Holy Week – Monday
By Rev. Katie Montgomery Mears
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “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.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
It is helpful to understand the physical layout as well as the sacrificial system of the temple when you’re reading this passage. The temple had four different courts — the innermost court was called the Court of Priests, which contained the altar of sacrifice, and it was only accessible to the priests. In it was the Holy of Holies, accessed only once day per year (Yom Kippur). Outside of the Court of Priests was the Court of Israel, which was accessible to all Jewish men. Outside of that was the Court of Women, which was accessible to Jewish men and women. Finally, the largest area was an open plaza, which was called the Court of Gentiles. This was open to anyone, regardless of citizenship or religion.
In order to make a sacrifice in the temple, which is why everyone was in Jerusalem for Passover anyway, one had to bring a spotless animal, preferably a lamb, to the priests. Since it would be challenging to bring animals across Israel for the sacrifice, many people chose to purchase a lamb once they arrived in Jerusalem at the temple. For those who could not afford a lamb, a pair of doves was also considered acceptable as a poor man’s sacrifice. Vendors selling animals for sacrifice set up a market in the Court of Gentiles.
Jewish pilgrims also had to pay a temple tax, which was only payable in temple shekels. Money changers set up tables in the Court of Gentiles to exchange Greek, Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Tyrian coins for temple shekels. The religious authorities took a cut of all transactions that happened in the temple — both the purchase of sacrificial animals and the currency exchange — so they were benefitting from having a marketplace rather than a prayer space in the Court of Gentiles. Their concern was not on helping people make an appropriate sacrifice to God; they were more concerned with making money off of people’s religious devotion, including poor people who could not even afford a traditional sacrificial animal.
Additionally, the temple covered 35 acres. Because it was so large, the Court of Gentiles plaza was often used as a cut through for people who did not want to walk the long way around the temple to get to the Mount of Olives. The Court of Gentiles was intended to be a place that all non-Jews could pray and worship God, but it was being used as a market and a thruway. The Jewish religious leaders crowded the Court of Gentiles with as many markets and money changers as they could fit and they encouraged people to use it as a cut-thru the city, hoping that people would stop to trade as they wandered through.
We are all, to an extent, guilty of the same thing: our lives are so busy and cluttered with competing priorities that it is hard to push all of it out to make space for worship and prayer. We allow the shiny things that distract us and temporarily satisfy us to fill up all of the space in our hearts and on our calendars. When we don’t have a life of prayer and worship that is focused on God, we feel like we are just on a thruway rather than a path to God.
As upset as Jesus was about the Court of Gentiles being used for predatory trading and unethical kickbacks, he was just as upset about what the Court was not being used for — prayer! Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7 — “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” — because he saw a temple that didn’t make space for outcasts and marginalized people to pray and worship. His ministry was about saving the least, last, and lost of all nations and yet the Jewish temple was still serving as an exclusionary avenue to salvation.
We long with you for the day when all of the nations say, “come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord,” and we all worship together. But we know that sometimes we are the exact reason that people cannot worship you — we stand in their way either through purposeful actions or accidental exclusion. Please forgive us and help us to live in a way that invites as many people as possible to know your saving love and grace through our lives.