My thoughts (Brent Walsh):
Imagine you saw the following in your church bulletin this Sunday:
Breaking news! Our pastor has decided that passing the offering plate is not working very well, so he has a better idea. In the parking lot, there will be a tent set up where the church staff will collect a mandatory offering. Before you are allowed into the church, you must purchase worship tokens that are guaranteed to buy you favor with God. You can buy one token for $25 or five for $100. If you don’t have enough money to buy the tokens, the church will gladly give you a payday loan to cover the cost (at a rate of 70% interest). This loan stipulates that if you don’t pay the amount in full within two weeks, your vehicle will become church property.
If you choose to bring your own tokens with you, they must be inspected by a deacon prior to entry to ensure authenticity and to see that they are in perfect condition. There is a fee of $15 per token inspection, and if any tokens are deemed unsatisfactory, they will be confiscated. You will have to get back in line for pre-approved tokens.
This may seem a bit unconventional, but consider the benefits! This new mandatory offering system will enable the church to build a larger sanctuary with a more impressive media system, no doubt enhancing your worship experience. In addition, the clergy on staff will see an increase in salary of about 300% in order to focus more on sermon jokes instead of the financial stress that comes with serving a ‘freewill offering’ church.
The crazy scenario I’ve just fabricated would undoubtedly solve the problem of church overcrowding in one fell swoop! But what if attending church was the ONLY way to access God? What if you were forced to pay the worship expenses in order to get forgiveness for sin? This is the kind of robbery that was taking place in the temple that enraged Jesus as described in our scripture passage today.
It was thought that the Temple in Jerusalem was where God dwelt, and in order to get close to God, you had to come to the temple to worship and offer sacrifices. Various types of sacrifices were required (as outlined in the Old Testament) in order to have access to the temple and, therefore, to God. The sacrifices were called offerings, but they were not discretionary like ours is today. If you did not have an acceptable offering, you would have to buy one and have it inspected for blemishes. The vendors at the temple were happy to provide acceptable offerings, but they charged exorbitant prices.
Jesus did not object to the practice of going to the temple with a sacrifice, but rather the abuse that the temple keepers inflicted on the masses. They were a captive consumer. People were broke and dying while the vendors at the temple were fat and wealthy.
When Jesus saw how the church was taking advantage of the people it was supposed to be serving, he flew into a rage and started turning over the tables. This was the worst kind of abuse of power the church could carry out against the people of God. The people were being told that they had to toe a certain line in order to find favor with God, but then the church made it nearly impossible to reach that line!
What does it mean to “take the Lord’s name in vain?” I don’t think God is concerned with insignificant utterings that come out of your mouth while, say, you’re being chased by an angry wasp! I think God is more concerned about the things you DO in the name of God that do not reflect the character of God. To say that someone must do a certain thing that they could never do, or be a certain way that they could never be, in order to find favor with God is just as abusive as the vendors at the temple who provoked Jesus’ rage.
So I challenge you to stand up against those who would keep you from experiencing the fullness of a relationship with God simply because you don’t measure up to a certain standard. You wouldn’t buy a costly worship token in order to come to church, so why must you buy the untruths that would stand between you and God? Knock over the tables and claim your spot in the fellowship of believers. You are welcome just as you are.
Thought for the day:What barriers have others put between you and God? Can you imagine Jesus overturning those tables, chasing your personal “loan sharks and dove merchants” away?
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the guidelines on the How to Pray page.