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?

6 thoughts on “Den of Thieves, House of Prayer”

  1. Great thoughts, Daniel! I read through Mark 11 earlier this morning and was struck by Jesus’ emphasis on the missional character of the Temple — a house of prayer FOR ALL THE NATIONS — and how much this offended the chief priests and the teachers, along with the prediction of destruction, as you say.

    But I was also struck by we’ve hijacked Jesus’ words on prayer. We’ve taken the “whatever we ask, we’ll get,” and ripped it from its context in order to hold out hope for material gain. On the contrary, Jesus is referring to their embodying the role of Temple on behalf of all peoples–”God is responsive to your prayers to embody among you the life and love of God for the nations.” And the specific practice he mentions straightaway is forgiveness. Wonderful chapter, Mark 11–thanks for the thoughts!!

  2. Good words, Daniel. I take this pericope the same way you do. What do you think about Ched Myer’s emphasis on the Temple being portrayed as financially unjust here, and this provoking Jesus’ actions? This explains the “den of robbers” quotation, does it not? This also explains why the “money changers” and “dove sellers” are mentioned. The passage quoted from Jeremiah is also in a context of economic injustice. The money changers and dove sellers at the Temple were exploiting Gentiles, and therefore not being a priestly kingdom to all nations. The new site for prayer, i.e. the people of God and not any geographical location, is to be characterized by faith, prayer, and forgiveness; things that should have been found in the Temple but were neglected.

    I understand that this is slightly off topic given your point above, but I just wanted to hear your thoughts. And by the way, the correlation of the destroyed Temple to how we live and the security we put in things like praying a prayer and having “faith” is very apropos. Well done.

    1. I’m not convinced that trading itself was a problem/being regarded as thievery. That seems to confuse “den of thieves/brigands”, which is a place to which brigands/robbers flee in order to be safe after they have done their brigandage, with the place where the robbery itself occurs.

  3. So, just wondering, what is the mountain that will be thrown into the heart of the sea? I had always taken it as Rome, but is it the temple itself, the obstacles to God’s purposes to create a faithful people who love one another and long to be agents of God’s redemption of the nations?

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