Palm Sunday: Matthew 21:1-17
21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
12 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. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
Once again, it is Palm Sunday. In a sense, we are reaching the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Palm Sunday represents the final journey of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, even knowing that he would be arrested and killed. This liturgical year we have been focusing on the concept of covenant with a particular look at how we violate covenant throughout the season of Lent. Technically, Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent. So, I'd like to spend a little more time at talking about one of the ways in which we violate covenant that has become ubiquitous in the church. The way to get at this covenant violation is by reading the story carefully and paying attention to how Jesus holds sacred the Temple.
We typically think about Jesus' journey into the city as the key event. For some, his entrance through the back gate while Pilate entered through the front gate reveals Jesus' humility and desire to be a servant to all. But what stands out for me, even more than this, is his first activity after entering the city...He goes to the Temple.
This story is familiar, but maybe the context has been lost on us.
When Jesus entered the Temple, he started flipping the tables of the money changers and driving out the sellers and the buyers. It doesn't appear that he has anything against the sacrificial system of the Temple, what he was bothered by was where the sellers chose to set up their operation; in the courtyard, an area of the Temple reserved for foreigners and non-Jews to come in a pray.
As he drives out the merchants and their livestock, he is noticed by the authorities. We might even ask, "Why draw that kind of attention to yourself?" Clearly, Jesus was trying to make a point: There is a way to be in the Temple, and a way NOT to be in the Temple. Nothing, not even the money changers, merchants, and livestock should be inside the Temple. All commerce should happen outside the Temple. The temple, as Jesus describes it should be a "house of prayer".
After this dramatic scene, Jesus stays in the Temple and begins receiving all those who need healing. In the span of a couple of paragraphs, the purpose of the Temple begins to take better shape. 1. A house of prayer; 2. A place for healing.
So, what is our covenant violation? Turning our houses of worship into something other than houses of prayer and healing. What I keep asking myself, though, is where do you draw the line? When we think of what Jesus did in this moment, he was creating space for the people, rather than allowing the religious leaders and merchants to simply line their pockets. If we look at it from a people perspective, then we might say that all activities that support the coming together of the people would be okay.
Feeding people is a prayer of the soul, nurturing, and healing.
Providing safe space for people to gather is a prayer for the soul, nurturing, and healing.
But are their activities that should not take place in the church? The truth is, I don't really know the answer to this. I suppose this is a matter of discernment. When do we cross the line from being prayerful and healing to being ego-driven and destructive? I'm not even sure if I've captured the right words here. The more I've wrestled with this passage, it has made me ask some of these harder questions about how we use our "facility". What is an appropriate use of space? Does it really matter in this day and age? And most importantly, is this why we have empty buildings all throughout the week because we are afraid to use them inappropriately?
Jesus raises some interesting questions when he clears the temple and starts healing people within its walls. This is not something that we can simply write off as a "that was then, this is now," scenario. And, not to put to fine a point on it, is it the building itself that is "sacred" or is it the people who occupy the building? My gut tells me that it is the people.
After all, we talk about "sacred spaces" as being places where people gather for the purpose of having some sort of encounter with the divine. This doesn't just occur inside the walls of a church building. It is more a function of the activity than it is the actual space; although, the space can play a huge role in creating the atmosphere for certain kinds of activities - I'm thinking of hikes in the mountains, or even being out on the big water...these spaces are like thin veils between us and the divine.
What is at stake here? Ultimately, I think that Jesus is calling us to be mindful of how we serve, and that we are serving everyone who desires to be served. As he drove out the merchants and livestock, he was creating space for those who would normally not be allowed in the Temple. Jesus understood, in that moment, the necessity for space for all. Maybe his reaction was geared toward reclaiming space that was traditionally set aside for a specific purpose, but I think the lesson goes beyond this. I think Jesus is calling us to view all the spaces in which we occupy as potential sacred space open to all who desire to come in - especially for the purpose of prayer and healing.
If our intentions are always focused on the prayer and the practice of healing, those who need both will find their way to what is important. If the people aren't coming, we might need to ask, "What kinds of barriers have we put in place, just like the merchants, livestock, and money changers, that keep people out?" Maybe this question is too simplistic - or the issue much more complicated, but it is worthy of our attention.