Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Wednesday Word: Pre-Easter Politics

Fearless readers, let me start today’s post with a confession: kids waving palm branches in churches on Palm Sunday (last Sunday) drives me crazy. Is it cute? Is it fun? Of course it is. But, it’s also a domestication of one of the strongest, and most significant socio-political actions that Jesus took in his ministry. And that we turn that statement into a feel good moment for ourselves and avoid the challenge of Jesus’ words and actions in the scripture drives me nuts.

So let’s take a peek at this story of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” and “cleansing the Temple” and try to avoid those warm and fuzzy feelings!

Matthew 21:1-17
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus at the Temple

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[e] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ ”

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.


It’s dangerous to make a royal entry when there is already a king.
Make no mistake,  the final stages of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is meant to serve as a sign that he is the king, that is, the Messiah. Jesus and all of his traveling companions (coming to Jerusalem for Passover) and the crowds who are greeting them, were aware of the words of the prophet Zechariah in Zechariah 9:9-10:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Using the imagery of this text, Jesus comes in peace to Jerusalem to make peace for God’s people. BUT, he comes as the king. The irony here of course is that Jesus knows full well he will not be accepted as king. In fact, Jerusalem and Judea already had several “kings” who were not going to relinquish power to him, including the Roman Emperor Tiberius, the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, or the chief priests of the Temple, who served as the leaders of the Jewish people. So while Jesus may come in peace, he is performing an action that will undoubtedly lead to violence against him. And note that the crowds who are celebrating Jesus’ arrival are not in Jerusalem; they are outside of it. The people who live in the power center of Jerusalem are NOT excited about Jesus! They know the what the threat of a would-be messiah.

Jesus’ actions at the Temple are political.
Jesus’ immediate journey to the Temple fit his royal entrance. After all, the Temple was not just a “religious” space; it was the power-center of Jerusalem and Judea. It was essentially a fortress and was traditionally presided over (at least ceremonially- think Solomon) by the king. Therefore, it was in many ways an extension of the royal palace insofar as it represented the power that God had given to the monarch who He chose. Jesus, who is claiming to be this King, then does what kings do when they are establishing their rule: upon entering the capital city or a conquered city they go straight to the seat of power and claim it as their domain. This is what Jesus is doing here. This is a political and religious statement, and in fact the two are inseparable. To be king of Israel was to be chosen by God and was to have authority over the Temple. And control over the Temple meant control over worship.

It’s not about the money changers.
We make this story far less significant if we portray Jesus as just having a problem with the money changers or people selling animals. There are reasons to believe he thought the Temple courtyards were an inappropriate place to sell or trade money, but that’s not the core issue that he has with what’s going on at the Temple. Jesus’ reference to the Temple as a “den of robbers,” is a reference to Jeremiah 7, in which Jeremiah accuses both the Temple leaders and people of believing they can behave immorally (oppressing the weak, being violent, worshipping idols, etc.) and receive God’s special protection them because they have the Temple. And the word “robber” is misleading; the word Jesus, quoting Jeremiah, uses, is far closer to the word “brigand” or even “rebel.” In other words, the Temple, like a “robber’s den,” has become a place from which the wicked dominate others and consolidate their rule. The guys selling and changing money are just the tip of this iceberg. Ultimately the chief priests and Sadducees are behind this show, and are using the Temple as a tool to maintain their power instead of stewarding it as the holy place where God is known.

What false and true worship look like.
When Jesus arrives at the Temple there is a problem with worship: he is not recognized as the King by the Temple authorities. That means that God’s authority and rule is not recognized. So their worship does not actually aim to serve God or obey him. Their worship is self-motivated and self-serving. It is only natural then that their worship does not seek to care for those who are at the bottom of the power-base (blind, lame, children, Gentiles whose court they are using for commerce), since those people are of no use to them.

When Jesus arrives this changes. Space is made for outsiders, the non-Jews (Gentiles), to worship and pray to God. The blind and lame and children are invited into worship. Jesus is recognized as God’s anointed rulers. And the power of God is present to heal His people. It is helpful to recall at this point Jesus’ words to his disciples about being a “light to the world.” When worship is led by Jesus it looks like a “light to the world,” as opposed to the worship led by the chief priests, which simply followed the pattern of the world: keeping “enemies” away, over-looking the powerless, and consolidating power in God’s name.

Hard Reflections:

Do we see people using “Temples” in our society today as Jesus’ opponents did?
In other words, do we see people using religious structures to solidify a power-base or justify their self-serving actions? Yes, absolutely we do. And these people, similar to the chief priests in our scripture, would claim that they are acting on behalf of the people for their security, protection, and prosperity. These religious leaders today are not interested in recognizing God’s authority by following the example of Jesus: loving enemies, making room for the marginalized to worship, or seeking God’s healing for his people and the nations. Rather, they wave Christianity as a banner to be protected by worldly means and as a tool to rule others and justify their rule over others. In its most toxic American form, Christianity is used as a means to justify the rule of wealthy, white America and over society and much of the world. Yet it should be noted that this form of false worship is found in many places and societies (not just in America and among our ruling class), and functions in a similar manner: worship is used to justify the powerful and solidifies their place in that society or location.  

There are many self-serving Temples today.

If we step back even further, we realize that the Temple can simply be the “moral high ground” in any power struggle that one side uses to push its will. The Temple can be “fighting for democracy,” which results in a perpetual war benefiting the sector of society pushing it. It can also be “equality,” which then is used to attack whatever class is deemed the enemy of equality by the holders of power. In other words, both the right and left use their own “temples” to push their agenda and their right to rule over others. My guess is actually that we all have our own “temples” (I know I do), and if we are serious about following Jesus we should probably deal with this reality.

What ruler will we follow?
Ultimately, the manner in which Jesus enters Jerusalem and by his actions at the Temple, he forced people to make a choice: whose authority will they live under? Would they obey Jesus as their King, and recognize his authority over their lives, or will they live under the final authority of the way of the Romans and chief priests? Jesus wasn’t calling them to violent revolt, but he was calling for them to imitate him and reject the self-serving power structures of the world. We are faced with these same questions. Will we follow Jesus and dedicate our lives to imitating his practices and mission: loving enemies, reconciling outsiders to God, seeking to serve the powerless, and rejecting self-serving worship? Or will we follow the power structures of the world, and justify our actions in God’s name? Jesus’ actions leave no room for a middle ground; he forces us to declare whose authority is legitimate and whose authority we will bow down to.

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