Dangerous Sunday Morning Devotions: Overturning tables so the bottom-demographics have access to the sacred space of table fellowship (Matthew 21)
One of my heroes of the faith is A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (1843-1919). Called to a rather prestigious NYCity church (a Presbyterian church!), he began to have a burden for ministry among the poor and street people. He'd preach on the street; street people converted; and, he brought them to church . . . was summarily disciplined and removed from the pulpit (on record, it was over his changed position regarding baptism, but there is no doubt as to the real reason was bringing those people into the paid-pews of our church).
Having those street people (i.e., the bottom demographics of NYCity) enter Simpson's church was like the time Jesus took to turning-tables and whipping merchants who filled the temple court (probably Court of the Gentiles) and, then, the crowds of the poor, marginalized, sick, disabled came into the temple (assuming there was a place for them now that the merchants were chased out) . . . Jesus overturned the status quo and mis-use of the temple sacred space and the very crowd that was disallowed, then, came in . . . We often read past quick verses that give some context to the narrative. Matthew's account tells us immediately what happened after the table-turning: “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (21:14). Matthew then tells us the temple leaders “were indignant” (v. 15).
The Matthew 21 OT quote used to prophetically justify Jesus’ table-turning action was to remind Israel’s temple-leadership that God's temple was to be a house for ALL people (Matthew 21:13; cf. Isaiah 56:7). When we turn to that Isaiah 56 quote, we read in the very next verse: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered’” (v. 8). And, this is exactly what happened in the over-turning-tables story in Matthew–in the very next verse: “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14).
If one pulls out the other likely OT reference to a “house of prayer for all people,” namely Jeremiah 7:11, there, too, we find in the context the marginal and bottom-demographics that have been left out, for we read in Jeremiah 7:5: “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow . . .” (v. 5).
Let's get this right: the over-turning-tables scene is about God’s people (more so, the visible ones that makes up both the truly elected and those who claim Christ but are not necessarily truly God’s people), the very temple (i.e., the place of God's dwelling and manifest presence--which was the temple in the OT and now the visible church, i.e., churches scattered throughout the earth) has barred the marginalized and placed barriers to the bottom-demographics from the temple/church sacred space. Like Jesus as he makes room for them in the temple, the significance of this Matthew 21 text is to apply to church (not in a general, universal church way--whatever that is--but, to the local church, my church, your church) by the intentional creating of room, restoring sacred space (i.e., literally NT table fellowship, however it looks today) for the bottom-demographics to be among us (or us among them, better, still). Or, we, too, may face Jesus’ over-turning-tables judgment.
Is it no wonder we hear a few lines later, in Matthew 21, Jesus would tell the temple-leadership who had a problem with the incoming bottom-demographics: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” This is an ecclesiological (aka a church) issue, the neglect of our poor and marginalized neighbors, and the giving of access to our fellowship so that they may have full access to the Father.
We need to rethink church.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.