March 29, 2015
In the name of the God of all Creation,
The God alive in each of us as God was alive in Jesus,
And the power of God known in the Spirit.
One of the major reasons we hear the Passion Story on this Sunday before Easter … when the events of the Passion actually happened on Thursday and Friday of Holy Week … is that many people don’t attend mid-week services … even in Holy Week. If we only read the story of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem on this Sunday, and one didn’t attend a Good Friday service, the full impact of the Resurrection on Easter would be missed. So, just to get the full story the Church has us read the Passion today as well as the Triumphal entry with palms.
So let’s look at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as we move to his death on the cross.
The triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After weeks, months, even years of wandering around in Galilee, Jesus finally arrived at the walled city. Remember, in Mark’s gospel this is the only time Jesus goes to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the holy city, the center of the sacred geography of the Jewish people, and it was also the bastion of Roman rule in this occupied territory. It is this Jerusalem that Jesus has been preparing for, or maybe avoiding, or maybe skirting or circling around, as he taught about the Kingdom of God in opposition to the Empire of Rome. And remember, in Jesus’ teachings he offered simple direct access to God in opposition to the Temple system with its illegitimate priestly hierarchy. Outside the city he has sown seeds of conflict and unrest. The moment had now come for him to pass through the city gates into the darkness of Roman oppression and the high priestly corruption.
In their book, The Last Week, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg … who died last fall … and John Dominic Crossan propose that there were actually two processions entering Jerusalem on that day: Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, entering from the west as a symbol of imperial power; and Jesus, entering from the east on a donkey, in protest of the domination system of political oppression, economic exploitation, and abuse of the temple authority. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, according to Borg and Crossan, was a protest demonstration pitting the Kingdom of God against the power of the Empire of Rome.
The very first thing Jesus does upon entering the city is to go to the Temple.
“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, …”
“He looked around at everything …” I wonder what he saw. No doubt he looked upon the physical grandeur of the Temple. He would have seen all the pilgrims there for the Passover festival. And he obviously saw the Temple sacrificial system at work: money changers exchanging ritually unclean Roman currency for Temple coins, and unblemished doves and pigeons that the pilgrims could offer for their sacrifice.
“…and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
It was the next day that Jesus returned and overturned the tables and chased out the sellers of the pigeons and the doves. It is important to realize what he is doing. At the heart of the Temple religion is the sacrificial system that provided a means of atonement. At-one-ment, or the mending of a broken relationship with God, happened when a sacrifice was offered to God in the temple by the priest. The priest was the intermediary in the system … the in-between person or broker … they did for the people what they could not do for themselves.
Thus, a pious pilgrim coming to the temple, especially if he were to have come from a distance, would need to purchase an animal to give to the priest to sacrifice. For the poorest people it would be simply a pigeon, and for the more affluent it was usually turtledoves. Roman coins, which were the currency of the realm, were stamped with a likeness of Caesar upon them. Of course Caesar was considered a deity, thus the coin was an idol of a god, and hence ritually unclean for the Jewish people. There was a need, therefore, to exchange Roman coins for temple money before they could be used to purchase an animal.
What Jesus challenged was not the crooked money changers and dishonest pigeon sellers, but the entire religious system. Jesus was not cleaning up the system but symbolically shutting it down. Without pigeons and money changers, the temple business would have stopped and priests would have been out of a job. Pious believers would have been deprived of the only way they knew to making peace with God, appeasing God’s wrath and starting life over again. Since the temple priests and the Roman authorities were in collusion in making the Pax Romana work, Pilate and Herod would have been very unhappy with a disruption to this system. Jesus was no longer criticizing or taunting from afar. It was one thing when he was wandering around Galilee, but now he had moved to the source where, like Jeremiah 500 years earlier, Jesus said NO to the robbery of people’s connection with a God who was not interested in sacrifice and burnt offerings, but rather justice. In his actions of overturning the tables of the money changers he was speaking God’s truth to the power of both Rome and the Temple.
I believe that it was just these actions of speaking truth to power for which Jesus died, and the powers of Rome and the Temple used violence to kill him. Today the voice of Jesus is still being heard as people speak the truth of God to the powers of the world, and they are still being killed for it. Those powers are not always behind the walls of government, or under the roof of places of worship. Whenever one nation benefits at the expense of another nation; whenever this generation benefits at the expense of future generations; whenever one group of people benefit at the expense of another group of people, then oppression and control exist, and the voice of Jesus can be heard speaking against it. Whenever profit and corporate greed have corrupt power at the expense of the general public then a system of domination is in place. And when the 1% can buy elections is less than equitable. And when one speaks to power the powers of the world will do all they can to find a way to silence that voice ... just look what happens to whistle-blowers in our world today.
I also believe that within each of us is the voice of Jesus speaking God’s truth to the way we live our lives, and the powers that are also within us are trying to silence that truth. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, yet the fear within us keeps us silent. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty, yet our self-serving interests convince us that there isn’t enough for them … and for us as at the same time. We want the poor and hungry to be fed, and the homeless to be sheltered, and the mentally ill to be treated with dignity … but not in our backyard.
I really do believe that the power of God is alive in each one of us. I also believe that our fears and need for security can dominate and oppress us. When God’s divine presence within us confronts those fears, all too often the fear … the fear of existential death … resorts to the violence it knows best, and silences that voice. In the end we die a slow death of not living into the image of God.
The question is: “What are you willing to die for? … existential death, and possible physical death?” What are the values that are so important to you that you are willing to risk everything? Then, what are the fears that hold you hostage? What need for financial security, or social acceptance, or professional recognition, or relationship stability, or just wanting to be recognized as alive has the power of domination over your life? What anger, or guilt, has such a power in your life that you are oppressed by your own feelings? And what voice of the incarnate divinity … the incarnate divinity that is alive in each of us as it was in Jesus … is crying out to be heard, yet is constantly ignored as if it were not even alive … if it had been crucified?
Today we enter Holy Week. Jesus rode into the holy city of Jerusalem with the waving of palms, but by the end of the week he had been crucified. His disciples had abandoned him out of their fear that they too might suffer the same fate. It was the women who found the courage to stay at his side. He was immediately laid in a tomb, since it was the eve of the Sabbath. Then on the first day of the week the women returned to the tomb to prepare his body for proper burial … but the tomb was empty. The power of God to transform that death into new life will be celebrated next Sunday on Easter, but not before we experience Holy Week and Good Friday.