In the synoptic accounts, Jesus cites an Old Testament passage as his explanation for his actions: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." But Jesus sees that this house of prayer has been turned into a den of robbers.
As I pondered this story, I remembered the set-up of the Temple in Jerusalem with its many levels/layers. At the center was the Holy of Holies that only the High Priest could enter. Then there were other locations that only the priests and temple workers entered. Outside this was the court for the men, then the court for the women, and finally the court for the Gentiles or the nations. It was in this last area where people were exchanging money and selling animals for sacrifice.
The Temple was supposed to be a place where all peoples - not just Jews - could come to pray, to worship, and to encounter the Living God. It was to be a holy place, but this was no longer the reality. So Jesus took action - harsh, abrupt, even violent action - to remind everyone why the Temple even existed and to call them back to its purposes.
It is easy for anything of a religious nature to become institutionalized. That's what happened to the Temple so long ago. It happens to the church. It happens to religious people, especially the clergy. I am thankful for the reminder from Jesus that my life and work need to be more about prayer, worship, and being open to encountering God than the things about which I have made it. As we journey toward Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and ultimately Resurrection Sunday, may Jesus turn over the tables of institutionalism in our hearts and breathe into us a spirit of prayer and worship.