|Jan van Hemessen (c.1500 - c.1566)|
Matthew 21: 1-17
Palm Sunday/ 13th April 2014
Matthew tells us that Jesus entered “the temple courts” (Matthew 21:12). This Temple that Jesus entered in Jerusalem was not your ordinary house of worship. It was more than a religious institution. It’s important to get this straight right from the start.
The structure referenced here is the great Temple built on the site of King Solomon’s (1000-931 BC) original building, rebuilt first by Zerubbabel upon Israel’s return from exile in Babylon and later completed by King Herod (c. 4 BC). The Temple was enormous. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world, the holiest site of Judaism, containing the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of Yahweh. The Temple was the religious center of Jewish life. But in Jesus’ day it had evolved, devolved into something else. Without knowing something about the Temple it’s easy to miss just how courageous, radical, some might say, foolish Jesus was to do what he did. Without an awareness of this, which one won’t find in a surface reading of the text, Jesus’ actions—the procession into Jerusalem and his disruption of the Temple—don’t make much sense. Why, then, is Jesus so angry when he gets to the Temple?
First, when reading the New Testament we always need to remember that the Judea of Jesus’ day was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. The Romans were cruel, brutal, violent, oppressive rulers who had little to no respect for the Jews or their God. King Herod, who died when Jesus was about two, was a Jew, a client-king of the emperor, appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate (in 39 or 40 BC); he served at the will of Caesar. Herod had a fondness for architecture. He managed construction projects all over Judea, including an expansion of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Herod built an enormous, four-towered fortress built adjacent to the walls of the Temple Mount, which served as a garrison for Roman troops. It was high enough for the Romans to look over the walls into the precincts of the Temple to keep an eye on the suspicious and curious monotheistic practices of the Jews. Herod named the fortress Antonia, in honor of his patron Mark Antony (83-30 BC). After Herod’s death, Rome divided up the kingdom into four territories rules by a governor; they were fearful that he had too much power.
Second, it’s imperative to remember that Jesus’ disruption of in the Temple was not an attack upon Judaism and its religious practices. Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and resurrected a Jew—he didn’t come out of the tomb on Easter morning a Christian. What Jesus was attacking and taking on was the priestly aristocracy that administered the operations of the Temple, a priestly elite who were extremely rich and powerful and who, as Josephus (37-100 AD), the great Jewish historian from the first-century, made clear, were collaborators with Rome, making money off the oppression of the poor.
The Temple was a religious center, but also more. It was “the center of Israel’s political life and power. At the Temple the high priest held court and presided over the powerful Sanhedrin; the priestly aristocracy obediently represented Roman interests to their own people, at times even collecting taxes to place in Roman hands.” The Temple priests influenced every aspect of Jewish life, in Jerusalem and the countryside. The Temple was also “the center of Israel’s economy, its central bank and treasury, the depository of immense wealth. Indeed, so much of the activity of the Temple hinged upon buying and selling various modes of exchange.”
Bible scholar Obery Hendricks (who was in my class at Princeton Seminary) suggests “that it is no exaggeration to say…the Temple was fundamentally an economic institution.” Jesus’ outrage was directed, not to a group of merchants who happened to set up shop in the Temple precincts the day Jesus came to town; it was “a very public attack aimed at Israel’s center of power….it was,” Hendricks makes clear, “an overtly political act.” Jesus and his followers shut down the Temple—shut it down; it was a religious-political-economic demonstration that sought to expose the corruption at the heart of the Temple authority. Why? “Because despite its veneer of holiness and religiosity, beneath its proclamations of justice and concern, the Temple did not treat the people and their needs as holy.” As the prophets of Yahweh said for centuries, it’s our responsibilities to care for the needs of the poor.
The priestly aristocracy was enormously wealthy; they took advantage of the poor; instead of trying to alleviate their burdens they made things worse. For example, priests “received a portion of every Temple sacrifice and offering.” On high holy days “pilgrims to the city could swell to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, this represented considerable wealth.” They received even more income through “seven lucrative classes of prescribed offerings…[essentially] taxes enacted solely for their benefit. A five-shekel payment for every firstborn child; the foreleg, cheeks, and stomach of every animal slaughtered; even a portion of the proceeds from sheep shearing. These offerings were the priests’ personal income. …the priests profited from ad hoc offerings…such as payment for a man’s consecration after a sinful transgression.” This could cost as much as fifty shekels.
The priests, who might even have offered sacrifices in the Temple to Rome, gave their allegiance to Rome. Their collaboration, it was said, was for the good of the people, to help keep the peace. For their cooperation, “the Romans protected the Temple and its caretakers’ wealth by brutally disposing of anyone the priest identified as threatening their status and power.” A telling example of the people’s frustration with the Temple was occurred in 66 AD, at the start of the Jewish War against Roman occupation. The rebels’ first act against the Roman occupation was to destroy the Temple debt archives…all the people that owed them money. Josephus, a first-hand witness who was on Rome’s payroll, tells us, “They carried the fire to the place where the archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors.” By 70 AD the Romans had enough. They brought the war to an end. The Romans sieged Jerusalem and eventually demolished the Temple to Yahweh, stone by stone. All the treasures of the Temple were then carted off to Rome and thousands of Jews were sent into slavery. If you go to Rome today and stand inside the Arch of Titus you’ll see a frieze celebrating the sack of Jerusalem, with images of the Romans carting off their spoils of war, including a menorah. All that remains of the Temple today is the Wailing Wall, a holy site to Jews all over the world.
|Arch of Titus, Rome.|
Hendricks, helpfully, sums up the meaning of Jesus’ protest at the Temple: “it was a repudiation of the Temple and those who ran it, repudiation of their abuse of the people’s trust, their haughty dismissal of the people’s worth, their turning the Temple of God into a profiteering enterprise, their exploitation of the people in the name of God and for the benefit of themselves and the Romans. It was a prophetic pronouncement to the priestly aristocracy that they must change or be judged by God.”
Can you see why Jesus is so angry? Can you see why he’s furious? Jesus enters Jerusalem to take on systems of power that abuse and oppress the poor. That’s what the procession of palms is all about—this demonstration that we just reenacted with our children! Do they know they were reenacting a demonstration? Do we know that we’re training them to be demonstrators? What are we getting our children mixed up in telling them such stories?
Matthew’s account is tame compared to Mark’s account and Luke’s. In Mark, Jesus entered the temple and drove out those who were selling and buying in the temple, he overturns the money tables. Mark says, “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (Mark 11:16). He shouted, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:16-17). When the chief priests and scribes heard this, Mark tells us, “they kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18). John tells us that Jesus made a “whip of cords”—a whip of cords—and drove the sheep and cattle out of the temple. He said, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).
What’s on display here is Jesus’ anger. We might prefer to all it “righteous anger” or “justified anger.” It’s still anger. It’s not a temper tantrum or an emotional outburst or a meltdown. It’s hot. It has heat. It comes from a deep part of his soul, from his gut. This is not “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” as the old hymn says. This is Jesus enraged.
This might not be your image of Jesus, but it’s certainly the New Testament’s image. This image might even scare us or anger us. You might be angry at me for what I’m saying.
Anger often scares us. Some think anger is always destructive. “There’s no use getting angry,” I sometimes hear. We’re afraid of our anger, afraid it might get out of control, get the best of us, cause us to do something, say something we’ll later regret. So we shut it down. Or ignore it.
Christians, I believe, have a particular problem with anger. We don’t know what to do with it. We have difficulty handling it. We don’t think it has a place. We often forget that Paul himself said, “Be angry but sin not (Ephesians 4:26). What we do instead is flip this around, preferring to “be angry not”—then sinning all over the place, projecting the unacknowledged anger within us “out there” upon the world. Many Christians shut their anger down. We won’t access it. We deny it’s there. And so we self-medicate. We repress it. Sometimes we somatize it, that is, we send it into our bodies. Or we become apathetic or lethargic. Many forms of depression are actually caused by one’s inability to access s anger and to be angry.
The word anger has its origins in an Old Norse word meaning “to grieve.” This is very helpful to know. Jesus’ anger toward the Temple is in many ways anger as grief: grief for what it had become, grief for what might have been, the lost opportunities to serve all God’s children, especially the poor. His anger is rooted in mourning for his people. We might call this holy anger.
And Jesus’ ability to mourn, to grieve, is directly related to the depth of his love. It’s because he loves the people that Jesus mourns—mourns for the Temple, mourns for the leadership of the Temple, mourns for the victims of the Temple, mourns for the Romans who don’t realize that they, too, are oppressed. It’s holy anger here that is being channeled by holy love—a love that desires the best for God’s holy people, a love that seeks the welfare of all, not just the rich and powerful, a love that seeks justice and wholeness and healing. It’s his love that causes him to be angry. It’s love that contains and channels the anger. It’s love that allows Jesus to use his anger—anger not as an end in itself, not anger for anger’s sake, instead using it by paying attention to his grief and sadness, acknowledging it, honoring it, and then acting from it, doing something creative and healthy and transformative with it. Anger becomes the fuel required for action.
Many years ago at a General Assembly I picked up a button that caught my eye. It read: “If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention.”
Sometimes I wonder if we Christians would be more effective, have a stronger voice, a more positive influence in the world if we were better in touch with our anger, if we allowed ourselves to be angry, allow ourselves to grieve. The world wants to know from us: Why isn’t the Church angrier over a whole host of issues—gun control, the environment, human trafficking, corporate corruption, sexual exploitation, abuse in the halls of government, violence toward women, toward children, men…? The list is long. What are we grieving over, what do we mourn?
In Bible Study on Thursday morning one person (and I have his permission to share this) quite candidly, honestly, admitted that living his middle class life here, that he’s complacent. “I don’t have to care, I don’t have to be involved, I have everything I need.” No need to be bothered. No need to be angered. No need to care. I have everything I need.
I think Christians need to get in touch with what angers us. We’re not called to be angry, of course. We’re called to love. Yet, if we loved more, the kind of agape-love that Jesus showed and which the Spirit offers us—deep, compassionate love—perhaps if we loved more we might be able to get in touch with our anger and then our anger could be placed in the service of love. Maybe we’re not angry over the injustice in the world, maybe we’re not grieving and mourning enough because we’re not loving enough, or deeply enough, with compassion, with empathy, entering into the pain and grief of the people (starting with the people right here around us) and then doing something about it, either sharing their pain or do something to help alleviate it. A lot of evil is allowed to emerge in the world because we refuse to be angry, because we refuse to love, refuse to care.
When our capacity to love is deepened—true love that seeks the best for others—we might find ourselves getting angry, mourning, grieving for our neighbors in new ways. When our capacity to love is deepened, the things we’re angry about begin to change. The things that upset us now and worry over, the things we complain about, the things that annoy us, that trouble us will change when we deepen our capacity to experience God’s love.
As we approach Holy Week perhaps this will be our prayer: that we deepen our capacity to love. Then, perhaps, this week you can identify one thing that you’re angry about—just one thing—then honor the anger, sit with it, just one thing that causes you to grieve and mourn. Then offer that anger up to God so that God can do something with it.
It’s love that drives Jesus. It’s love that causes him to get angry. It’s his anger—contained, tempered, and channeled by love—that becomes the fuel that drives him to act, that fires him into the world, that causes him to suffer, that causes him to set his face toward Jerusalem—“steadfast he to suffering goes”—knowing full well what he had to do, knowing the consequences, knowing what would happen.
Holy Love. Holy Anger. Holy Love. This is the way of Jesus Christ. Don’t expect anyone to applaud you for living this way. Don’t expect society to reward you. Heck, don’t expect the Church to encourage you to live this way. Religious institutions often prefer to stand in God’s way. But for us to say Jesus is Lord, for us to walk with him again through this Holy Week, for us to claim the joy of Easter morning means that his way must also be our way. And this, too, is our way—holy anger, holy love is our road, if we walk with him. A road, if we walk with him, which leads to the truth, a road that leads to life, the way that yields—I promise—resurrection.
 See Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What theGospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Last Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2007).
 My description of the Temple throughout the sermon relies heavily on the scholarship of Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering theTrue Revolutionary nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have BeenCorrupted (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 114.
 Hendricks, 114-115.
 Hendricks, 115-116.
 Cited in Hendricks, 119. For a full, detail account of see Josephus, The Jewish Wars (75AD).
 Hendricks, 122.
 “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1742
 See Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a SometimesDeadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2002).