By Rev. Brian Wilkie
Pastor of St. Andrew's Christian Community
Today our theme is a curious one I suppose: How does the temple become a den of thieves? In each of the Gospels we can find an account of Jesus coming into the temple in Jerusalem, turning over the tables of the money changers and declaring that God’s temple, which was to be a house of prayer for all nations, has been turned into a den of thieves. We might well ask not only how did such a terrible state arise in that day and age, but whether such a thing might also occur today.
To begin, let’s look at the message from centuries before Christ in the Old Testament book of Malachi chapter 3 verses 6 to 18. God speaks to the prophet Malachi saying,
Now here is a song that exalts God, as Mercy Me, declares “You Reign.”
How can a temple turn into a den of thieves? The gospel has such power that there are always people trying to exploit it for their selfish gain. There were unfair practices in Jerusalem’s Temple. I’ve been told over and over again about the false practices of the money changers who would take people’s Roman coins, which had the image of Caesar and exchange them for coins that were suitable for use in the temple, and they seem to make a great profit on the exchange. I’m told there were deceptive practices where people would bring in their animals for sacrifice and the sellers in the temple precincts would tell them, “Oh, your animal’s not good enough, it has a blemish” and they sell you what they called an unblemished lamb. Then, some people say, they would take your lamb and sell it to the next person as an unblemished lamb were these the practices that Jesus was crying out against when he overturned things the temple? That’s certainly part of it. Deceptive practices and false measures: The Bible is clear that the Lord desires justice in the everyday dealings of life, would he not also be zealous for justice in his own temple?
But you know there are other ways of exploiting the religious sensibilities of people, other ways of profiteering from genuine faith in others. There were preachers for profit in Paul’s day, he identifies that there are some who were going about spreading the gospel only to profit themselves; and in the present day we’ve seen the same. There seems to be no shortage of people who are ready to try and gain their own comfort, even as they preach against the evils of money and greed. But Malachi is not complaining about those preachers. Malachi is not complaining about money changers. God complains through Malachi about ordinary worshipers robbing God. Now how does that happen? Now in Malachi’s day it was quite simple. They lived in what you might call a feudal system. A feudal system is where there is a Lord who owns the land and allows people to work the land in exchange for some of the of the produce of the land.
Now in human feudal systems we’ve seen many people, many lords that exploited. Whether it was the seigniorial system of old Québec or the feudal system of medieval Britain, there were those lords who would exploit their people taking everything they could possibly grab from them and leaving them impoverished and constantly in need. Now in Israel there was a feudal system, but the Lord of the land was God Almighty, the one who owned the land was God, and he distributed it among the people of Israel and gave it to them as an everlasting gift. Now if you compare it to a feudal system, God was an extraordinarily generous Lord. He not only gave the land, but also the sun and the rain that was required to produce crops. He was the God who watched over them, and defended them from their enemies, and unlike other feudal lords He only required 10%.
Could you imagine the days when Israel was established under Moses and Joshua the law was given, and for the first generations there were no kings extracting their taxes. There was only the tithe, 10%, which was used not only to support the priestly work of the Levites who themselves had no land of their own but also met the needs of widows and orphans. Those who were widowed had no children to care for them in their old age and those orphans had no parents to provide for them. That 10% did a lot of work didn’t it? But even though they had it so good they were holding back their tithe and God said they were robbing him.
Now they were happy to receive from God and ready to complain if God didn’t come through on his part, but they weren’t ready to accept God’s requirements. They were happy to go to the temple to receive forgiveness, but they were unwilling to obey God, or even turn from their sins. Self-centered and selfish as any pagan, they complained that doing right had no profit: that since the evil prospered there was no point in obeying God. These are the words of people looking for an excuse to do wrong and yet, to those who still feared God, God replies to that accusation from the faithless people. He says a day will come when he will again show what the distinction is between the righteous and the wicked. He promises a day when the righteous will receive what is coming to them and the wicked will receive their due.
Most of the time a den of thieves is not where thieves do their crimes, but where they go to take shelter from their crimes, to hide from punishment. A den of thieves is their place of security, a place where they relax knowing that the police are never going to get them there. It is a place where they enjoy their ill-gotten security. When Jesus clears the temple, it’s easiest to point the finger at the money changers, but is it possible that the thieves in this den are more than just the buyers and sellers?
When Malachi points to the ordinary worshipers as robbing God, he’s pointing a finger at cheap grace. Cheap grace is when we run to the temple for refuge, but we only hide our sins instead of turning from them. In Malachi’s day, the people were even willing to talk about obeying God. They were fed up because they said they were doing so well, and yet the wicked prosper. They were doing so good, and yet the wicked we doing better. But Malachi points out that they were already missing the obedience to God that was required of them, yet they still came to the temple, thank you still came and made their sacrifices, going home, feeling that there they were forgiven. They were a little bit surprised to find that God wasn’t happy with this arrangement.
But what about us? I’m sure you’re not that kind of person. I hope you’re not that kind of person! And I hope I’m not either; but even beyond that, what if we if we go to church, we listen to the message of God’s Word and when we confess we truly want to change? We want to live a better life. We want to be free from addiction. We want to be free from bad habits we want to be free from hurtful ways we want a better life. But what if we are doing all this only for our own benefit? What if we’re kind of like people going to a fitness trainer. We learn to exercise and run only to make our own lives better. Is that really why God has called us?
The master gave to one of them 10 talents of gold and the other five talents and to the other one, one talent of gold. Did he give them those talents of gold, so they could use them for their own treasure store, so they could use them for their own pleasures? Did he give them these talents of gold, just as some kind of bonus?
No! Instead, he gave them these talents as an opportunity to invest in the master’s work, to bring glory (in the parable to bring riches, but in the metaphor to bring glory) to the master. Are we using the gifts that God has given us to bless others, to glorify God, or are we using the blessings God has given us for our own comfort? Are there any tables that need to be turned over in the temple of your heart? In Malachi’s day, it was about the tithe, it was about 10% and in the New Testament, Jesus has a few things to say about the tithe. He says to some people who are tithing, to the Pharisees – they were tithing everything, even their herbs – and he said to them, you’ve tithed all that, but you’ve neglected mercy and sacrifice. It would be better for you to do the latter without neglecting the former. That is, the tithe isn’t everything.
When Jesus speaks about discipleship, he speaks about everything we have to live on. That’s why he praised the widow who gave just too little coppers, because she gave everything she had to live on. That’s what he called forth from the rich young ruler who was told to sell what he had and give it to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus. That’s what his disciples knew Jesus expected of them when they said, “We have left our homes and families and our careers for you.” Suddenly, 10% sounds easy, doesn’t it? Every coin, every talent, every moment, every breath, “All for Jesus I surrender!” Wouldn’t that be something? When we love God, we are ready to put everything at his disposal. I’m hopeful that each one of us is doing everything that we can to bless God: to contribute our strength to his service to contribute our wealth to his mission and his ministry. I’m sure that it is not a question of 10% for the committed Christian. It’s a question of how much can I give? How much more can I give to God?
If we rest (and we should rest because God commands it) don’t we rest so that we might be ready for service when God calls us? And when we eat do we eat simply to satisfy ourselves or do we eat to be strengthened for the work that he is given us to do? When Jesus said, my temple shall be a house of prayer for all the nations I wonder if he was thinking about what his apostle Paul would later write in Scriptures when he said, “Don’t you know that you are the temple of God?”. Are you a house dedicated to glorifying God in all the earth? Are you a temple that is a house of prayer for all nations? Are you using the blessings God has given you to bless the whole earth?