Today we are taking a look at the triumphal entry and the significance of Jesus’ first action as an openly declared messiah. In Jesus’ time the temple leadership in Jerusalem was focused strictly on survival and preserving the faith from the unclean and oppressive Romans. The chief priests had reached an accommodation of sorts with the Roman leadership through their appointed king Herod and the governor Pontius Pilate. The leaders of the temple were operating in ways that protected their understanding of the Jewish religious identity and as a happy byproduct kept them on top. The reality is that while we vilify these men, they would be insulted by accusations of wrongdoing. They were operating from what they thought were the best possible motives, and that blinded them to how they were putting obstacles between others and God. Their focus on survival opened the doors to all kinds of abuses and these men in their fear began to treat access to God as a commodity to be bought and sold pushing those with less ability to pay to the margins and eventually out the door. Survival of the institutional identity became the top priority of the temple leadership and the covenant of relationship slowly became a commercial contract of legal obligations. Into that situation Jesus came into Jerusalem in the manner prescribed for the prophesied Messiah:
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he 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!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 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. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 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’?” Matthew 21:6-16
Up to this point in his ministry, Jesus had publicly kept it quiet about whether or not he was the messiah, even going so far as to tell his disciples to keep that fact hidden. Jesus knew what was going to happen when the disciples told the owner of the animals “The lord is going to ride into town on these guys.” The response was probably something along the lines of “Sure, go ahead. Pardon me as a take a quick step over this way.” Did a little nonchalant walk until he got around a corner then sprinted for town yelling: “The messiah’s coming! The messiah’s coming!” With that kind of word of mouth Jerusalem, already full to bursting for Passover, showed up to see what would happen. It came as no surprise that the Messiah would go to the temple first. Everybody followed along to see what would happen, and instead of Jesus and a couple followers showing up; Jesus and several thousand others showed up. I want you to briefly put yourself in the place of the moneychangers in the temple and picture Jesus showing up with thousands of people who were shouting things like “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Listen to the rumble of the crowd as Jesus stomps up to your table with a scowl of pure righteous anger on his face and flips your table over, then directs you to the exit. How much resistance would you put up in the face of that crowd? I know for a fact Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell me twice.
What was Jesus doing here though? Jesus committed his prophetic act by riding in on a donkey and the people of Israel responded. Even though Jesus was one more in a long line of self-proclaimed Messiahs the people of Israel knew somehow this time would be different. They were definitely not disappointed at first. Jesus went straight to the temple and cleared the outer courts that had been converted into a market for “pure” animals that were fit for sacrifice, with a currency that had to be converted at ruinous rates, and a place to pay the temple tax that went to Rome. The chief priests and scribes had set this up in the court of the gentiles where people from other lands could bring supplications to God. By their actions they had driven out the gentiles, cutting them off from access to God. The Jewish people had been called to bless the nations, and here the priests were cutting the nations off and fleecing their own people. Jesus was not amused.
When Jesus drove out the money making machine that had attached itself to the temple he was reasserting God’s priorities for his people. God’s people weren’t put on earth just to survive, but to spread the word about the God who is. Israel continued to focus inward, not carrying the blessing of knowing God to the nations and after repeated attempts to get Israel back on track through the prophets God came to demonstrate the way to extend the covenant to all of humanity. Jesus cleared the way for gentiles, women, and the poor to approach God again, and with the outer courts reopened they came. Jesus had mercy on those who came even though they were sick and gave them the healing they needed, mind, body and soul. Those whom the leaders of the temple deemed worthless received the favor of God. The sinners, outcasts, losers, foreigners, broken, and poor were welcomed by the messiah and the people holding the reins of power saw their cash flow take a huge hit. Is it any wonder that the scribes and chief priests were indignant?
The chief priests and scribes had set themselves up as God’s gatekeepers. This system made faith into a commercial enterprise in which the people who had more were given greater access to God and the people with less were given less or denied access. The hurdles that were enforced created great distances between God and his people and between those who were wealthy and those who were not. People would scrimp and save so that they could show their devotion to God and renew their covenant with a clean, unblemished, animal only to find that the moneychangers shorted you, giving you not quite enough to get the animals you needed. Eventually the obligations became too great a burden and slowly but steadily people lost hope.
We face similar challenges in that we also can get caught up in the God bling and feel pressured to display our loyalty with the purchase of Jesus junk. We live in a society which teaches that our identity is bound up in external things, and that our value is determined by what we have or produce. There are whole industries coming up with the latest and greatest Christian stuff so that we can display the Jesus brand. In a consumer culture it becomes very easy to see faith as a cafeteria in which we pick and choose based on what we want to feed us. Jesus saw these obstacles and was filled with a righteous anger and decided right there that nothing could get in the way of everyone’s access to God, not even the survival of the religious system or national identity.
Survival and identity were at the core of this conflict and Jesus in throwing over the tables and driving out the religious peddlers was making a declaration of identity based on who God is and what God wants. God wants his people to love him and their neighbors. The identity of God’s people is shown not in our God bling, but in our godly actions, in our care for our neighbor, in our sacrifice for the kingdom, in our pursuit of God, and in our obedience to the voice of God. Jesus cleared the way for all to approach God, no matter what condition they are found in, and Jesus’ call on the people of God is to bring people to him, not create more barriers based on class, race, or any other prejudice. When Jesus cleared the temple of those who sought to control access to God, people poured in to worship, hear God’s words and were given forgiveness and healing.
As followers of Jesus we have a call on us to clear the way for others to approach God. We have a call to turn over the tables of judgment on which we weigh others’ worth, and instead weigh everyone by their value in God’s eyes. This seems nearly impossible to me, who was raised in the “me” culture of the 80s in which I was taught to weigh others’ value based on what they could do for me. That attitude penetrated into my relationship with God and the church in subtle and sly ways that were easily rationalized. At times I feel a sense of kinship with the chief priests, because I get that same urge to determine who should have access to God. I have that same urge to decide who belongs and who doesn’t; and I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t behave that way. Every so often Jesus comes into my heart and flips over the tables of self-interest and directs me to his mercy, his lordship, his ways of being and doing what is right. When we welcome Jesus in, his first priority is to remove the things and attitudes we build to try to control access to God so that we can be refined in the fire of God’s love. Someday that fire will have burned away everything in me that is a hindrance to the love of God; that day has not yet come, but it will. Until then I must pay attention to God’s voice and work on clearing the way so that I and others can approach God.
During our time of open worship I invite you to join me in confession, asking Jesus to come into us, his temple and to drive out and overturn those things that hinder ourselves and others from approaching the God who loved the world so much that he gave up everything to be born into it, lived as a regular guy, demonstrated what it meant to teach, lead and love, gave up his life for everyone, returned from the dead to usher in the new covenant, and gave all people direct access to God through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray.
Lord, teach us to be as merciful as you have been to us. Help us to tear down the barriers we put up to protect ourselves, our power, and access to you. Help us to forgive generously and love all those you have created in your image. Jesus, lead us in the paths of righteousness for your namesake and help us to follow your example. Spirit, give us courage, wisdom, and a fresh cleansing fire to spur us on to greater acts of love and mercy. Amen.