“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.” 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.”—Matthew 21:12-15
We just finished celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps your Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full of depictions of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, or awkward pictures of pastors dressed in monk attire wielding a hammer and the like. What they probably haven’t been full of is pictures of a wild-eyed Jesus, flipping over tables, and driving people out of the temple with a whip.
The heart of Reformation isn’t simply correcting error for the sake of rightness. It has to do with people and God. Its aim is uniting a rejected and miserable mass of sinners to a gracious and redemptive God. Reformation ultimately becomes necessary when forgiveness and grace are being bought and sold. This buying and selling was the case in Luther’s day 500 years ago, just as it was in Jesus’ day 2,000 years ago.
When Jesus marches into the temple with a whip, it is not merely out of righteous anger that his Father’s house is dirty. He is not there to clean. He is not there to debate. Jesus is there to make a mess. A sanctified shake-up is about to happen. And it’s going to happen because there are sinners that need it to happen.
When Jesus is done, tables are flipped over, money is being trodden underfoot, animals are running free, and people are fleeing. But what is so striking about this scene is who comes into the mess Jesus just made. As those who exchanged money at absence exchange rates, and those who gouged the poor by selling them overpriced birds for sacrifice are all running out—the outcasts of Jerusalem are all rushing in.
There in the midst of the chaos of his open defiance of the traditions of men, and his rejection of the institutions of the religious elite, Jesus finds himself surrounded by the broken, the poor, and the afflicted. The unloved of Israel are coming to him, and he is restoring them all.
Jesus says the house of God is to “be called a house of prayer.” That is to say, a place where you come to God with your need and nothing else. And this is exactly what happens. There is no money being exchanged, nor animals being bought. There are only sinners in need, coming in to see Jesus surrounded by overturned religious orders and customs. The great “Reformation” is underway, and restoration is happening in the middle of this Holy Rebellion.
Surely when the religious leaders see the “wonderful” things that Jesus does following his throw-down, they must have realized their error, right? Not a chance. They care nothing for those being cared for and healed. All they can see are the flipped tables, animals crapping all over the place, and the broken remains of their religious power structure.
There will always be those who condemn the mercy because of the mess. But just like Reformation, mercy is always a messy business—the messy business of God.
The heartbeat of Reformation is clearing the path to God’s love and forgiveness. This is what Jesus was doing on that day in the temple. He overturned and drove out all obstacles and tollbooths in the building and created a free and clear path to God’s grace—a path to himself—and outcast sinners poured in.
Whether it be a whip, or a hammer, or a blog—they all serve as machetes to hack down the overgrown obstructions hindering sinners from running to Jesus with nothing but their need. For Jesus, Luther, or us—Reformation is always about clearing the path to God’s radical grace.