Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When Going to Church Is a Disastrous Distraction (Mark 11:15-18)

This is the week of Passover. Pilgrims from many lands are pouring into the holy city of Jerusalem. One important reason: to have a priest sacrifice an animal on their behalf in the Temple, the holiest place on Earth, as prescribed by the law of Moses.

To help these thousands of foreign visitors make the prescribed sacrifices, moneychangers inside the outer court of the Temple take their foreign coins and exchange them for Temple shekels. Pilgrims then take these shekels and choose which animals they wish to have sacrificed on their behalf. All the animals available inside the outer court are guaranteed to be clean, unblemished, and acceptable to the priests.

Because this is the week of Passover, business is brisk in the outer court. Thousands of pilgrims, moneychangers, sellers, and animals are talking, haggling, mooing, bleating, and chirping to fulfill the law of Moses. Jerusalem and the outer court are filled with all the excitement, joy, anxiety, and frustration that mark any significant holiday.

With his disciples, Jesus too is on his way to Jerusalem.

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” 18 The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching (Mark 11:15-18, New American Standard Version).

Jesus enters the magnificent outer court of the holy Temple of Yahweh. Strangely, he does not get in line to exchange his Galilean denarius for a Temple shekel. Instead, he walks up to the table of the nearest moneychanger, turns it over, does the same to the rest, chases out all those who are trying to sell or buy animals, and forbids everyone to carry anything.

Can we even imagine the shock caused by his behavior? Eyes wide, mouths open, the deafening silence? Nor can any of us imagine Jesus calling us to do something similar today even though our churches are long overdue for such defibrillation.

Upon hearing the news, our leading pastors and theologians know just what to do. They will have Jesus put to death within the week. Troublemaker!

Meanwhile, once the dust settles, Jesus, as always, begins to teach. As always when teaching, he quotes from the Bible. He finds such wisdom in this book and wants us to find it there too.

Jesus first quotes from Isaiah (56:7). Through his prophet, Yahweh declares that his temple is a house of prayer. All the busy earnestness going on in the outer court is beside the point. It distracts people from Yahweh rather than leading them to open their minds and hearts to him.

Jesus then quotes from Jeremiah (7:11). This is scarier. Shortly before Yahweh commanded the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and his holy temple, he had Jeremiah stand at the gate of that temple. He had Jeremiah reveal to his people that they were really Olympians dedicated to Baal (Canaanite name for Jupiter) and other false gods and not Yahwists at all. They were clearly mistaken to devote themselves during the week to the Olympian gods and then return to Yahweh’s house thinking they were safe to do more Olympian abominations (7:10). By doing so, they had turned Yahweh’s house of prayer into a den of robbers.

Jesus quotes Jeremiah. The Jews in his day are repeating the same mistake made by the Judahites in the days of Jeremiah. They think and speak of the Lord, and they’re awfully busy in his temple, but it’s all beside the point. The whole drama taking place inside the Temple—joyful reunions, money changing, anxious haggling, cut throats, rivers of blood, conformity to the law of Moses in imagined honor of Yahweh—all are insidiously Olympian because they are leading the Lord’s people away from him.

We know this because, in a handful of days, the leading pastors and theologians will betray Jesus to the government. The people, so busily conforming to their misleading moral code, will cry for his crucifixion. The government will grant them their wish.

But with the crucifixion of Jesus, Jerusalem will no longer and never again be the holy city. Soon enough, the Temple in which all the deceptive busyness took place will itself disappear. Yahweh will command this temple to be torn down just like the first one in the days of Jeremiah and for the same reason. And the people who had been so busy sacrificing animals and Jesus will be killed by war, sold into slavery, or scattered to centuries of oppression.

Jeremiah warned: destruction is coming. Jesus, quoting Jeremiah inside the Temple, said the same thing. Inside every church where this passage is read this week, Jesus repeats his warning. He does not want us distracted by all the busyness traditionally associated with Easter. The more spectacular our celebration, the greater our distraction from Jesus and the task at hand. Jesus wants us as churches to understand clearly that we are unrepentant Olympians. He invites us, even at this late hour, almost this last minute, to please turn to him and be saved from the destruction that is otherwise coming soon and hard.

May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom, strength, courage, and good cheer we need to discern and affirm these warning words from Jesus today—for our good and his glory.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.