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The Distracted Church: Mammon Over God

“Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” Jesus roared. There is no way our series on the state of the church address could have omitted this example, in John 2:16, of Pastoral concern for the state of the church. We spoke last week of the disorientated state of the church from John’s record of the cleansing of the temple.

The church must be disoriented when prayer is moved from the central activity in the life of the faith community to a fringe activity which is optional and easily dispensable.  In this episode we want to highlight the distracted state of the church which John brought to the attention of the church at Ephesus and which the Holy Spirit desires to open our eyes to now. 

Earlier this year I had an epiphany of sorts.  What struck me was the fact that of all the material objects that humans can, and choose to worship, there is one in particular which Jesus deified. He named money as a specific god, the god mammon, and not just that, but also this god, Mammon, is set in a kind of parallel of choice.  You cannot serve both God and mammon he said, in Matt. 6:24.   You will either hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.   Such is the pull and push and power of money to distract the human heart. 

The leaders of the faith community are always in danger of capitulating to its allure. John sounds the alarm as he relates what Jesus observed when he arrived in the city and entered the temple area. That which caused Jesus to be consumed by zeal for His Father’s house.  The religious leaders had become distracted by money to the point that the house of prayer had been allowed to become a market place, a den of thieves, a capitalist roost, the feeding trough of the juggernauts, the playground of the upwardly mobile, the stomping ground of the hawkers, the threshing floor of the charlatans, the winepress where the last substance of the poor was pressed out of their pockets.

A cursory reading of the passage in John could cause one to wonder why would the selling of doves, cattle and sheep, and the exchange of coins meant for the worship at the temple be such a big deal to Jesus anyway. You see there is a way in which the temptations we face bear similar threads. This smacks of exactly what the temptation of turning stones into bread involved. Meeting a legitimate need in an illegitimate manner. Jewish coins, and these animals were absolutely necessary for those coming to worship at the temple.  The problem was the location and the manner in which this commercial activity was occurring.  Jesus cleansed the temple of the money-changers and sellers of merchandise because of His disgust at what they had made of God’s house of prayer and His zeal to purify it from the abuse of ungodly men.  The matter of coins in the passage arises from the fact of the Roman occupation at the time and the Temple requirement.  Judea was under the rule of the Romans, and therefore the currency was Roman coin. However, the Jewish law required that every person should pay a tribute to the service of the sanctuary of “half a shekel” (Exodus 30:11–16), a Jewish coin. It became, therefore, a matter of convenience to have a place where the Roman coin could be exchanged for the Jewish half shekel. The money-changers provided this convenience but would demand a small sum for the exchange. Because so many thousands of people came up to the great feasts, changing money was a very profitable business and one that resulted in fraud and oppression of the poor.  Do you see what I am talking about? Not even the fact that it was a coin to be used in the worship of God would inoculate the hearts of the money changers from the snares of mammon. In their distraction with money they robbed worshippers in the very place of worship. This is a special kind of extortion if you ask me.  Do you see Jesus had to act the way in which he acted?

In like manner for the animals mentioned two doves or pigeons were required to be offered in sacrifice (Leviticus 14:22Luke 2:24). Yet it was difficult to bring them from the distant parts of Judea, so a lucrative business selling the birds sprang up, with the sellers gouging the faithful by charging exorbitant prices. There were other merchants selling cattle and sheep for the temple sacrifices as well.  In their lust for money the sellers of these animals moved them into the very center of worship. Not only robbing them blind but leaving less and less space for them to be able to pray.

If we can agree that this passage confront the distraction that money presents to the leadership of the faith community then pause with me to critically reflect on some of the possible ways we are still turning God’s House of Prayer into a market place today. Could it be that the very prosperity gospel itself is a distraction of “mammonic” proportions?  To the extent that it elevates material blessing from God to us as the ultimate concern and perogitive of God rather than God’s glory is this teaching not suspect at the very least?  The practice of selling prayers.  Yes selling of prayers on radio programs and the new fad, facebook live, where people make contact with their prayer request and are then given a charge based on the supposed difficulty level of the request, and directed to how the fee is to be payed so that the prayer can be prayed on their behalf. Or those locations which are open for business every day of week, where persons go to be prayed for after they have made the necessary payment. Similarly the more complex the situation the larger the fee.  Those with court cases and those with pending embassy visits are frequent shoppers.   Then this business of selling consecrated water purportedly from the Jordan or some other holy land location, selling handkerchief which wiped the sweat of the ‘man of God’ and consecrated olive oil and other paraphernalia.  What’s going on here?  I can’t help but recall this fellow in Acts, Simon Magnus, who thought the power and blessings of God were on sale. My beloved people have we lost our way? Are we too distracted by Mammon?

Check out my book, Let’s Major In The Minors.

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