The Shepherds' Sending this week was Matthew 21.12-16, the first half of which reads like this:
And Jesus entered the temple 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 robbers."
These two statements, "My house will be a house of prayer," and "you have made My house a den of thieves," did not simply stand on their own to those first hearers. Rather, when they heard them, there were two texts that flooded their minds. Taking the second first, it comes from Jeremiah 7:
"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? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel."
This passage gives a larger context to Jesus' statement. When I was growing up, we learned that the people in the Temple who were selling pigeons and what not were cheating their captive audience of pilgrims who needed to buy the right elements for their sacrifices. That's why, we were told, the phrase "den of thieves" was used. We can see though that while they may well have been cheating pilgrims, this statement is a statement of doom on those who should know God, who should know better how to live God-lives and yet who do not. There are two things which are repeatedly indicated as having special concern from God…worshiping Him only, and caring for other people. These are so closely intertwined that Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, answered with both Love God, and Love your neighbor. We cannot do one without the other. Jesus' hearers know this is a judgment on them and their reaction in the second half of our passage will make that clear.
"My house shall be a house of prayer" comes from Isaiah 56:
Thus says the LORD: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil." Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant--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 Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered."
The import in this chapter is not just a "house of prayer," but a house of prayer for all people, especially the social outcasts, the imperfect, the shunned, the sinner. God will bring not just the scattered people of Israel to Him, but other peoples as well – all as one people to His house of prayer.
Let's pick up our text where we left off:
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant, and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, "'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise'?"
They became "indignant." Seeing the healings God is doing among the outcasts, at hearing praise for His work from children, these religious, arrogant, and blind leaders have contempt for the goings on. Jesus' answer is essentially "can you not see what children see?" "Are your hearts so calloused that you cannot see God working right in front of you and rejoice?
Today's text contains both a statement of doom for those that think they know God but who do not really see what He is about and therefore become indignant at what He does, and a call from exile for all who have been estranged from God. Holy Week includes two pillars – judgment and salvation. Judgment for those who think they know best and yet do not really know God, and salvation for those who simply respond to God and live as He lived.
This second pillar of salvation has as its background exile and estrangement from God, and then its relief not just for "God's People," but for the whole world – whoever would respond to, and conform themselves to Him. This is the great return from exile - the Creation is returned to God at His invitation, to join Him in His house of prayer for all peoples.
This season of Lenten reflection asks each of us to consider whether we really know God. Do we know His desires; do we know what He is up to; do we participate with Him in everyday life? Or are we like Israel's shepherds who do not know God. God describes them in the last part of Isaiah 56:
His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. "Come," they say, "let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure."
Shepherds and guides who are supposed to take God's message of hope and care, are concerned only for themselves, not knowing God, and not living as God has made them to live. This is a warning for those who would lead God's people, but also for all would be followers. Leaders must know God and what He is about, and encourage others to move in that direction. The rest of us must be seeking God, returning from our own exile, to the life we were made to live. How do you live? Do you live in God, or essentially for yourself? The answer you give to this question will determine whether the power of God on display at Easter is for you.
All Scripture quotations from ESV.