Den of Thieves, House of Prayer

In Mark’s temple clearing incident, Jesus condemns what he sees in the precincts: It is written that my house is to be a house of prayer for all nations–but you have made it a brigands’ den!

It is now widely agreed that Jesus’ temple action was not so much a “cleansing” (something to put things right in the day-to-day functioning) but a prophecy of the temple’s looming destruction. Its being sandwiched within the fig tree incident and Jesus’ later parable about the vineyard help reinforce this idea. Jesus was saying, “The temple will be destroyed.”

And in fact, close attention to the OT citations upholds this reading. The “house of prayer for all peoples” is Isaiah’s prophecy about the eschatological in-gathering of God’s people. “Robbers’ den” is Jeremiah’s word of condemnation: a people who think they can commit murder, injustice, and idolatry come to the temple and think they’ll be safe? Hardly! God will destroy this temple. It is no talisman.

As Mark stitches the episode together, it culminates in what might otherwise be seen as generic ideas about prayer: Say to this mountain, “Be cast into the sea… ask what you will without doubt… when you pray, forgive and you will be forgiven…”

But in the story as it’s now written, these words are not just about prayer but about the community of Jesus’ followers becoming what the physical temple has not. They are to become the house of prayer for all people. They are to replace the temple as the locus where forgiveness is extended.

No more can God’s people think of a geophysical location as that to which all nations will be drawn when God does what God promised. Now, the reign of God will go out and embrace the nations where they are. Those who follow Jesus will become the house of prayer for all nations–the surprising fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.

Rereading the story in our contexts presses one particular question upon us. In what ways do we treat our own faith as a talisman, as the ancients did their temple? If they interpreted “salvation” as security in their land, in their temple, we interpret salvation much more cosmically.

And it makes me wonder: do we sometimes think that we have magic words of salvation that are a talisman, such that we can do whatever we want and be safe from the judgment of God? Do we say, “I’ve confessed with my mouth and believe in my heart” and run to that as a refuge when we are adulterous, murderous, idolatrous, unjust? Do we think that God who did not spare the Temple that bore his name will be gentler in our case if we neglect so great a salvation?

There is a challenging warning that besets us when we place ourselves on the other side of the tables. If we bring our injustice into the house of God and there seek asylum, what hope do we think we have?

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