Stumbling Blocks to Worship

Don: Among the synoptic gospels, there are slight differences in the story in which Jesus rebuked money changers for plying their trade in the temple. For instance, John puts it near the end of Jesus’s ministry while the others put it near the beginning. To me, this and other minor discrepancies are unimportant; what is important, is the meaning in the story.

Matthew wrote:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all 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. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.” [These are quotes from the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Jeremiah—DW.]

And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these children are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself’?” And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. (Matthew 21:12-17)

John wrote:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22)

The elaborate and beautiful temple in Jerusalem was built by Solomon a thousand years before the time of Christ. It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, in 576 BC, and took 46 years to rebuild. It consisted of a concentric series of courts around the temple building proper:

  • The Court of the Gentiles
  • Court of the Women
  • Court of the Israelites, reserved for ritually pure Jewish men
  • Court of the Priests
  • Temple Court, where sacrifices were offered
  • Temple vestibule or porch
  • Temple sanctuary, the main part of the building
  • Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber

Many visited the temple to make a sacrifice, to atone for their sins. Some were pilgrims from afar. The type of sacrifice offered depended on the wealth of the supplicant. The rich could afford a whole ox, the middle-income folks might afford a sheep, while doves were all the poor could hope to afford. Rather than go to the trouble of bringing animals with them, many purchased animals at the temple, where merchants sold them at extortionate prices. It was a seller’s market. The temple only accepted payment and contributions in its own special currency, so visitors first had to change their Roman currency at the money changers’ tables, which were in the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. The money changers of course charged a profitable and perhaps extortionate percentage for doing the transaction.

At least on one level, the anger of Jesus may have been directed at the gouging of worshipers and especially the complicity of the temple establishment in it. But I think the story has additional meaning that bears on our discussion of worship. Consider that this blatantly corrupt, commercial, and probably cacophonous business is taking place in the Court of Gentiles—the place where non-Jewish worshipers come to pray, to try to commune with God. Clearly, the temple management and merchants and money changers didn’t care about them. But Jesus did. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus established worship for all as the key principle of the kingdom of heaven:

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; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 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.” 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)

Although built as a Jewish temple, it was intended to be a place of justice and worship for all—foreigners and eunuchs included. Isaiah confirms this:

Thus says the Lord, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come And My righteousness to be revealed. How blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who takes hold of it; Who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:1-8)

Jesus established the unequivocal principle that God is the God of all Mankind, and that where God is, everyone is welcome.

But there may be still more to the story. It was placed (in John) between the story of the wedding at Canaan (where unadulterated new wine was preferred to contaminated and diluted old wine) and the story of Nicodemus being born again (where the jaded old life was replaced by a pure new life). Perhaps this placement was deliberate, intended to make the point that the ministry of Jesus was about to replace the old ways of worship with the new. The allusion to the destruction of the old temple (which took 46 years to build, remember) and the building of a new one in only three days was to show that the old temple and its ways (including  ritual sacrifice) were to be replaced by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus, to be resurrected in just three days as the new temple of worship.

In short, the story is the story of the new covenant:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, When I will effect a new covenant With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers On the day when I took them by the hand To lead them out of the land of Egypt; For they did not continue in My covenant, And I did not care for them, says the Lord. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, And I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be My people. And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, And everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ For all will know Me,
 From the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. (Hebrews 8:7-13)

The cleansing of the temple by Jesus links worship with justice, which was sorely needed:

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

The true house of God is a place for all people. There are no divisions, no concentric courts, within it. Jesus’s extraordinary actions in the temple reflect this hatred of a divided, unjust, and unrighteous house purporting to be God’s.

Does worship today still tend to segregate, actively and/or passively? How can we ensure it is linked to justice in the sense of “and equal worship for all”? Does the story call us to violence to achieve this goal? Does it authorize violence as an appropriate response to injustice? How militant may we be?

Anonymous: I don’t think God wants militancy. Justice must come from a merciful, not from a militant, heart. An impure, unrighteous heart cannot dispense justice, and its worship is unacceptable to God.

Donald: Was Jesus angry, militant, or just frustrated in this story? It is certainly not a side of Jesus we see elsewhere in Scripture, where he is nothing but loving. Love and anger don’t seem compatible. In the modern idiom, we would say that Jesus “lost it” or “had a meltdown”—he lost his temper. But it is uncomfortable to apply language like that to Christ.

Don: The story certainly leaves an impression of anger and intolerance and, indeed, militancy in Jesus.

Owen: Would “passionate” be a more apt word to describe his behavior? It’s not necessarily the same as rage.

Jay: His actions are obviously important to the story. To most human observers, the overturning of tables and threats to beat people with a rope might seem more than an expression of passion. Be that as it may, Christ’s behavior in this one event is in stark contrast to his behavior before and after in his ministry. Indeed, immediately following this event he went on to heal people. I think this contrast, and above all the reason for it, is what we are intended to reflect upon.

Donald: Jesus was out of character.

Anonymous: I see nothing wrong in Christ’s behavior. As the disciples noted at the time:

His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for Your house will consume Me.” (John 2:17)

This is a righteous zeal, to be invoked whenever God’s holiness is challenged, whenever He is degraded. It was not personal in the human sense—Jesus was invariably loving and merciful to people—but it was personal in the divine sense. It directly concerned the Father and his holiness. His behavior was designed to draw attention to this, and it succeeded.

Kiran: But Jesus apparently deplored Peter’s zealous violence against Malchus’s ear in the garden of Gethsemane. With Man, violence begets ever greater retribution, in a vicious cycle. But God died—through Jesus—in order to break this cycle. It is in the very nature of Jesus to renounce violence. In this story, he was upset because the temple and its ways were a stumbling block to those truly seeking God. The temple’s idea of holiness as ceremonial sacrifice and so on, was not God’s idea of holiness as service to one’s fellow Wo/Man.

Jay: Jesus certainly viewed the behavior of the money changers as barriers to the establishment of worshipers’ relationship with God. He was not concerned about their greed and cheating. He was not concerned about the mindset of the worshiper in believing he needed to sacrifice an animal. But he was concerned that nothing should get in the way of the worshiper’s relationship with God. We might call his response to the money changers’ egregious behavior “un-Christ-like” but I think it’s more important to dwell on the causes of his behavior, as opposed to the behavior itself. His words on the subject of the unpardonable sin were also exceptionally strong, and the subject was the same as the one addressed in his behavior in the temple—which was, admittedly, the behavior of someone who had “lost it,” who had “freaked out.” The stakes, he surely must have felt, could not be higher. He was dealing with spiritual life and death.

Owen: It seems significant too that this was happening in the most important temple of all. He had dealt with liars and cheats on other occasions (Zaccheus the tax collector, for example) but not in a setting like this one. Here was God’s house, yet people seemed oblivious to its desecration. They had grown used to it and were desensitized to it. But not Jesus. He was shocked and horrified, and clearly felt the they needed to be shaken awake to what was happening.

Jay: The sin of Zaccheus clearly was different from the sin of the money changers, to have elicited such a different reaction.

Owen: Zaccheus did not interfere with people’s worship and he was not a proud man, unlike the holier-than-thou priests and merchants of the temple.

Donald: The temple was conducting what everyone at that time (except Jesus) would have considered business as normal. If they had known the Messiah was coming to visit, they probably would not have done anything different. We ourselves expect God to be happy with what he sees happening in our own church.

Jay: That would account for Christ’s anger. Their “business as usual” was 100 percent diametrically opposite to what it should have been.

Donald: Christ would have been looking inside the hearts of the people there…

Jay: …and he would probably have found unconscionable venality; sufficient to cause true worshipers to stumble. They put personal profit ahead of the needs of people wanting to connect with God.

David: If Christ is going to “lose it” over human venality, he’d better stay away. I hear us all struggling to apologize for what is, in my mind unquestionably, Christ’s un-Christian behavior! The message of the story (“Don’t be a stumbling block”) is a good Christian message, but its manner of delivery was not that of someone we expect to turn the other cheek. The manner—upturned tables, the threat (possibly the act) of scourging—was violent, and violence is a matter of degree in practice but not in principle. In principle, lashing out with a scourge at people who don’t share your beliefs in God is as bad as driving a truck into a crowd of people you believe to be infidels. Both are acts of terrorism. The only excuse for Jesus is his humanity, as opposed to his divinity. And if we are to judge him as a human being, then we have no choice but to find him guilty.

Owen: It seems wrong, but it cannot have been wrong, otherwise there would be no meaning in his sacrifice and resurrection.

Anonymous: I think Jesus had to have been looking into the hearts of the money changers. Finding no righteousness and no justice there, only falsehood, inaction was not an option:

…moreover, you have seen their abominations and their idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which they had with them); so that there will not be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood. It shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, ‘I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.’ The Lord shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. Then the Lord will single him out for adversity from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant which are written in this book of the law. (Deuteronomy 29:17-21)

“The Lord shall never be willing to forgive” the person who worships falsely.

Donald: How could we know whether Jesus was upset with the heart or with the behavior of the money changers?

Owen: He was angry not at the extortion nor even the blasphemy; he was angry because they were causing true worshipers to stumble.

Donald: How?

Kiran: For one thing, their extortionate prices would have prevented some people (of whom some would have made a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage) from buying the sacrificial animals they felt essential to help them in their relationship with God.

Jay: Perhaps Christ was attacking not the wicked individuals but the iniquitous system.

David: I doubt that Jesus cared one whit about systems. His loving care, so far as I can tell from Scripture, centered solely on individuals. And so, in the case at hand, did his fury. Terrorists strike indiscriminately and impersonally for what they think is “the greater good.” Jesus taught that when struck we should turn the other cheek. The only possible explanation for this disorienting dissonance, it seems to me, is that Jesus was caught in a moment of humanity, as (again, it seems to me) he was when he wept at news of the death of Lazarus, and when he cried out in anguish on the cross, thinking he had been abandoned by God.

Don: Clearly, we need to work on this.

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One thought on “Stumbling Blocks to Worship

  1. Robin Tessier says:

    My question is: Did Jesus flail a whip, yet not strike anyone? He turned over tables. Did he knock down a person? Was it to drive out the animals?
    I was raised by the paddle. My grandma had only to pick it up and we all would be so shocked that we instantly stopped whatever undesirable behavior. This was our “Cookie Grandma”. She didn’t walk around with the paddle in her apron pocket. Yet, it had to be serious for her to pick up that small Fli-Back paddle. I cannot recall even one instance where she actually had to follow through. We loved her absolutely no less. But, we knew she had a line we should not cross.
    Just my naughty childhood memory and my further questioning. At work, someone thinks I ask too many!

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