We’re almost nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and five months into stay-at-home orders, face-coverings, and various regulations commonly called “the shut-down” or “the lock-down.” For the past several weeks, governing authorities at various scales have collaborated to develop phased reopening plans that may permit glimpses of life-as-usual even as the pandemic continues to visit us with death and economic devastation. Meanwhile, parts of the country simmer with civil unrest sparked by recent racial injustices layered over generations of crushing oppression and broken trust.
These twin crises are the social context in which our churches in the United States are reopening, or at least thinking about our next steps toward gathered worship, but before we do, we might first consider a good cleansing.
I don’t mean the kind where we pull on the elbow-length rubber gloves, tighten up the N95s, walk around with spray-bottles of industrial-strength sanitizer, and wipe down all surfaces to remove every trace of the coronavirus. That’s all good, but we’ve had months of making sure we don’t breathe in any viral particles, and in the most important ways, we’re still dirty. Not that we should be surprised – after all, as Jesus points out, it’s not what goes in that makes us unclean, but what comes out.
No, when I say that the church should consider a good cleansing, I mean that some responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice suggest we may need an even more radical sanitizing than a coronavirus protocol can offer. We may need something like Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem.
You know the story. It has captured the imaginations of generations of Christians because it captured the imaginations of all the gospel authors. Matthew, Mark, and Luke report the events with remarkable consistency. (John includes a similar account, and whether it’s a second cleansing or the same one placed in a different narrative order, it amplifies the significance of Jesus’ temple-cleansing work. He either did it twice because it was so important or all four gospel authors have chosen to include the same story because it was essential.) Each of the first three gospels places the temple cleansing almost immediately after the account of the triumphal entry, amplifying Jesus’ mystique by juxtaposing a moment of otherworldly meekness with a display of sheer dynamism and physical imposition. One moment, Jesus rides into town on a donkey, upending norms about power, and the next moment he drives people away from the temple and temporarily shuts down commerce, upending the furniture. It’s a startling contrast.
When I say we need to consider a cleansing like this, I don’t primarily mean that we need someone to flip the furniture. I’m not saying that’s never appropriate – it takes nothing short of willful ignorance to miss the fact that Christian history is littered with churches that could have used the gospel ministry of kicking people out, but that’s for another essay. I am saying that we should consider why Jesus did this, and if we pay attention to Jesus’ own explanation of this cleansing and temporary closing of business, we may see some implications for our own churches right now.
In the retellings of the first three gospels, Jesus’ words are nearly identical, and so Mark’s version will suffice:
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying 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 den of robbers.”
Readers interpret and apply this passage in all sorts of ways. Some take it as confirmation that Jesus experienced a full range of human emotions (“Jesus was angry!”), as license for righteous indignation (“Jesus was really angry and we know he never sinned!”), or as evidence that places of worship should be places for transformation by God and not transaction among people. None of those are necessarily wrong, but none of them pick up the main points of Jesus’ words.
As a general rule, if we want to understand the New Testament, we had better understand the Old Testament, and the obvious importance of that rule is magnified in cases where the Old Testament is cited or quoted. Jesus’ pronouncements in the Temple-cleansing story draw upon the teaching of two Old Testament prophets without which we cannot understand the context and meaning of his outburst. Isaiah 56:7 reads, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples,” and Jeremiah 7:11 reads, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” The combination of these two references suggests that Jesus saw the temple as something that should be what Isaiah was talking about but had fallen short. It had, in fact, become what Jeremiah warned against. But what does this mean?
Contrary to many interpretations, Isaiah was not emphasizing prayer as the priority activity in the temple; rather, his emphasis is on “for all the nations.” The broader context is a passage about God’s people doing justice and righteousness by blessing all peoples. As 56:1-8 reads,
Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
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”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Isaiah said that Israel’s calling – what it would have meant for the people of God to live out their covenant relationship with Yahweh – was to do justice and righteousness and to bless everyone, including the outcasts, the unfit, the unclean, and those of different nationalities or ethnicities. Even the most ceremonially unclean and ethnically non-Israelite would be blessed –would be given “a name better than sons and daughters – if they chose the things that pleased God.
By quoting this passage, Jesus meant that the temple should have symbolized and realized the mission of blessing the whole world, including people who are radically different, and bringing people from every nation into Yahweh’s story. Unfortunately, instead of symbolizing the ways in which Israel would bless the whole world – strangers, foreigners, and enemies included – the temple at Jesus’ time had become a center and symbol of ethno-nationalist ambitions. People had put the temple at the center of a project to make Israel great again. Theoretically this could have been fine, if only “great again” had meant Israel fulfilling its covenant calling to be for others. Alas.
Instead of a symbol of blessing to all the nations, the temple had become a hideout for covenant-breakers, a robbers’ den, as Jeremiah 7:11 reads. Jeremiah 7:3-12 gives the account of what the prophet was to say while standing “in the gate of the Lord’s house:”
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
Jeremiah likened God’s house, the symbol of his presence, to a hideout from which criminals go forth to do violence and to which they return in order to be safe from the law. The crimes of God’s people? In addition to going after other gods, they failed to treat each other justly, they oppressed the most vulnerable, and they shed innocent blood. What’s more, they assumed that they could hide from the stringent demands of covenant relationship with Yahweh because the temple symbolized his favor. But they couldn’t hide. God saw them, and he promised to expose them further by overthrowing Jerusalem and the temple complex if his people did not amend their ways.
What Jeremiah teaches: If you don’t change your deeds, do justice, and look out for those on the margins, it doesn’t matter how often you invoke God’s name and saving presence (“the temple of the Lord!” or “we are delivered!”), how many times you talk about the particularities of worship in God’s house. In fact, at this point in its story, Israel was getting into what we might call “stench-in -the-nostrils” territory, in which God finds even his people’s well-ordered ceremonies disgusting and repulsive because his people ignore their broader calling. It’s a prophetic restatement of the principle so often evoked in scripture and captured so well in the Third Commandment, which forbids bearing the name of Yahweh in vain – that is, saying we belong to Yahweh or adopting the superficial practices of Yahweh’s people without accepting the broader and deeper burdens of true religion that mark those in covenant relationship with the one true God. People who say they belong to Yahweh should act like they belong to Yahweh.
By quoting this passage from Jeremiah after cleansing the temple, Jesus was emphasizing that the temple deserved cleansing not only because God’s people had forgotten their calling to bless all nations, but also because they had fallen into the same patterns that earned Jeremiah’s pronouncements of judgment. They had been obsessed with the little details of worship, like the buying and selling of perfect sacrifices at the temple, and had taken God’s presence for granted, all while disregarding the more costly demands of true religion.
What does this all mean for the church today? Jesus both pointed to himself as the true temple, the true presence of God, and also bore the weight of curses for his covenant-breaking people before being raised and vindicated because he perfectly fulfilled the self-sacrificial calling God had given to his people. Isn’t it… finished?
It is true that spirit-wrought union with Jesus Christ in his self-sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection from the dead are our only hope. Apart from that, there is nothing for us to do to establish a right relationship with God. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do. The demands of true religion have been fulfilled by Jesus, and because we’re united with the one who fulfilled them, we are called to live into them, as well. Jesus was perfectly for others – neighbors, strangers, and even enemies – and because we’re united with him, his spirit frees us from bondage to sin and empowers us to be like him in this way. People who say they belong to Jesus should act like they belong to Jesus.
Moreover, to suggest that hiding ourselves in Jesus’ finished work relieves us of responsibilities to be radically for others… well, that would sound familiar to Jeremiah, wouldn’t it? It would be treating Jesus himself, the true temple, like a den of robbers, a criminals’ hideout, a convenient place to conceal a pattern of neglecting the demands of true religion.
This is worth considering as churches take steps to return to gathered corporate worship in the midst of our twin crises. If we reconvene to worship a God who calls his church to be for others, to do justice, to care for the most vulnerable, and to bless all people, then we’re obligated, freed, and empowered to act like we belong to that God. We’re obligated to put others before ourselves, and it should go without saying that our preferences, rights, and liberties must pale in comparison to our neighbors’ wellbeing. We’re freed to take seriously the crushing weight of injustice borne for generations by communities of color. We’re empowered to seek the welfare of all the nations. On the other hand, if we instead reconvene more obsessed with the little details of getting back to gathered worship than with the plight of others, more concerned with our rights, preferences, and liberties than with the wellbeing of our neighbors, more eager to baptize ethno-nationalist ambitions than to lament and repent of Christian complicity in racial injustice, then we shouldn’t claim to gather in Jesus’ name. And we definitely shouldn’t say that his presence with us and grace to us exempts us from the costly demands of following after him. If we do, we might expect a good cleansing.
As we take steps toward more normal patterns of gathered worship, we would do well to let our continued weekly COVID-cleanings serve as small and superficial reminders of this much deeper cleansing. We might even post little reminders next to our coronavirus checklists: maybe one of the gospel texts that recount the story or the references to Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 or a small print of some Christian painter’s interpretation of Jesus’ good work. Any of those will do, so long as it reminds us that binding ourselves to God binds us to care for his world. If we forget this, we can’t count on masks and sanitizer to spare us the consequences.