There was a season when I worked the opening shift at a coffee shop in downtown Chicago. I’d leave my place in the wee hours of the morning and walk down dimly lit streets and through an old but peaceful park. As I turned the corner out of the far end of the park, I would pass a beautiful, large building with chiseled text figuring prominently on its eves: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The synagogue usually appeared empty at that time of day, but I always felt a warm invitation in that declaration. It wasn’t where I was heading, but I figured I’d receive a kind welcome if I had ever wandered in.
When Jesus invoked this passage from Isaiah during His cleansing of the Temple, He offered not only a stern rebuke, but also recast a fuller vision for the house of God. This house would have a table with many, many seats. Isaiah makes it clear that there is room for all sorts of folks in the house of God, even those we may not be so fond of or familiar with.
Sometimes we read Mark’s account, visualizing ourselves right there alongside Jesus, flipping tables and causing a ruckus in righteous anger. On the one hand, that is an appropriate understanding. Jesus was burdened by the corruption He observed, primarily the monetization of worship and the exploitation of the poor as they tried to approach God. So we, too, ought to be burdened. The temple was meant to be a sacred place of meeting with God, not a place of corrupt commerce and undue barriers to entry. We are called likewise to name those barriers when we see them, and to help eliminate them.
On the other hand, we need to examine our own practices and communities and make sure that we’re not participating in creating those barriers to entry. This demands a hard look at our rhythms and interactions to make sure we’re not engaging in the ways and modalities of the religious elites and merchants. We must also carefully shape and mold our own lives so that we do not blindly, or even willingly, contribute to those unnecessary hurdles in our neighbors’ lives.
The radical inclusivity of the kingdom of Heaven as envisioned in Isaiah is fulfilled solely and entirely through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we seek to eliminate barriers and extend invitations to this encounter, let us rejoice in the goodness of our own initial invitation. “A house of prayer for all peoples” means that you, through the work of Jesus, are warmly invited to the table.
If you’re at that table already, keep inviting everyone you know; there’s plenty of room. If you’ve yet to take a look inside that house, I promise you: God is waiting with the warmest of welcomes.
Written by Andrew Stoddard