Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jesus, Not Towing the Party Line [Matthew 21.1-17] (8 April 2001)

Call me Ishmael. Almost to this very day tens years ago happened the things about which I now tell you. A bright day it was, warm and sunny. I had gotten up early in order to go to Jerusalem for the festival, the great Passover. Now, by my name you would probably realize that I am not a descendent of Isaac. Rather, his elder brother Ishmael, from whom I take my name, is my ancestor. Why, then would I want to celebrate the Passover? For many years I have been what you might call a proselyte. And a critical role in my journey was played by a famous text from the prophet Isaiah—a text that showed me that, despite some trends among the Jews to restrict the Holy One’s blessings to the Jews, the Lord was eager for all to worship him—even one like myself a hated descendent of Ishmael, who even bears that despised name. And that text became a kind of life verse for me. And, like every day since my becoming a proselyte, I began that day ten years ago by reading that very text.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

What a glorious text! What a vision! And for many years, I had started every day with those words that promised me acceptance before the God of Jacob, who also is the God of Ishmael. And finally, after many years, I was about to myself go to the mountain of the Lord to offer my sacrifice. How I had waited, eagerly, expectantly, for this day.

And as I thought of these things, I heard the sweet music of the pilgrims pass outside the inn. And they were singing, “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God; Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God; and he will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths. And the law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” When I heard those lilting sounds, how could I but go outside and join the holy procession?

And so I too began to sing, raising my voice and joining in the fanfare. The procession was much larger than I had imagined and it kept getting bigger and bigger for at every house, every inn, and every crossroad more people streamed in and joined in the festivities. I had timed my entry correctly for I was just about thirty yards from the head of the procession. And behind me the throngs extended as far as the eye could see. At the head of the procession I could see a man, quite stately, riding a horse. He looked regal, to say the least. The people around him were waving palm branches and throwing the branches or their own robes on the road in front of him. What a sight! And soon the song changed. Now they sang another of the traditional processional songs, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Who was the man at the head of the procession? I had to know. So I tapped the man in front of me on the shoulder. He turned, singing the song with every ounce of his being. “Who is the man riding on the animal?” He looked at me bewildered at my ignorance. “Do you not know?” he replied. “This is Jesus the one who is going to deliver us from the Romans.” I was taken aback. “You mean he is the Messiah?” I asked the man. “Yes,” he said, “The Lord has finally heard our cries for deliverance. As in the days of Moses and Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus he will set us free with a mighty hand.”

We were speaking quite loudly in order to hear ourselves over the singing. Jesus, it seemed, heard us speaking, for he turned and looked in our direction. Yes, he did look so regal. And so commanding was his look that the man and I stopped our conversation and once again joined in the singing.

A few minutes later I heard, over the singing, a faint voice. “Could someone please help me? Please take my hand and lead me to the temple.” I looked in the direction of the voice and saw a frail old man. He was blind and I wondered why no one would help him. I wondered why Jesus would not stop or at least tell his disciples to help the old man. But I realized that the singing was so loud that Jesus probably could not hear the whispered shout. Not wanting to bring the whole procession to a halt or to disrupt the celebration, I left the procession. I just had to help the man.

I walked over to him. “Here, father, let me assist you. Take my hand and we will go together to the temple.” He turned in my direction and ran his hand over my head, felt the coarseness of my yamaka and then ran his fingers through my beard. “Ah! My son,” he said, “I am so glad you are a son of Abraham. Yes, take me to the temple.”

I knew what he meant. He had taken me for a Jew. And though I was not a descendent of Jacob, I shared in his faith. So I did not think it necessary to correct him. “Yes, father,” I replied. “Let us both go to the house of the Lord.”

When we rejoined the procession we were quite far behind Jesus. And as we hobbled along singing the festival psalms, we were passed by another extremely large group of people waving palm branches and singing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the midst of them was a man riding a donkey. He was deep in thought. “Stragglers,” I thought to myself. But anyway, it was good company to have for the rest of the journey. This group was processing much slower than the group headed by Jesus. And their pace was perfectly suited to the blind man whom I was leading.

In a couple of hours the blind man, the large group of stragglers, and I entered the gates of Jerusalem. “Ah!” I thought to myself, “I am finally here in the great city. Soon I will also enter the gates of the holy temple and offer my sacrifice.”

As we processed toward the temple a few men, who I later realized were an odd mix of Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, halted the group of stragglers. They were having an argument about something. Since the blind man and I were not part of that group, we did not bother to wait with them.

Here we were, a blind man and his guide. Neither of us knew the way to the temple—I having never before been to the city, the blind man having never seen anything in his life. Yet I decided to follow the teeming hordes of people. Where else could they be going except the temple itself? And sure enough in a few minutes I could see the temple. It was marvelous, built of huge stones and reaching up to the sky, its height apparently increasing as one drew nearer and felt dwarfed in its presence. This truly was the house of God.

When we entered the gates of the temple we once again heard the beautiful song, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” I wanted to sing but my eyes were drawn to a magnificent figure in the temple courts. It was Jesus, who I had seen riding on a horse. And he was addressing the huge crowd gathered in the court. Both the blind man and I wanted to get closer so we could hear what Jesus was saying. After all, if he were the Messiah, we could do no better than to listen to his words.

“Make way,” I said, “I am with a blind man and we want to hear the words of Jesus.” No one seemed to hear me. So I raised my voice and shouted, “Please let us through. I am with a blind man. We want to hear the words of Jesus.”

My words were heard and by none other than Jesus himself. He turned to me. My heart became light with expectancy. And he spoke: “No blind man may enter the temple and no one who is lame or deaf or in any way unwhole. This is a sacred assembly and no one impure may enter.” Then he fixed his eyes on me and said, “But you, you are whole. You may enter the assembly.”

“But,” I protested, “I cannot leave the blind man now. Not after having been with him so long.”

“Go on, my son,” said the blind man. “It is enough for me that I have reached the temple. Go on without me.”

Reluctantly I went on ahead. As I was about to enter the court I heard someone call my name.

“Ishmael? Is that you?”

I turned toward the voice and saw the man responsible for my becoming a proselyte. “Samuel!” I exclaimed. 

“Yes it is I. It is so good to see you after so long. Come with me into the temple courts.”

“What!?” I heard Jesus say and turned toward him. “Your name is Ishmael!? Then you are not a Jew. You cannot enter the courts for you too, like the blind man, are impure.”

I had, by now stepped into the courts. Jesus’ eyes burned with anger. He charged toward me reaching for the sword in his belt. He would have killed me I think had Samuel not pushed me. The sword struck my right leg. I felt a piercing pain shoot through the entire right side of my body and I fell to the floor. I grasped my leg and covered the gaping wound. Samuel came to my aid and tied a piece of cloth around my thigh. That would stop the bleeding for a while.

What was happening? Why could the blind man and I not enter the temple? Was Isaiah wrong about God’s graciousness? Was my birth as Ishmael, the descendent of Ishmael, to be held against me forever? Was my faith in the God of Jacob not enough? Was there no salvation for me?

All these questions welled up inside my heart. But I had no time to ponder them for a big commotion had started in the courts. The man I had seen riding a donkey came into the courts and began to overturn the tables of the moneychangers and set free the animals that were there to be sacrificed.

“Who is this?” I asked Samuel.

“This is Jesus,” he answered.

“Jesus?” I replied quite confused. “But isn’t the man who attacked me Jesus?”

“Oh yes” said Samuel. “Both are named Jesus. The one who attacked you is Jesus Barabbas. The man now disrupting the temple activities is Jesus from Nazareth.”

“And,” I exclaimed, “both of them are doing things so I will never be able to make my offering. The one refuses me entry into the temple courts. The other is doing away with the sacrifice itself. Where then is there hope for me?”

Jesus of Nazareth had finished setting free the animals. Then, glowering at Jesus Barabbas and at the temple authorities who stood motionless, he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it into a den of inhumane nationalists.’” Jesus Barabbas and the temple authorities slunk away arguing among themselves. Though I could not hear what they were saying I presumed that they wanted a way to get rid of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus of Nazareth came toward the entrance to the courts where I was lying. He passed me and went to the gates. The blind man had made his way to the gates. Jesus addressed him, “Come into the courts, old man.” The blind man came in. Jesus asked him, “What do you want most?” “That I might see,” he replied. “Then go,” Jesus said, placing his thumbs over the blind man’s eyes, “you can now see.” He removed his thumbs from the man’s eyes.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” exclaimed the man. “I can see! I can see! I am no longer blind. I can see!” And continuing to shout, he left the temple precincts.

“See,” said Samuel. “Jesus of Nazareth is compassionate.”

“Sure,” I muttered to Samuel, “and his words sounded great. He, unlike Jesus Barabbas, would let me enter the temple. But, after his disruptive actions, how could I make the sacrifice?”

Jesus heard my words. He turned toward me and said, “What is it you want most?”

“I came here to offer a sacrifice,” I answered, “but you have stopped all sacrifice.”

“Then go,” he said, “there is nothing for you here.”

I was amazed at his sharp words. But his words rang true. If I had come here to make a sacrifice, there was nothing for me here anymore. I tried to get up, but couldn’t feel my right leg. I tried again to no avail.

Jesus stood towering over me. “Well,” he said. “Why are you waiting? Don’t you see there is nothing for you here?”

“I cannot get up,” I replied. “My right leg is paralyzed. Heal me like you healed the blind man and I will leave.”

“Is that what you want me to do?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, “I want to be able to walk again.”

“And you believe that I can do this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I believe.”

“Then,” he said bending down and taking hold of my right hand, “arise! Your faith has healed you.” He pulled me to my feet and I realized that I could feel my right leg. Jesus went down on his knees and unwrapped the piece of cloth around my thigh. The bleeding had stopped. Moreover, there was no sign of the wound either.

“Then I will leave,” I said to Jesus.

He looked at me, his eyes filled with compassion and said, “As you go remember that your faith is accepted as the appropriate sacrifice.”

I left with thanks. The temple in which I wanted to make my sacrifice could no longer accept it. But, in some strange way, I had, nonetheless, made a sacrifice and it had been accepted. A sacrifice, not of animals, but of faith, accepted, not by the temple, but by Jesus.

Today is Palm Sunday. And you have just heard a dramatic presentation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his actions in the temple as recorded by Matthew. Jesus’ actions on Palm Sunday constitute probably the most misunderstood part of his ministry. Having said that, please turn to Matthew 21:1-17.

At the time of Jesus, part of the Passover celebrations involved joyful processions into Jerusalem that ended with sacrifice at the temple. So we should not think that what sets Jesus apart is his procession. That was quite normal. Also, Jesus was not the only person who claimed to be Messiah. Quite a number of Jews did that and the most opportune time for them to assert their right to rule was during the Passover celebrations. In the same year that Jesus rode into Jerusalem there might have been a few others who also did the same. In fact, the first century Jewish historian Josephus indicates that around the early 30s one Jesus Barabbas proclaimed himself Messiah only to be summarily thwarted by the Romans. It is quite probable that this happened the same year that Jesus was crucified.

One thing that set Jesus apart from the false Messiahs was the fact that he rode on a donkey and not on a horse. Matthew indicates that this was to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah. The lowliness of the Messiah was something that the other messianic claimants were not willing to display. And this was one reason why the Jewish establishment felt threatened by Jesus. But there is another more incisive reason.

Now as I said the Passover processions normally ended with a sacrifice in the temple. This is another way in which Jesus differs. Rather than offer a sacrifice, he puts an end to sacrifice. In the story I reported that Jesus said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it into a den of inhumane nationalists.’” You will have noticed one major difference in this from most translations. Most translations would have “den of thieves” instead of “den of inhumane nationalists” and I believe the translations are wrong. In the passage Matthew uses the Greek word 'lestes', which in common Greek referred to violent nationalists who financed their revolutionary activities through banditry. In other words, the primary characteristic of a 'lestes' is violent insurrection with thieving being only a secondary quality. The same word is used to describe Barabbas and the two men who were crucified with Jesus. And crucifixion was not the Roman penalty for thieving but for revolt.

That Jesus has violent nationalism in mind is evident when we realize that he has merged Isaiah 56:7 with Jeremiah 7:11. In Jeremiah God asks, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?” The Hebrew word translated “robbers” is 'preetz' which means violent person. In Jeremiah’s day the temple had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism and the same was true in Jesus’ day. Because of this the prophecy of Isaiah could not be fulfilled. Isaiah had announced that Gentiles would also worship God in the temple. However, because the temple had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism, Gentiles were automatically excluded from worshipping there. And that is why Jesus announces the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24. And here in Matthew 21 Jesus announces that the temple had gone so far in its nationalism that it could not be the place where Isaiah’s prophecy would be fulfilled. Because of this he puts an end to the entire sacrificial system.

It is for this reason that the Jewish authorities decide to kill Jesus. While they cherished their temple worship to the point of excluding the Gentiles, Jesus valued worshipping Gentiles more than the temple sacrifice. According to he Jewish leaders, Jesus had wrong priorities that resulted in his blaspheming the temple of God by stopping sacrifice. And the due punishment for this was death.

Now Jesus could not just stop such an important part of Jewish life without offering a replacement. The main task of the temple was to accept sacrifices and to pronounce healing. Having stopped these two important functions, Jesus takes them on himself. It will be he who will become the one accepted sacrifice. And he himself heals others. 

It is in this context that we need to understand the New Testament metaphor of our being the temple of God. While it is certainly correct that this implies that God dwells in us, it also means that we are now the place at which God accepts our sacrifice of praise and faith and where God heals people in every way. And since it is we who are the new temple of God, it means that worship of God does not happen in supposedly holy places but where at least two Christians meet in the name of Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Deep,
    I really liked the way you wrote this. I felt I was part of the crowd with Ishmael! Praise God that His grace extends to everyone.

    With love,