thieves and salesmen convince you otherwise.
Like a man comes to an altar, I came into this town
With the world upon my shoulders and promises passed down
And I went into the water and my Father, He was pleased
Oh I built it and I’ll tear it down, so you will be set free
Yes, and I found thieves and salesmen, living in my Father’s house
And I know how they got in here and I know how to get ’em out
You see, I’m turning this place over from the floor to balcony
And then, just like these doves and sheep, oh, you will be set free
‘Cause I have always been a lover from before I drew a breath
Well and some things I loved easy, some I love to death
‘Cause love’s no politician, no it listens carefully
So of those who come, I can’t lose one
So you will be set free, oh, you will be set free
Go on and take my picture, go on and make me up
Oh, I’ll still be your defender, you’ll be my missing son
Oh and I’ll send out an army just to bring you back to me
‘Cause regardless of your brothers’ lies, oh, you will be set free
Because I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s mine
So, you bring all your history, I’ll bring the bread and wine
Oh and we’ll have us a party where all the drinks are on me
And as surely as the rising sun, oh, you will be set free
Oh, you will be set free