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The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

[Luke 19:41-46] And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes… 45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

A Den of Robbers, Robbing the Nations

Jesus cleansed the Temple. He entered. He drove out those who were buying and selling in God’s house. “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” We get a little detail in Luke’s account. We get more in the other Gospels [Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; John 2:13-17]. There were two things going on:

One, these merchants were selling the animals needed for sacrifice in the Temple. There was a practical purpose to this: Those travelling from afar to offer sacrifice could not bring their herds and flocks with them. They needed to buy pigeons, oxen, and lambs for sacrifice when they arrived.

The merchants, however, instead of offering a useful service for the purpose of worship, turned this selling of livestock into a lucrative profit-making opportunity, thus making God’s house of prayer into a house of trade and den of robbers. Unfair profit, taking advantage of the other person’s need, is robbery in God’s eyes. To require such spending for the worship of God is all the worse.

Second, these merchants were also moneychangers. Jews who lived abroad would be arriving with foreign currency. God did require a Temple tax, and this could not be paid with foreign currency that had engraved images on it. Only image-free Jewish currency would be used for the Temple tax. This was probably right and true. The foreign currency needed to be exchanged. The moneychangers were thieves because they took advantage of this true need and made it work for their own profit.

The goal of their heart and actions was to make a profit-making enterprise out the of the worship of God. How is this done in today’s world? Today, false teachers make the worship of God and the teaching of God’s Word into a lucrative business, making millions and procuring million-dollar homes.

In centuries past, bishops built palaces from profits of gold. Today, select preachers build mansions from the profits of book deals and speaking engagements. These are respected men on the tv and radio. These are men with ministries named after themselves. Some with study-bibles named after themselves. These are ego-based ministries. The man or woman’s name becomes as memorable to their audience as the name of Christ.

Some of these ministries empty God’s Word of all its moral content and refashion God’s Word to appeal to a worldly audience – offering hope and success that is for this life only. Others are thoroughly and morally rigid in their preaching, emptying God’s Word of the Gospel, and producing for themselves a dedicated, nationwide audience of modern-day Pharisees. In both cases, God’s house becomes a place of hidden and disguised business and profit. The preaching of God becomes a brand name.

Unsurprisingly, these man-centered, ego-based ministries are often laden with moral scandals, though their dedicated audiences and supporters might remain willingly blind to it. But when the scandals do come out, how many innocent people have their faith shaken?

The spiritual entrepreneurs and profit makers of today exist, on a smaller or larger scale, in every church denomination and synod – just as these robbers existed in God’s Temple in Christ’s day. Jesus drove them out in wrath with a whip of cords. This points us to the Last Day when Christ will drive out of His true Temple, His Church, evil deeds and false teachers once and for all.

The merchants and moneychangers, whose tables the Lord overthrew, were true robbers. But, in fact, by the presence of their tables in the Temple, there was a greater robbery taking place than that of money. These men’s money-booths were robbing the nations, the gentiles, of God’s Word. Both prayer to the true God and the teaching of God’s Word took place in the Temple. In fact, Christ Himself spends holy week teaching in the Temple. Where did these moneychangers have their tables set up?

The innermost parts of the Temple could only be entered by the priests. Other parts could only be entered by the Jews. But there was an outer court, the court of the Gentiles, to which Gentiles could come, a place where even they could stand to pray and hear God’s Word. But this is where the moneychangers set up their tables – in the way – filling up that court with their tables – and making it impossible for the nations, the Gentiles, to hear God’s Word and pray in His house.

Robbing the Gentiles of the opportunity to hear God’s Word and pray in this outer court of the Temple is the true robbery. Our Lord’s statement, “My house shall be a house of prayer” comes from an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 56:7. In this passage, to the “foreigners”, to the nations – to the Gentiles – God says, “these [Gentiles, foreigners] I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

In Mark 11:17, we hear Jesus quoting this verse in full: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? (i.e. “all the Gentiles”) But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And that phrase, “den of robbers” is found in today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah 7:1-11. God says to all robbers and false teachers of His Word, “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.”

These men were what we call “self-satisfied”. They presumptuously assumed they were at peace with God, though they did not live a life of self-examination and repentance. They believed themselves to be keepers of the Law – blind to the grotesqueness of their own sins – blind to their need of repentance – and therefore they put their trust in their own personal merit as “good men”. They assumed God’s house was their right, though in truth they were filled with adultery, murder, theft, idolatry, and every sin.

Blind to their own need of a Savior, they robbed themselves and others of the true Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. The preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness had no valuable place in their heart because they did not see their own sin and need. They thus robbed themselves and others of it.

Nevertheless, the Gentiles did find it. Though robbed of the Gospel in Jerusalem’s temple, the Gentiles do find the Gospel in the true Temple, in the believing Church, the Body of Christ. Our Epistle Lesson today says it: “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone.” [Romans 9:30-32]

The true treasure, the true wealth, of God’s true Temple is the preaching of the cross of Christ: that Christ died for sinners, that He gave His life in place of the ungodly, so that sins are forgiven, so that man is right with God, not by works or personal merit – and not by your level of improvement – but because the Lamb of God has been sacrificed for man’s sin.

Jesus has died for you Gentiles. You are His Temple, and He has cleansed you – not with a whip of cords in His hand but by being flogged, whipped, in your place, and crucified for your sin. Your sins are forgiven.

And He is risen to give you new life from the dead – life you didn’t deserve – but that He gives because He forgives. You are His and are saved by what He has done for you.

As the true Temple and house of the Lord [1 Corinthians 6:19-20], we become a den of robbers – together and individually – if we exchange the full preaching of God’s Law and Gospel for friendship with the world, or for gain in numbers, and thus rob others of this message.

By God’s grace alone, let us be those who do not rob but who enrich the nations, enriching them and each person we know with the knowledge of “the things that make for peace” – knowledge of the very same message of Christ which has so enriched us, freely and eternally. Let us not hold back but give what we have been given. Amen.

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