Lent 2018: Jesus’ Last Week
Jesus in the Temple
February 18, 2018 (Lent 1)
Text: Matthew 21:12-17
Jesus leads his followers on a triumphal march into Jerusalem and seizes the temple. Now the temple wasn’t just a building – it was a complex, a campus, 40 walled acres, the most sacred real estate in all of Jerusalem – open to the public but guarded externally by Roman soldiers and internally by its own police force.
A few generations before Jesus, Judas Maccabeus – gorilla warrior and freedom fighter, religious zealot and self proclaimed Messiah – would lead his fighters into Jerusalem and seize control of the temple from a priesthood he considered corrupt, and unclean. The Jewish festival of Chanukah still celebrates Judas Maccabeus’ great victory and the resulting religious and political restoration.
The extended Maccabeus clan would rule over Jerusalem for 130 years, establishing an independent Jewish state crushed by the Roman Empire only a few decades before Jesus was born. Now Roman soldiers stood outside the temple gates and patrolled the top of the parameter wall. Jerusalem’s priests and political leaders had returned to appeasing foreign invaders so that sacrifices could still be made, festivals could still be celebrated, and Jews from near and far could come to worship their God.
As Jesus shuts down the temple, everybody – his followers, the astonished religious officials, the Romans – holds their breath. They remember Judas Maccabeus. They wonder what Jesus will do.
In Sunday school I learned a very basic version of the events of Jesus’ visit to the temple. Jesus walks into the temple, sees the corrupt money changers and animal sellers, throws a temper tantrum, declares “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers,” and then leaves. Jesus actions then became the justification for prohibiting the selling of Girl Scout cookies, wrapping paper, band fruit, pepperoni rolls and any other non-youth group fundraising item in the church. (The youth group got to hawk their stuff from the pulpit.) The actual story line is much more complex.
First, Jesus was neither against the temple nor against temple worship. Jesus, his disciples and the first readers of Matthew’s gospel were all Jews who regularly worshipped in the temple until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. They brought animals to sacrifice from the animal dealers. (Much easier than bringing your sacrifice from home.) They changed their money at the money changers. (Roman money – the common currency in Jerusalem – declared Caesar as god. Temple authorities only accepted independently minted coins from Tyre, a city in what is now modern day Lebanon.
Jesus’ followers control the gates of the temple. They disrupt the animal sellers and money changers, shutting down the afternoon sacrifices. Finally, they let in the blind and the lame, children, those who need healing, who yearn for the presence of God, but have always been shut out. Jesus heals those needing healing. He lets the children run, play and sing.
For a few hours on the eve of Passover the temple becomes a place of celebration, a river of joy, a giant party celebrating the amazing salvation of our liberator God. For a few hours the temple becomes what it should have been all along.
And then Jesus leaves. The disciples reopen the gates. The kids find their shoes. The blind gather their canes and the lame their crutches. And they leave. We don’t know if Jesus’ followers could have militarily retained control of the temple complex. We do know they don’t even try. Jesus has no desire to control territory, take over institutions, to name himself – as did Judas Maccabeaus’ brother Simon – commander in chief, chief priest and political ruler. As he has done so many times before, Jesus shows us the way things should be and then goes on his way.
The next day, in one of the greatest shows of chutzpah ever, Jesus returns to the temple, takes his usual place in the temple courtyard, and begins to teach. By this time the money changers and the animal dealers have reestablished their stalls; the priests have returned to the alters, business resumes as usual. The authorities, scared by Jesus’ show of power, appalled that he’d let the blind, lame and children into the temple complex, plot in earnest to kill him. Their agent – Jesus’ disciple Judas, the zealot, the one who didn’t want to leave the temple without at least putting up a fight.
Years ago when I was in Jerusalem, lost in the old city, I came upon an unmarked but open gate. As I walked through a gentleman politely, but firmly, suggested I turn around. I’d inadvertently found a back entrance to the ancient temple mount. Still a holy site. Still guarded by opposing soldiers on the outside and police on the inside. Still restricted to the right people. Still seized every decade or so in acts of political protest or military aggression.
Like the Maccabees, most seize the temple mount today in an attempt to exert religious control or political control or both. Jesus is the only one who seized the world’s holiest site to throw a party – to welcome the lame and the blind, to give children a place to dance and sing, to proclaim a God less interested in politics and more interested in liberation; less interested in who was worthy and more interested in who needed to be healed.
Jesus didn’t seize the temple to provide a lesson about selling girl scout cookies after church. He seized it to remind us, his followers, who should be welcome in holy space; a welcome he risked his life to provide.