In the same breath that God tells His people that the Temple (church) cannot save them, He scolds them that this type of behavior has turned His house into a "den of thieves." (Jeremiah 7, see yesterday's post.) It's not the only time in Scripture that He has used these words (Jesus, anyone?).
And we, in all our mock piety and pretentious righteousness, think this has something to do with the mere presence of thieves. So we decide that sinners aren't welcome in God's house. That is what He's so mad about, isn't it? Sinners in the house of God?
No, that's not at all what God is mad about. And that's good news for us because it's so incredibly difficult for us to reconcile this condemnation with our profession that God loves sinners, which is quite well-documented throughout the pages of His story.
God does not condemn that there are thieves in the church; the Cross made perfectly clear that sinners, even thieves, are welcome. (Isn't it interesting that one of God's favorite curses against the people of the church is that they have become a 'den of thieves,' and then He is crucified between two of the very criminals?) What God condemns is what the thieves are doing in His church - they have made it a den.
A den, a place where they come to conspire. A place where they come to count up the loot. A place where they come to hide out. When you think about thieves gathering in a den, you can almost imagine them sitting around a dimly lit table, planning their next heist. Planning their next theft. Emptying their bags to go back out and get more. Counting the haul. All kinds of conspire-y things that bands of thieves do.
This is what God is so against taking place in His house. It's what He condemns here in Jeremiah, as the people attempt to use the Temple as a home base, as a free space, all the while letting their minds cook up their next grand scheme. All the while thinking about lying, cheating, stealing. All the while waiting on the chance to burn incense at another altar. They're in this Temple for only one reason - to try to reap the benefits of this God, as though He is but one stop on the smorgasbord of human experience that they are sampling from. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways.
It's what Jesus condemns in the Gospels. The moneychangers and merchants have set up shop in the Temple. They're there not to offer sacrifices, but to sell them. It's a transaction for them and nothing more. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways.
So the trouble is less that the Temple is full of thieves and more that it has become their den. This just ought not to be.
We ought to come to our churches not to conspire in sin, but to conspire toward grace. We ought to come, sinners all, and figure out together a better way. We ought to come humbling ourselves, not counting our haul. We need to worship in wide-open, brightly-lit place, not dim, smoke-filled dens of debauchery. We ought to come to our churches in search of the God who lives there, not to take Him for all He's worth but to offer Him our own. We ought to come offering sacrifices, not selling them.