by David Baer, March 29, 2015
Text: Matthew 21:1-16
A week ago last Friday, when we woke up on the morning before the spring equinox to yet another snowfall in what was an insufferably cold and snowy winter, a friend of mine said that he had been talking to his mother, who told him to look on the bright side. “After all,” she said, “this is the last snowfall of winter.” “How can you possibly know that?” he asked her. “Well,” she said, “whatever snow we get from now on will be spring snow.” And how about this? We were treated to some spring flurries just yesterday, and maybe a few more flakes this Tuesday.
Just because the spring equinox comes doesn’t mean everything changes. You can make a transition on the calendar, but you don’t have real proof that spring has come until the air warms and crocus and daffodils begin pushing up through the thawing soil. A spring season worthy of its name comes not on a prearranged date, but when winter is finally overturned.
We’re here today celebrating Palm Sunday. We’ve taken up the role of the crowds that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. We waved branches as they did. We sang Hosanna, which means “save us, please!”, as they did. We didn’t throw our jackets into the center aisle as they did, and we seem to be doing just fine without a live donkey, but we remembered these things as we read the story. Everything about this story is designed to hammer home one message into the thickest of skulls: “Jesus is king, Jesus is king, Jesus is king.” The prophet Zechariah, whose words we spoke at the beginning of worship, announced the coming of a king riding a donkey. The words chanted by the crowd are from Psalm 118, which celebrates the return from battle of a victorious king. It’s as though Jesus’ friends are following him around playing “Hail to the Chief,” and flashing the presidential seal. Jesus is making a claim to authority. He and his followers are saying that he’s in charge. And this claim brings them into direct conflict with the people who up until now thought they were in charge in Jerusalem, namely the religious establishment—the chief priests and the scribes and the council—and also Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judæa.
But what kind of king is Jesus claiming to be? It’s one thing to claim that you’re in charge and that you’re going to be better than the last king. But these people had seen one ruler replace another, replace another, replace another time out of mind, and still nothing changed. Just as spring hasn’t arrived until it has overthrown and supplanted winter, Jesus’ reign hasn’t arrived until the status quo is overturned and something new begins.
And so it’s not enough for Jesus simply to show up. That’s why we kept reading the story today, following Jesus through the city gate and all the way to the temple, where he overturned the money changers’ tables and chased away the sellers of sacrificial animals, and then set about healing the blind and the lame. We know Jesus claims to be a king. But in the temple Jesus shows us what kind of king he is, shows us what a difference it makes when he’s in charge.
The words that Jesus spoke when he disrupted the temple marketplace often get misinterpreted. Jesus accuses the merchants of making the temple a “den of thieves,” and folks assume that he’s accusing them of cheating their customers. But thieves don’t do their thieving in their own den. A den of thieves is a secluded hideout that the thieves retreat to after they’re done robbing and plundering, a place where they are safe from justice and accountability. Jesus is quoting the prophet Jeremiah, who denounced the people who were coming to the temple, thinking that performing their duty by offering sacrifices and worship to God meant that they didn’t have to fear any consequences for their acts of bloodshed and injustice outside the temple. Look—these merchants aren’t cheating anyone. They’re doing their job. They’re selling animals for people to sacrifice. And that’s precisely the problem. Because they’re facilitating a religious system that covers over and deepens the hurt and oppression outside. This is Jesus’ first act as king: to cleanse the place of worship, to declare that it won’t be a prop and a shield to the powers that oppress God’s people.
So what is the purpose of the temple, then? Jesus’ next act is to invite the blind and the lame into the temple. This is a radical act. In the book of Leviticus, we read that the blind and the lame and others whose bodies are blemished are disqualified from serving as priests. The law says, “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand …,” and then it goes on to list other disabilities. The law continues, “[H]e shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them” (Leviticus 21:18-19,23). The center of the sanctuary, the place that represented God’s presence, was seen as being so holy that nothing imperfect or broken could be allowed to come near. In fact, there’s some indication that, not only could those with broken bodies not serve as priests, they couldn’t even enter the temple (see, for example, 2 Samuel 5:8). Your brokenness, your imperfections, your hurts, your woundedness is offensive in such a holy place, they were told. You don’t belong here. So what does Jesus do? He extends an invitation to the very people who were excluded from the temple. He beckons them to come in. And then he heals them. This is Jesus’ second act as king: he breaks down the dividing line between what is sacred and what is broken. He declares broken people holy. He brings them—us—in. He sets us free.
This is what kind of king Jesus is. He turns over the tables of those who enable injustice. He turns over the walled-off preserve of exclusive holiness to the burdened and broken. He takes those who were unacceptable, who were considered unworthy to be in God’s presence, and he welcomes them.
Palm Sunday confronts us with a choice. We can respond to Jesus the way the religious authorities did, or the way that the children in the temple did. The children get it. They sing their Hosannas in praise of who Jesus is and what he is doing. The chief priests and scribes get angry, because they see exactly what is happening: Jesus is taking away everything that set them apart, that gave them power and authority. It had been their job to say who was in and who was out. It had been their job to stand between the people and their God, to provide worship that was acceptable in a way that the ordinary and blemished people could not. They can’t accept what Jesus is doing. They don’t get it. But the little people, the children, the grateful recipients of healing—they get it, and they’re overjoyed. And maybe if those angry powerful people were a little more self-aware—if they could see their own pride and indifference to suffering as just as offensive to God, just as disqualifying as the outward blemishes of the people they excluded, then maybe they would have welcomed Jesus too. Maybe they would have recognized that they too needed to be healed and welcomed back into God’s presence. There was good news here for them too, if only they had ears to hear it. But instead they start scheming and plotting to have Jesus put to death.
So there is bad news and good news for us on Palm Sunday too. The bad news is for whatever there might be in us that wants to claim God’s blessings for ourselves and maybe parcel them out to the people we decide are worthy. Whenever we see suffering and minimize our responsibility and agency, whenever we see someone hurting and say, “That’s your problem—you’ve got to change, you’ve got to do things differently. That’s got nothing to do with me.”—we’re failing to welcome Jesus as the kind of king he showed himself to be on Palm Sunday. When we think it’s OK for the burdens of the criminal justice system to fall disproportionately on people who don’t look like us, when we think it’s OK for families on the other side of the world to suffer so that we can feel safe, when we fail to offer the considerable resources we have to ease the burden of poverty and homelessness in our own communities, then we are standing with the chief priests and scribes who didn’t get it.
But when we begin with a sense of our deep and abiding imperfections, our hurts, our need for healing, then we receive Jesus with the same joy as those who escorted him into the city and found healing in the holy place where they had been kept out. Our welcome of Jesus as the king starts when we stop sitting back and judging him and those he chooses to identify with, and start recognizing our need to be welcomed and blessed by him.
Jesus turns over the tables in the temple. He turns over the holy place to the blind and the lame and all those who have been made to feel unacceptable, unworthy to approach God. And ultimately, in a few days, he will turn himself over too. He will turn himself over to be arrested, abandoned, flogged, crucified and killed. He will turn his spirit over to God’s hands. He will turn himself over to the cold, silent grave. And when God raises him, the whole world will be turned over—no more power for death, no more power for violence and domination. Hosanna to the king, Hosanna to Jesus, who turns us over, who delivers us from captivity to death, who brings us to life everlasting with God. Amen.