A House of Prayer or a Hideout for Thieves?

Sermon Text:  Matthew 21:1-14

There’s a story told of a farmer who went to confession . . . praying before the Lord, in the presence of the priest. And he says, “Lord, please forgive me for stealing that hay last week. And please forgive me for the hay that I’m going to steal next week.” Was this a true confession? Was this true repentance?

You see, there is a difference between wanting forgiveness for your sins, and simply wanting your sins to be excused.

One man comes before God with a contrite heart, battling against the passions, battling against the sins, truly trying not to commit them ever again. Sure, he stumbles, he falls, he makes mistakes, but he gets back up, he brushes himself off, and he’s truly struggling. He’s truly trying to avoid sin.

Another man is not trying to avoid sin at all. He keeps repetitively sinning in the same way over and over and over, and makes no effort. He doesn’t even try. But he still prays, “Lord, forgive me.” But he’s not truly praying for forgiveness, because forgiveness is a pardon for sin that is past, a pardon for sin which you are repenting of, a pardon for sin which you are truly struggling against and turning away from. But when we ask for pardon for sins that we have no intention of turning away from, that is not asking for forgiveness, that is asking for an excuse. That is asking for God simply to just let us continue on our merry way, sinning against Him.

Now, today we see a very interesting picture. We see this picture of Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. Now, as you may know, in ancient times kings would ride on a horse when they were going off to war. But they would ride on a donkey when it was a time of peace. So here we have this image of Jesus coming to His people in peace. The King is not coming for war, he’s not coming to condemn, he knows that there are people who have done wrong things, that there are people who have sinned, that there are people who need forgiveness. And He comes in peace, He does not come with the whip. But then he arrives in the temple. And even though He has come in peace, he sees something that causes His righteous indignation to flare up. Without sinning, Jesus becomes angry, because He sees something that is blasphemy; He sees something that is a desecration of God’s plan for His house of prayer, God’s plan for his temple, God’s plan for his people. And Jesus, the lamb of God, the one who rode in peace on a donkey into Jerusalem, He makes a little scourge, He makes a whip. He starts pushing over the tables and the money is falling down all over the place. He uses that whip and He drives the animals, the sheep and the goats and whatever other animals were there, he drives them out. He pushes over the tables and the carts that have doves in them. There’s chaos and madness everywhere and Jesus is just kicking these people out. It says in the scriptures that He drove out those who sold, and also those who bought. It doesn’t matter if you were one of the people selling, or if you were one of the consumers. He just threw everybody out that was doing this.

And for a long time, I think I had too narrow a view of this. I thought, “Well, He’s just upset that they’re taking this place of worship, and they’ve turned it into a place of merchandise. And if we read this account in the Gospel of John, that’s the way it’s phrased. He said, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise.” But in the other Gospels, including the one we’re looking at today in the Gospel of Matthew, He said, “My Father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” And Jesus was not the one who came up with this phrase. This wasn’t the first time that phrase had ever been used. He was actually quoting an ancient passage of Scripture in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah, chapter 7, it says,

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord.'” Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 7:1-11)

Is there any doubt that this is what Jesus was quoting from when he was in the temple?

And this caught my attention, because in this particular passage God is not even focusing on his view of the people; he’s focusing on the people’s view of themselves. He said, “Has this house which is caused by my name become a den of thieves in your eyes?” “You yourselves think this is a den of theives.

Now, this is a phrase–this “den of thieves”– we’re not just talking about theft here. In the passage here, He’s talking about theft, murder, adultery, falsely swearing, burning incense to Baal and worshiping other Gods — This is the full gamut of human sin. Anything that you might see reported on the 5:00 news or glorified in the afternoon soap opera, these are all the different sins He’s talking about. It’s far bigger than just theft. He’s also including murder. He’s also including adultery. He’s also including the worship of false gods. And apparently the people, even though they were doing all of these things, they were still coming to the temple to worship.

But you see, there is a big difference from looking at the Church as being a hospital for sinners, versus looking at it as being a hideout for sinners.

You see, this phrase–“a den of thieves”–when you look at the original language there, it’s a phrase that in other contexts is sometimes translated [as] “a hideout for revolutionaries”. So, you know, when you think of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves–you’ve heard of that story–do they just hang out right there in town with everybody else and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m one of the forty thieves“? No! They have a hideout that they stay in, right? They have a place that they go. You think of when David and his followers were running from King Saul, they had this Cave of Adullam that they hid in [because King Saul was treating them as if they were wicked men].

The idea here of a “den of thieves” is that you have all these people who are sinners, who are wicked, who revel in their sin and their wickedness, who have a community with other sinners and wicked people. And they work together to do their wickedness, and they have this “hideout”–this safe place that they can go–where if they go there they can all be together, they can all know, [and] let it all hang out. “Yeah, we’re sinners . . . Yes, we steal. Yes, we rape. Yes, we commit adultery. Yes, we murder.” And they have this community of evil, this community of wickedness.

And what God is saying [is], “You’re not trying to fight against your sins. You didn’t come here like this is a hospital. You didn’t come here for medicine. When I welcomed you here as sinners, you thought that you’d just make this a hideout for thieves. You thought this was a safe place where you could come and just stay a sinner. No, it doesn’t work that way. I will forgive your sin. But I will never excuse your sin.

You see, if you’re repenting of your sin, if you’re turning away from your sin, then you’re treating the Church as a hospital. But if you come to the Church, and you think that because you’re welcome here as a sinner that you’re welcome to stay that way, then guess what? You have just said that you yourself believe the Church is a den of thieves, a hideout for sinners, a place where sinners can just come and spend their time in community with one another, and continue in their sin, and look at the Church as some sort of a cave where they’re gonna get protection.

And yet here in Jeremiah, from whence Jesus is quoting, He says, “Don’t say these lies. Don’t say, ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’.” He’s saying the temple of the Lord is not gonna be any protection for you, whatsoever, if you are treating it as a hideout, instead of as a hospital.

Isn’t it interesting that God wasn’t focusing on calling it a den of thieves in His eyes, so much as He said, “Has this become a den of thieves in your eyes?” “Did you come here thinking this was just a hideout? Just a safe haven for sinners? Uh, uh! If you come here, you come here to repent. If you come here, you come here to turn away from your sin, and to be healed of your sin. You come here to be changed from a sinner into a saint. This is not a hideout; this is a hospital.

Now, the first time Jesus came, He came in peace, and we see Him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. [At] the second coming, in the book of Revelation, Jesus rides a white horse. He comes to war. And when that day arrives, which side will you be found to have already chosen? Will you be found to have chosen repentance? If so, then you will already be standing with Him on His side (which is the winning side, by the way). But if you have treated the Church as a hideout for sinners, a place that you can merely come and continue in your sin without repentance, then you’ll be found at the end of that scourge, that whip that He used to drive [out] the moneychangers, not only those who sold, but even those who bought in the temple.

He said that His house is not a house for merchandise. He said that his house is not a house to be a hideout for a bunch of thieves. He said, “It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer.

Why would we come to pray?

  • We come to pray to repent of our sins.
  • We come to pray to ask God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,
    and to conform us to the image of Christ.
  • We come to pray to ask God’s blessings, in that same way,
    upon our brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you read on farther in the Gospel of Matthew, in the same chapter, we find that after Jesus had driven out all the moneychangers, after He had driven out all those who were buying and selling animals, once He had gotten of this cleansed out of the temple, it said that some blind people and some lame people came to Him there in the temple.  [This] is interesting, because if the Pharisees had truly been zealous for the Old Testament law, they wouldn’t have even let them in, because the blind and the lame are not permitted inside the bounds of the temple.

But see, they didn’t come to buy and sell animals. They didn’t come for the moneychanging. The blind and the lame came into the temple and they came to Christ for healing. And it says in the Gospel of Matthew that after Jesus threw out all of these other people, that Jesus healed the blind, and He healed the lame.

And so here we have a picture of the Church as it truly is today. It is a place where if you want to come here and treat the Church as a hideout for sinners, a place that you can spend your whole life in the protection of the Church and yet never repent of your sin, Jesus will make a scourge and Jesus will drive you out. But if you come into His house for it to be a house of prayer, if you come into His house humble and hobbling as a lame person, as someone who is blind, as someone who is utterly in need of mercy, then Jesus will not drive you out. He will keep you here, and He will make you worthy to stay here, for He himself will heal you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is one. Amen.

This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, December 2, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.



About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Fr. Joseph Gleason, Jeremiah 7:1-11, Matthew 21:1-14, Orthodox Homilies. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A House of Prayer or a Hideout for Thieves?

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Pingback: A House of Prayer or a Hideout for Thieves? « On Behalf of All

  3. Pingback: Jesus was Angry | The Orthodox Life

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