Lent 2018: Jesus’ Last Week
The Great Sermon
February 15, 2018 (Lent 2)
Text: Matthew 21:23 – 25:46
The day after Jesus and his followers had seized the temple; the day after Jesus had welcomed the blind, the lame, the children within the temple’s holy walls, the day after those in charge of Jerusalem’s religious life had put a price on his head, Jesus returns to the temple.
Most people, when faced with an arrest warrant, go into hiding. Most people, knowing that someone wants to kill them, try to get to a different town, a different county, a different state. Most people, after causing such a grand public disturbance, will lay low for a while. Not Jesus. He knows the Romans, whose soldiers guard the temple gates, want to arrest him for disturbing the peace. He knows the temple authorities, whose police monitor the courtyard, want to arrest him for defiling the temple and blaspheming God. He knows death awaits. Yet on the day after causing such a commotion, Jesus gets up, leaves the house of his friend Lazarus, and goes to the temple, takes his seat in the courtyard, and begins to teach.
And teach, and teach and teach. No miracles, no healings, no meals with friends or sinners, not even much dialogue with his disciples – just Jesus laying it out, telling it like it is.
Jesus begins the day telling a series of parables highly critical of Jerusalem’s existing Jewish leadership. Once those leaders leave – angered but also powerless against Jesus’ followers – Jesus drops the parables and begins a lengthy diatribe against those very leaders, calling them arrogant, hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, snakes and fools. Then, having dropped the mic, he and his closest disciples leave the temple. On the way back to Lazarus’ house they stop on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus talks way into the night, teaching his disciples how to faithfully follow him while he returns.
To help sort this all out a little digression into first century Jewish religious life might be in order.
For Jesus and his disciples – along with every other Jew – the temple stood at the center of religious life. The temple facilitated the sacrifices and rituals prescribed by Jewish law and custom. Jesus worshipped at the temple. So did his disciples and so did the first Christians. Yet the temple encouraged a “Christmas and Easter” religion. Jesus calls the temple a “den of thieves and robbers” – not because of the money changers but because of all the people who cleaned themselves up for the festival, who said the prayers, made the sacrifices, gave the offerings but robbed the poor and abused the vulnerable the rest of the year.
The temple also closely tied Jewish religious life to the government – in this case the non-Jewish Romans. Herod, king of the Jews and a Roman puppet, had significantly rebuilt the temple as a peace offering after conquering the area. The Romans controlled the gates, controlled the priests, controlled the spiritual life of the people.
The Pharisees vied for authority with the official temple leadership. As more and more Jews settled away from Jerusalem a new form of Judaism emerged – one less centered on the temple and more centered on developing a personal relationship with God through strictly following the Law. The Pharisees devoted their lives to studying the old testament legal codes and teaching them to others in local community centers similar to today’s synagogues. Jesus grew up in these synagogues and taught in them. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Just as Jesus, his disciples and the first Christians worshipped in the temple, they also strove to follow the law.
Years ago a debate emerged in the ultra-conservative synagogues of New York. A scientist had put New York City tap water under a super high powered microscope and discovered a tiny shellfish in the water. Rabbi’s rushed to declare the water everyone had drunk an hour before unclean; they ordered their congregations to use only bottled water – their salvation was at stake. Suddenly, if you couldn’t afford bottled water, you could no longer receive the grace of God. You were no longer welcome in the community of faithful. Laws given for guidance can quickly become idols, laws created to form community can quickly exclude, laws created to draw people close to God can push them away.
Back in the temple, the Pharisees ask Jesus what, in their circle, would have been a most contentious question: Which, of all the commandments in the Law, is the greatest. Without hesitation, Jesus responds with the command to love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind; love your neighbor as yourself. Later, with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, Jesus warns them of suffering and persecution to come. “In the increasing lawlessness,” Jesus warns, “the love of many will grow cold.”
As we wait for Christ’s return does our love grow cold? Does our love of God grow so cold we’re content with only the ritual – the show of going to church, of singing the songs, saying the prayers, celebrating the sacraments and observing the festivals? Do we become so convinced of our salvation through ritual we become robbers and thieves in the walls of our congregations?
Does our love of neighbor grow so cold we care more for our own sense of superiority then whether we’ve blocked our neighbor from salvation? Do we squander gifts God has given for community on selfish purposes? Do we consider the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned as burdens best discarded? Do we twist and torture scripture in ways that harm our neighbors and exclude them from God’s love? Do we raise cultural icons as idols, even as they pull us away from the divine?
Or are we the faithful slave whom the master finds at work when he returns? Are we true disciples of a savior who disrupts the establishment to bring healing to the poor, the blind and the children? Are we true disciples of a savior who continues to love even when his love inspires’ others hate? Do we love unto death, trusting in love to raise us from the grave.
In closing, a simple prayer I ran across while preparing for yesterday’s retreat.
“Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your way…”