18 March 2018 | Vicar Writes

A House of Prayer for All Nations

By Terry Wong

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.  And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “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.” Mark 11:15-17

An interesting question was asked at the last AGM. Why do we allow buying and selling in the church when Jesus did not allow for that in the temple? This is a case in point where Scripture needs to be read and understood carefully so that it can guide us in a correct way. 

We start with the context. Pilgrims from afar, both Jews and proselytes (Gentile believers), will come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship on major feasts days. Pigeons and other animals used for sacrifices will be sold and this also explains the need for money-changers. On the surface, this seemed reasonable as a service was being provided. 

Jesus angrily overturned the tables and drove out the animals with a whip. The reasons can be inferred from his quotation of Scripture: “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.” This is taken from Isaiah 56:1-7, and I quote a part: And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ... these 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.

The “den of robbers” may suggest that foreigners were taken advantage of through overpriced merchandise and unfair exchange rates. Even more importantly, the outer courts were areas where Gentiles were allowed to gather to worship. Those areas had become crowded out and its sense of sacred space was lost by both the presence of these activities and the way they were conducted. Instead of being a house of prayer for all nations, foreigners were being taken advantage of and their rights compromised.

In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this incident was the final reason for the religious authorities to kill Jesus.His consistent teaching and ministry to the religious outcasts of his day and his rebuke of the religious authorities finally led Him to the cross.

We can see from here the message that these passages carry for the Church. For we too can easily forget that the Church exists for all. Foreign worshippers have full rights to worship at His house. And they should never be taken advantage of. This is one reason why it grieved our hearts when we heard that a Korean tourist lost her bag with her passport and all when she left them behind momentarily and went up for communion. This can happen to anyone of course, and we remind all to be careful and watchful.

Beyond just the way space is used are the wider principles of how we see the Christian faith. Passages such as this and other teachings of Jesus elsewhere (e.g. the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20) have driven the Church into cross-cultural Missions and stopped her from being confined to a single or local culture. 

The Church has not read this as a prohibition of selling and buying on church grounds. Many churches, here and all over the world have book stores, restaurants and cafes catering to the need for Christian resources and refreshments. In SAC, we have kept the worship spaces sacred but have opened our grounds for varied uses, including allowing for the gathering of foreigners. This issue will be discussed at the next Town Hall Meeting and we appreciate your feedback and thoughts.