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.
Just imagine being in the Temple that day. Word had probably got around that Jesus and his followers were in Jerusalem and, maybe, on their way to the Temple. There would be growing excitement among many of those present and this would add to the atmosphere of frenzied activity as stallholders tried to attract customers.
As soon as Jesus arrived, the people were in for a shock. He seems to have marched straight in, angry and disappointed, and begun to overturn tables, forbidding any commercial item to be carried through the Temple. His anger was clear. Although it was not the first occasion Jesus had shown anger, most of the crowd would still have regarded him as a compassionate man with the ability to heal and teach in a special way. Many stories would have spread about his willingness to show love and compassion to all and to change lives forever in many cases.
Why was Jesus so different on this occasion? He was very clear about it. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”
In this short sentence, Jesus emphasises what the primary function of the Temple is. He compares what is actually happening in the way of buying and selling to turning this most precious building into a den of robbers.
This indicates what the main purpose of any place of worship should be – it should be a source of prayer for all nations, first and foremost as part of the ongoing worship of God and the study and contemplation of his word. This is a timely reminder of what the church exists for. Sadly, too often prayer can become a peripheral activity. In worship, very often the majority of those present listen to the prayers. Active response is limited and often formal. The opportunities to meet as a prayer community are few.
A prayer group is such a precious meeting for those who value a quiet time praying together silently or aloud. In our time there are many necessary reasons for a church to carry out many activities as well as praying and worship just to keep going and develop itself as a warm and loving centre of a community. Those in a close fellowship, or maybe on the fringes, may need encouragement to keep talking to God in their hearts and, most importantly, listen to his word.
The Pharisees react badly to Jesus’ words and actions and plot to kill him. They seem to be thinking primarily about themselves and preserving their power and influence, as they see clearly how many in the crowd were spellbound by Jesus’ teaching. We can see that Jesus risks his life further by his strong emphasis on the importance of prayer.
How wonderful it would be if there was a new commitment during this time of Lent to ‘pray without ceasing’. It does not always have to be in a house of prayer but it is a reminder to give priority in any church to prayer. As we know, there is no need for words: times of silence, listening and communicating with God, heart to heart in love. As John Wesley said, “My silence speaketh unto thee.” As he continued, “may our hearts be lifted up to God at all times and in all places”. Wesley walked with God continually, “having the loving eye all fixed upon him and everywhere seeing him that is invisible”.
May God help each one of us toward that deep and lasting commitment to prayer so that we can truly feel that wherever we are is a house of prayer.
Loving Lord, may our hearts be led to worship you through thankful prayers, prayers of confession and prayers for others safe in the knowledge that you always listen and are always a loving presence in our lives, now and always. Amen
Hilary Jackson is an elder, lay preacher and member of Gatley URC in South Manchester now living in North Yorkshire.