Who is this?
I once asked a middle-aged woman in my congregation why she didn’t come to church any more, she said, “when my son got into trouble with the law, I was too ashamed to come to church. What would people say?”
In Matthew 18, Jesus says, “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”
In our lesson today, we learn that the blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he cured them.
Is the church a club for righteous people or a hospital for sinners? A refuge from the world or a mission outpost to a broken world? In Matthew, as Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and Holy Week begins, these are the very questions being worked: what is the temple (or church) for? Why did God get mixed up in human history?
Let’s reconstruct Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem, a mere five days before he would be crucified.
First of all, a pause to for a lighter moment, courtesy of our text today. It appears Jesus may have had hidden talents. You may have noticed in our reading that Jesus instructs his disciples to obtain not just a donkey for Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, but also, a colt of a donkey. As our text tells us, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
So, apparently, Jesus showed some real skill here, entering Jerusalem while riding
both a donkey and a colt. Did Jesus have rodeo experience?
Now, no one knows for sure why Matthew alone insists on this detail or why he interpreted the Zechariah prophecy so literally. But whatever Matthew meant and whatever it might have looked like that day, it certainly challenges our imaginations!
Who says the Bible isn’t fun?!
The real takeaway, though, is that Jesus entered Jerusalem in keeping with how any king would in this Roman outpost. Not only was he riding an animal – or two – but this description follows the classic pattern of how a king or emperor would enter a city. As the king approached, people would come out of a city to welcome the king and escort him in. So, as Jesus approaches, they are clearly giving him a royal welcome – an acknowledgement of Jesus’ lordship. And given that Jesus normally traveled on foot, the fact that he was now riding a donkey indicated his embrace of his own royalty.
However, often when a king or emperor rode into town, it was on a horse. A horse signified power and military might and, often, that a battle had just been won. The Old Testament had another tradition, though: a king riding a donkey. This meant the king was coming in peace, and, perhaps, that his kingdom was more about saving the human spirit than carving up opponents in battle. A donkey, in contrast to a horse, was also an animal of the people, symbolizing humility. Consider also that Jesus was not dressed royally, probably wearing a simple robe or tunic. So, perceiving this humble man, peaceful, king of the people, they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”? But I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, really understood the radical nature of Jesus’ kingdom, for they would soon turn on him.
By the time they got into the city, it says Jerusalem was in turmoil, taken off guard by the donkey and the king without royal colors who didn’t have his chest puffed out to intimidate people. “Who is this?” they asked, with bewilderment. “He is a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee,” someone said. What happened to “king”? I think they were all confused.
“Who is this?” Ever ask this, yourself? We are, after all, a Jesus-centric religion, but sometimes we’re afraid to be too much about Jesus. Who is Jesus and what claim does he have on my life? Is he really God or just a really good teacher? Can he really save me or only show me the way to go?
Who is this?
They were about to find out, as Jesus made his way to the Jerusalem temple, the very center of the Jewish religion. It says that Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying, overturning the tables and chairs of those selling doves and other animals. “My house shall be a house of prayer and you have made it into a den of robbers,” said Jesus.
What did he mean by all this? This passage has usually been interpreted as a statement against those who were selling and profiting in the temple. However, Jesus’ beef is not actually with the sellers. They were conducting a legitimate business that provided animals for sacrifice in worship – a practice that had all kinds of biblical support in Judaism.
So, with whom did Jesus have his beef?? With the worshippers! They were the “den of robbers,” or at least the many who viewed the temple as a sort of sanctuary of protection from their deeds of injustice, a place where they could maintain the illusion that they were right with God because they made sacrifices of animals and were allowed in the temple while others were not. This is what Jeremiah and the prophets railed against over and over again, namely, the longstanding phenomenon of privileged worshippers who engaged in oppression and turned a blind eye toward the blind and the lame, the poor and the widows, the orphans and children in general, the morally stigmatized and the despairing. So, the “den of robbers” were those who viewed themselves as an exclusive club of God’s favorites, with little regard for what God’s mission was (and is!) in the world.
And then you get verse 14, which tells us exactly what Jesus’ agenda is, and it reads, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” Bear in mind, the blind and the lame were not allowed in the temple, their afflictions taken to be evidence of their sin and unworthiness. So, Jesus just declared that God’s temple henceforth is for sinners, for the lost, for the marginalized. Not just the power brokers. So, as Jesus – according to Matthew – casts out worshippers who are seeking refuge from their misdeeds, just as he simultaneously invites those who have been excluded: the blind, the lame, children. So, in Matthew, Jesus disruption of the temple is all about the transformation of the temple into a place of healing, a place of salvation.
As Jesus began healing the blind and the lame, a most amazing thing also took place: children were there! Again, children were not normally allowed in the temple, but it says that children were crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
This is just a spectacular scene! Children are supposed to be seen and not heard, and in many situations, not even seen! But here they are, shouting praise to the king who counts them as valued members of his kingdom!
Then we learn in our text that “when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that Jesus did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” You know, these, these unworthy little human beings.
And Jesus quoted scripture to the chief priests, pointing out that even out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies, praise will be uttered for this king. That’s quite an image. Babies singing praise. A bit surreal.
So, the church is no longer a building, but a community – a community of life, of healing, of promise, and it is for everyone! The children get it, while the leaders do not.
Jesus is making a broader point here as well. Jesus says, “God’s house is a house of prayer,” and in a correct understanding of Hebrew prayer, prayer is also – always – a commitment to actively seek and work for the end result of what you’re praying for. Prayer is a way of saying “I’m in on this mission. I place it in your hands, God, and now I will join you as a partner in helping to bring it about!”
This is a very Matthean theme. knowing the truth is not the same as doing the truth. Getting an A+ in ethics class is not the same as being an ethical person in life. Such was the case with the crowd Jesus was challenging in the temple and in Jerusalem as a whole.
I mentioned, though, that Jesus had five more days to live after this temple scene.
The chief priests shut him down. The crowd turned.
So, fellow Mt Carmelites, what does this mean for our worship gatherings? How do you read this? How do you hear it? With the reminder and recognition that Mt Carmel is not a building or an institution but a community of healing and promise, how do we make our way from here on Monday and Tuesday in the year of 2019? How do we recognize that we are called to subversive, transformative activity in a world where many believe God’s power is to be hoarded by the self-righteous? Amen.