Jesus Hates Religion
Big Idea: Jesus hates religion, calls for real change, and makes it possible.
Working our way through Luke - Luke 19:45
Context: Jesus entering Jerusalem as king - but not everyone’s celebrating
When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
What do we see here? Jesus, the moment he arrives in Jerusalem, so it seems, is kicking up a fuss in the temple, the heart of Jewish religious practice. Opposition to him has been building and now he has powerful enemies who want to take him out - but they can’t move against him because he and his teaching are so popular. They challenge him on his credentials in front of the people but he evades with a question back to them that they’re not willing to answer.
What does this show us about Jesus? What does this show us about people? What does this have to say to us today?
Let’s start with what this shows us about Jesus - and what it shows us is that Jesus hates religion. Now that might seem odd if you’re new to these things - because Christianity is called a religion and surely Jesus doesn’t hate that!
Let me clarify what I mean: when I say Jesus hates religion, I mean Jesus hates what practising religion looked like in his day - and I’m sure there’s plenty of how religion is practised today that he hates too. See, Jesus goes straight to the Jewish temple right in the centre of Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish religious practice. That’s where all the action is, where all the key Jewish rituals take place: where the sacrifices are, where all the incense is burnt, where all the offerings are made, where all the head honchos do their stuff.
He goes straight there and upsets the apple cart. Here in Luke’s gospel we get the summary statement: v45 “he began to drive out those who were selling”. In Matthew and Mark’s gospels we get another view of the same story with more details: there’s tables being turned over and coins flying everywhere, there’s dove cages clattering to the ground with terrified squawks and feathers scattered. Jesus is getting in the face of all the people sat in the temple courts waiting to facilitate the Jewish rituals.
Here’s the thing: you needed those doves for sacrifices in the temple, and you needed a special kind of money to pay your dues in the temple. You couldn’t do your religious duties right and tick all those boxes you needed to tick without those things. So these people who are selling doves, who are changing money, they’re pretty essential. Why’s Jesus driving them out? What’s wrong here?
Well, in classic family fortune style (if you were around back then), we asked our panel of 100 ordinary folk and 52 said: exploitation! (ok, for the record, I didn’t actually ask. But I’m confident this is a common understanding - definitely seen it suggested in some kids’ bibles). Is Jesus upset because this is exploitation? Because the dove sellers are charging too much to their captive audience. Because the money changers are dishonest. Because the poor ordinary folk can’t get what they need to practise their religion? I mean he calls the place a den of robbers - surely that’s addressed to all these people selling - they’re like robbers they’re so unjust.
Or is the answer, as 35 of our panel said: unspiritual! All this buying and selling and noise and animals and - let’s face it - bird poop. This is just not appropriate for the temple, the house of God. I mean Jesus says it’s mean to be a house of prayer but with all that noise and commotion it’s hard to hear yourself think, let alone to pray. Is that why Jesus is driving them out? Because it’s ok to buy and sell doves, and you have to change your money somewhere - just not here folks. Is Jesus restoring the contemplative atmosphere that rightly belongs to the temple?
Two good candidate answers. But hold your horses - not so fast. Jesus says here: “you have made it a den of robbers” - but do you see those quotation marks? you have made it <airquotes> a den of robbers. They’re there for a reason - Jesus is quoting something - he even tells us that. “It is written,” is how he starts his rebuke. It is written in the Jewish scriptures.
Jesus is quoting from an ancient prophet called Jeremiah and, as is always the case, he’s quoting with a reason. He doesn’t just want to call the sellers robbers - he doesn’t need the quotes for that - he could just call them on their exploitation. He wants to do something bigger: to identify what’s going on here with what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about when he said the temple had become a den of robbers. He wants to say what Jeremiah wrote about way back when is what’s happening right here and right now.
So what was that Jeremiah talking about? What is Jesus suggesting is actually going wrong here? Well, come with me to Jeremiah chapter 7 and let’s take a look. I’ll put it up on the screen but feel free to flick there too if you have a bible handy.
“ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
Hmm. that’s not about exploitation of the worshippers. That’s not about maintaining a spiritual feel to the temple. God, speaking through his prophet Jeremiah, declares the temple a den of robbers because it’s filled with unrighteous people who think they can hide there. They think they can be safe - safe just because they show up in the temple doing their religious things. Safe to ignore God’s ways in the rest of their lives. Safe to ignore God for the rest of the time. And God says a big fat “no!” to that.
See, that’s the sort of religion God hates, and the sort of religion Jesus hates. One that says “all you’ve got to do is just tick the boxes”. One that says you just have to pull off a good performance when you’re on show. One that says what you do with the rest of your time, with the rest of your life, really doesn’t matter a bit. That’s the people Jesus is calling robbers. They’re robbing God because they are not giving God the whole of life, what’s rightfully his - they’re just putting on a show for a few minutes every now and then and thinking that’s it.
Jesus is kicking out those who were selling from the temple because the whole thing is broken. The problem isn’t the traders, or the trade. The problem is the fake religion. This attitude of “I just need to tick the box at the temple and then I’m done! I’m out of here and I can go get on with my own life.”
Let me show you this in action. Jesus’ opponents here are the key people in the Jewish religion - and they’re diligent performers in the temple, I have no doubt. Sometimes we can be so quick to slate these religious leaders that we miss how impressive they were. They knew the scriptures inside and out - so they would have known it was Jeremiah 7 the moment Jesus quoted from it. They ticked a lot of boxes when it came to religious obedience. I’m sure they would have made every sacrifice listed out for them. They were diligent about religious tithing, giving back to God a tenth of all he gave to them, even down to the herbs in their cooking. Oooh pass the pepper - and here’s a peppercorn for God. They were diligent about religious washing, miffed at Jesus when he doesn’t go over and above in it like they do - sweet smelling dudes. They fast (that is they don’t eat) every week, not just the few days a year that are demanded of them. They’re impressive. But it’s all fake.
See at the same time, Luke tells us “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him” - that is, Jesus. Now they can’t do it right away - because Jesus is in with the crowds - but they want to. Just think about that for a moment. They tithe their pepper super religiously but they want to kill someone. And it’s not for good reasons.
If you track back through the story, they want to kill him because he calls them on their fake-ness, on their hypocrisy. “you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” he says to them back in Luke chapter 11 and that’s where his war with them kicks off.
They do their temple stuff, tithe their pepper, and then they want to kill someone. Does that sound like those people we read about in Jeremiah? People who think they can get away with anything so long as they tick the boxes? That’s the kind of fake religion that Jesus hates. That’s the kind of fake religion that makes him kick people out of the temple.
Now we need to hit pause here for a moment and stop and think. It’s easy to point fingers at others - <wag finger> bad religious leaders - but what about you and me? I wonder: do we sometimes act like we can tick the God box with a short performance here in church and then go do what we like for the rest of the week? Are you just putting on a show here? Are you a different person for the rest of the week?
You’re not fooling God. No-one fools God. There’s no safety from his wrath just because you put on a good show here at church. That’s not how it works at all. That’s fake religion. And Jesus hates it.
A quick test for you: has anyone ever called you on something in your life which doesn’t measure up to you on best behaviour, church-you? I expect so. If not, I expect there’s somewhere they could do that. What’s the test: how do you respond? Here, Jesus’ opponents respond by hating him and wanting to destroy him. Not by acknowledging he’s right, and trying to change. They hate that he’s called them on their fake-ness. What happens to you? Do you lash out? Cover up? Make excuses? Then maybe you’re caught in this sort of fake religion, all style no substance, thinking just putting on a show is enough…
Jesus hates religion - that is, he hates this fake religion of part-time performance. He hates it because it saves no-one, it helps no-one, it pleases no-one - except ourselves. Jesus knows the truth: that God demands so much more than just a good show from time to time. God demands real change. If anyone has sold you a version of Christianity that makes no demands for change in your life, they’ve sold you fake.
And these demands for change are what sets up this confrontation with the leaders that we read about at the beginning of Luke chapter 20. They raise the issue of authority because they’re used to being the ones in authority, to being boss and saying what’s what and telling people how things should be done. They like things their way - but now this Jesus comes along, criticising them and messing with their system, calling people to actually change.
“who gave you this authority?” they demand. But it’s not really a question. It’s not like they are wondering what the answer is. They already know what they think: no-one. No-one gave Jesus any authority. Just who does this Jesus think he is to come messing with stuff? If it’s not a full-on attack then at least it’s a shot across the bow. “this is our turf. get off our turf” they’re saying. The knives are out and they are spoiling for a fight. Fake religion won’t go down without a fight.
But Jesus is no-one’s fool. He knows what they are up to and he stops them in their tracks. Well, he says, you answer my question, I’ll answer yours. And he poses them a doozie of a question. John’s baptism, he says, real or fake? This is John the baptist he is talking about, Jesus’ forerunner. You can read about him right back at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Real or fake?
Now it’s not actually a difficult question for these leaders to answer - they’re completely clear on their answer. John, like Jesus came calling for change. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” was one of his favourite lines. Repent means change; change your mind; change your direction; change your behaviour. Repent means things aren’t ok, they need to change. When Jesus comes calling for change and the leaders say “talk to the hand”, that’s exactly how they treated John before him - Luke 7:30.
So it’s not like it would be hard for them to answer Jesus’ question honestly - they reject John just like they reject Jesus. But - and here’s the catch - the common people believed in John, heard his message, responded to it. The common people think John was a hero - a prophet. So they can’t just come out with the truth - they’ll get lynched.
So it’s a standoff - but it won’t stay that way for long.
What does this have to say to you and me? The battle lines are drawn and the question is which side are you on? Are you thinking there’s no need to rock the boat, no need to change? That things can just continue as they are? Or are you ready to hear Jesus’ call to change? Because Jesus doesn’t come saying “whatever, carry on, God loves you” - that’s not what he came for; that’s not what he died for.
The alternative to fake religion, to just ticking some religious boxes and then keeping things as they are, is real change. It is to acknowledge where you’re wrong, say sorry to God, and try to change. What Jesus is teaching the crowds here in the temple is called good news in v1. How is it good news that people need to change? It’s good news because there’s help for people who will change and there’s hope for people who will change. We can say sorry to God, turn around, and try again - because of Jesus.
John, the one that Jesus questions his opponents on, was a true prophet, speaking for God. And John, pointing at Jesus, said “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He speaks about Jesus as a lamb, as a sacrificial lamb, like the ones they would use at the temple. Bet there were even some for sale along with those doves. John tells us that Jesus himself is going to be the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world - that is, he’s going to take on him the penalty for all the ways we’re out of line with God, the penalty for all the wrong things we do that need to change. Jesus is going to deal with that completely for us - by dying the death that should have been ours, by dying in our place.
This is amazing good news for people who hear God’s call to change, who feel that conviction that we should be different: when we make that change, when we turn away from what’s wrong and say sorry for it, then that wrong, that past, it’s dealt with by Jesus. It’s put to bed, once for all. It’s like it’s not even ours any more - it’s cut away from us. It’s like taking a bath, like washing. Clean again. Truly clean, not just faking it. There’s help and hope for people who will change.
There’s a once-for-all side to this, a beginning to the journey of change: that first decision to change towards God, to accept Jesus and what he’s done for us. But the way in is also the way on. There’s also a day-after-day side to this. True religion, Christianity, is a life of listening for God’s call to change, saying sorry for where we’ve gone wrong, and trying to put it right. Are you caught up in the false religion of putting on a front, keeping up appearances, ticking a few boxes, and thinking it’ll be ok? Did you start out listening well, but now you’ve decided to settle for good enough? Or are you living that true religion, listening again and again to God’s call to change?