Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas
When is the church a house of prayer and when is it a den of thieves? What is prayer and what is thievery? Prayer is asking God to bless us with what we need. Thievery is taking unjustly from others what we think we need. The former is an act of humility; the latter an act of violence against humility and charity. The church is a house of prayer when it is a place for God’s people to gather to ask Him for what they need in humility and to offer Him worship in justice. The church is a den of thieves when it becomes a place for God’s people to take from Him what is not theirs in justice, a place of pride and apathy. What can we possibly steal from God in His own church? The lives that are rightly His! My life, your life, the lives of those given to God in blood, desire, and water.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem with a little righteous anger brewing and hits the temple area like a desert whirlwind. Laying hold of his prophetic authority, Jesus, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah, calls the temple a house of prayer that has been made into a den of thieves. To cleanse the temple of thievery, he drives out those who have turned his Father’s place of worship into a marketplace for Mammon. Now cleansed, the temple becomes his place for teaching, a place for proclaiming and preaching the Word—a place where the people gather to hang on Jesus’ every word. In this one movement, this single display of righteous indignation, Jesus has redefined the church for us, reconceived what it means for his people to gather, to hear the Word, to worship in spirit and truth, and to live in the abiding presence of God day-to-day, hour-to-hour.
When the People of God, the Body of Christ, come together to offer praise and thanksgiving, to offer up petitions and intercessions, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When the Word is proclaimed and preached and the sacrifice of thanksgiving made on the altar and in the heart, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When we gather to give to God what is His in justice, that which we owe Him as a matter of covenant and elemental desire, that is, our lives, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When the house of the Lord is a house of prayer, it is a time and place of distilled righteousness, a time away from time, a place away from place, where and when we eat God and are eaten.
We don’t just hang on his words in prayer; we hang on his cross, offering to God what has been His gift to us from the beginning: our love, our adoration, our very lives.
The house of the Lord becomes a den of thieves when we withhold, keep back our assent and our surrender; when we reserve for later, another when and where, the desire we were created to bring into flesh. When we choose, freely, the stingy path of hoarding for later our desire to be with God forever, that is, storing up our YES, tucking away our FIAT, we steal from Him what is rightly His. And deny ourselves everything we can be for Him.
To worship in spirit and truth, to adore Him with our strength in joy, to be seduced by His hope, cherished in His love, and brought forever to live in His beauty—that’s prayer! That’s justice! That’s the only reason I can think of to be here at all.