Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cleansing the House of Prayer

There’s a story about Jesus that is rather unusual. Usually, He welcomes people; here He drives them away. It must have been something terrible that they were doing to incite Him to drive them away. He wouldn’t do such a thing merely to defend Himself from his attackers, for we know that He patiently endured much abuse, and even went like a silent lamb to the slaughter. Here, however, He was defending his Father’s honor, for his Father’s house was being profaned (He would defend the honor of the Holy Spirit, too: “whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven”).

The story is very short: “Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of thieves’” (Mt. 21:12-13). It is clear that this was a thorough cleansing: He not only drove out the merchants, but he overturned both tables and chairs! Now it is sometimes objected that these people were engaging in a standard practice, a necessary service, changing the gentile Roman coinage into that which was acceptable for temple offerings, and providing animals for sacrificial worship. But two things were wrong: this business did not have to be done inside the temple precincts and, to add insult to injury, those engaged in this business were cheating their customers in the presence of God—otherwise, Jesus would not have called them “thieves.” Jesus had no tolerance for those who would do evil in his Father’s house.

Let’s indulge in a bit of allegory here, though based in Scripture. St Paul says that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and therefore these spiritual temples are meant to be, following Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah, houses of prayer. But it may be that our house of prayer may need to be cleansed, may even need a radical upheaval. We have to see if we have allowed thieves into the house of prayer—not just the occasional unworthy thought, but perhaps we have become habituated to some “standard practice” that is not acceptable to the Lord. Jesus surprised the money-changers as well as the authorities, because they saw nothing wrong with “business as usual.” But we may also be surprised to find that the “business as usual” of our own inner lives needs to be cleaned up, to reflect better what it means that we are temples of the Spirit and houses of prayer. We ought to ask ourselves if the things we think or fantasize about, or allow in through our senses, are things we would bring into a house of prayer, even before the Blessed Sacrament—for Christ dwells within us.

What has to be driven out ruthlessly is all malice, hatred, impurity, rage, vengeance, falsehood, and anything else that is in itself contrary to the will of God. But even though the Lord is tough on evil, He is always compassionate with our weakness and inability—despite sincere efforts—to be all that his grace enables us to be. Note that in the very next verse (21:14), Jesus resumes his usual practice of welcoming: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” Our weaknesses and defects can be healed, once we drive out evil through repentance, absolution, and persevering self-discipline. The Lord will always have some pleasant surprises for us, even if initially we have to experience the unpleasant surprise of discovering “thieves” in our house of prayer. Notice that it was the ones who by law were allowed to be in the temple that Jesus drove out, and the ones who were forbidden by law to be in the temple (the blind, lame, or otherwise disfigured or diseased were considered ritually impure) were the very ones He welcomed! So it is that, for the sake of fidelity to Christ, we may find ourselves having to reject what the world accepts and to accept what the world rejects. As long as we are honestly seeking the will of God, we will know what the Gospel requires of us in every situation.

So be aware that you are a house of prayer. Be aware that some things are appropriate for houses of prayer and some things are not. When Jesus comes to us we want Him to reach out his hand of healing, and not overturn our tables and chairs! Let us turn to Him now so that He can reveal what still needs to be done to purify the inner temple. Then He can say of us: “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7).