April 9, 2017

Bible Text: Philippians 2:3-11 & Matthew 21:1-13 |


Matthew 21:7-9,12

“… the disciples brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ … Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”

While I was home on the Island last month, one of the local news items out of Vancouver was a feature on the first Be-In at Stanley Park 50 years ago.  The Be-In was “a happening” organized by the emerging counter-culture of those heady days of the 60’s.  The hippies, the artists, the social activists, and others put out the word and hundreds of people gathered to celebrate and model a way of being human and being a society in contrast to the long-entrenched and normal way of the times.  In retrospect, it was pretty innocent stuff but, boy, did it scare the people brought up in the old ways and who took that way for granted as the right and only way.  Not long afterwards, there was a similar gathering on the Kitsilano side of the water and the police rode in on horses with their billy-clubs swinging to break it up.

Non-violent political demonstrations have long been a tool for social change.  Gandhi used it in the struggle for Indian independence from Britain and to help bring reconciliation between Hindu and Muslim factions in India.  Rosa Park and Martin Luther King used it to help end racist segregation in the US.  I’ve participated myself in a few peace marches over the years, especially when the Americans were planning invasions in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq and the Canadian government was debating whether to take part.  Currently, the Mounties on BC’s sunshine coast are demonstrating against unfair wages by covering the yellow stripes on their uniform pant legs with strips of pink masking tape.

What I am leading to here is the recognition that the two incidents in our Palm Sunday Gospel passage this morning – what we have come to call “the triumphal entry into Jerusalem” and “the  cleansing of the Temple” – need to be seen and understood for what they were: carefully planned and executed political demonstrations in the honorable tradition of non-violent resistance.

Let’s have a closer look at them.

Jesus went to Jerusalem with a purpose.  He was there to confront the dominant political and religious systems entrenched there with the hope of converting their leaders to what he called the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God – to a different way of ordering society.  In the procession into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, hailed by the common people shouting hosanna and waving tree branches, he was directly confronting the political leaders of the time:  the Roman occupying forces and their Jewish collaborators.  In the so-called cleansing of the Temple, he was directly confronting the religious establishment and its leaders.  He needed a way to get noticed, rally the support of the masses, and bring his cause to the attention of the religious and political ruling powers.  So he chose these two creative and dramatic public demonstrations to draw attention to himself and his cause within the crowds of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival.

In his palm procession, he was sending a message to the Roman occupying force and their Jewish collaborators about the true nature of power.  His entrance into Jerusalem was meant to contrast and mock a similar entrance by Pilate.  Pilate, the Governor of this subjugated Jewish province of the Roman Empire, lived in a lavish palace on the coast.  But it would be important for him to be in Jerusalem for the festival both as a photo-op, so to speak, and to oversee the heightened security necessary to squelch any popular uprising that might occur during the festival when Jewish nationalism and grievances would be that much more acute.  But when Pilate arrived for the festival, his entrance into Jerusalem would have been much different.  The finest steeds drawing fancy chariots.  Trumpets blaring.  Armed soldiers accompanying him.  Full dress uniforms for the occasion and elaborate banners waving.  The people either staying away, standing mute off to the side, or shouting token and hypocritical praise to avoid punishment for their lack of respect for authority.  Almost every detail of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem would have stood in stark contrast to Pilate’s procession.   A common, unpretentious man riding on the lowest beast of burden imaginable, accompanied by nobodies, and hailed by the crowd waving branches cut from nearby trees.  Such a demonstration both mocked Pilate and the pretention of the powerful and also presented an alternative model of power that could lead to a just society.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You want a king and one who will lead you to freedom from Roman occupation?  Well, I am ready to take on that role but, realize, my reign will be by exercising leadership with an entirely different kind of power than you have ever seen or experienced before.”  Jesus has put the Roman powers and their Jewish collaborators on notice.

Then comes part 2 of this planned demonstration: the cleansing of the Temple.  As Matthew tells it, Jesus went straight to the Temple once he was inside the gates of Jerusalem and made a scene there as well.  This time, he was directly confronting the religious establishment among his own people.  If part 1 of this twin demonstration was a statement to the palace and the Roman rulers, then part 2 was a statement to the Temple and the Jewish religious leaders.  The passage tells us that Jesus drove out the buyers and sellers in the Temple – the money changers and their customers, the sellers of pigeons for ritual sacrifice and their buyers.  But when Jesus speaks of the Temple having become “a den of thieves” it wasn’t these particular people Jesus had in mind.  It was the priests and the rest of the religious elite that he was referring to.  Because the leadership had become corrupted by their power and had lost a sense of the purpose of religion in society: which was to promote justice for all, not privilege for the few; which was not to go through ritual motions but to care for the poor.  Jesus was not so much driving out the commercial interests in the Temple but symbolically closing down the Temple altogether, a Temple that had abdicated its true responsibility under God. The “thieves” were the religious elite who had robbed the poor of their equal and fair share of God’s bounty by pouring money into the impressive trappings of religion and building up their own power and prestige in the process.

Jesus had pre-planned and carefully executed this twin political demonstration in order to draw attention to his cause and to imaginatively communicate his message.  The Palm Procession and the Cleansing of the Temple was his way of indicting the political and religious leaders of his day and putting them on notice that God was planning an overthrow of that way of privilege and power.  It is no wonder that the religious and political leaders collaborated to counter-attack by eliminating Jesus and his threat to their power.

As I step back from the details of these two dramatic incidents, I see two enduring messages echoing down to us in our times and places.

The first is this: the followers of Jesus are always called to be agents of change within unjust and violent societies corrupted by the misuse of power among the ruling elites, both religious and secular.

The second is this: the followers of Jesus must use means that are consistent with the message.  Violence only begets more violence.  Justice wrested by force is not real justice, just a temporary reversal of who is on top and who is on the bottom.

As the people of God, we are bequeathed a vision of a way of life where righteousness, justice, equity, and peace prevail for all people all the time.  I would say, in fact, that vision extends beyond just humans to all life, to the planet itself, and – as the reach of humans extends out into the solar system and beyond – to all of creation.  Jesus called that vision the Kingdom of God.  We in our day and age often call it justice and peace.  Whatever we call it, we need to understand that we who take God seriously are meant to stand up for that vision and not rest until it becomes reality, not stand by satisfied with our own lot while someone else is left out.

And, secondly, as followers of Jesus, we are taught a way to help bring about such a reality.  It is a way of imagination, as Jesus demonstrated on the first Palm Sunday.  It is a way of humility and servanthood, as Jesus demonstrated on the first Palm Sunday.  It is a way of non-violence, as Jesus demonstrated on the first Palm Sunday.  It is a way of trust, compassion, and vulnerability as Jesus demonstrated every day of his life, including his last day.  It is a way of patience as God demonstrates eon after eon.  Taken all together, it is the way of love, for nothing else can ever bring about the reign of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

These days, there are many out there who use violence and fear to achieve their aims.  And many of these people invoke the name of God to justify their acts. And let us not be smug about this: there are examples of such people and such methods within every religious and cultural group in the world, including Canadians and including Christians.  We call such people “terrorists” and their numbers are growing and the destruction left in their wake grows with them.

We do not need more terrorists.  But we do need more lovorists. (Ah, finally he gets to it!) We need more people who are so besotted with love for God and for the way of Jesus that they are willing to risk everything until love prevails in all the hearts of all the people, in all the relationships among all the people in all the world, and even out into the far corners of this expanding universe.  And more than that, we need to become such people ourselves: people who are ready, in the name of God and for the sake of Jesus, to love this world into justice and peace.

Are you ready to become a lovorist?  Terrorism is not the way, either by its ends or its means. But lovorism just might be – I am persuaded that it is.

The Rev. Ted Hicks

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