Dr. Dorothee Benz
April 13, 2014 – Palm Sunday
Memorial United Methodist Church, White Plains, NY
John 12:12-19, Matthew 21:12-13
When I was a little kid, there was a painting of Jesus praying hanging over my grandmother’s bed. I was kind of fascinated by it, in a little kid way; I was an earnest, devout little kid. My mother would roll her eyes whenever I said something about it, because it was a totally cheesy painting and I think she was embarrassed by the kitsch.
It wasn’t this painting of Jesus praying, but it was very similar. And it was just as cheesy.
I grew up with images like this, as many of us probably did.
Here’s one of Jesus as the shepherd, standing in a serene countryside.
And I feel like I’ve seen 5,000 pictures like this of Jesus teaching. He’s always sitting on a rock, wearing a few sheets. He’s always white. He looks like a hippie, with the beard and the long hair, except he doesn’t look like he’s questioning authority.
It all looks so peaceful and non-controversial. Jesus looks wise, and caring, but not at all threatening.
Here’s the image of the entry into Jerusalem from my children’s Bible. There’s no hint of conflict, nothing unsafe or unseemly. People are happy. Jesus is making that gesture of peace with his hand.
And yet, less than a week later he’s dead. (I know it’s Palm Sunday, not Good Friday, but this isn’t exactly a spoiler – we’ve all heard the story before.)
It can be hard to make sense of it all. We know from reading the Bible that Jesus said and did plenty of provocative things. We’ve heard in church – at least in this church – how Jesus welcomed and defended the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed and challenged the exclusions of his society. Yet the Sunday school Jesus images give no hint of that, and the Jesus that most people talk about isn’t a threat to the status quo.
Even the way we talk about the Cleansing of the Temple – the most confrontational thing Jesus ever did – takes away the edge.
This is cleaning.
This is rioting.
The story is called the Cleansing of the Temple, but a much more accurate title would be the Trashing of the Temple. Jesus comes in, he throws over the furniture, he chases people out. It’s a total disruption of business, it’s property destruction. It may even be violence.
More to the point, it’s a total rebuke and a frontal challenge to the religious authorities.
And that, my friends, starts to explain the disconnect. We call the story the Cleansing of the Temple, but doing that is all about sanitizing the image of Jesus. A dude who comes into church, kicks over the pews, yells about how the ministers are a bunch of hypocrites and brings the service to complete halt is not the role model we want to give our kids in Sunday school.
But that’s what Jesus did. So let’s talk about it.
Part of the challenge for us in the 21s century is that it’s impossible to understand what Jesus’s words and actions meant to those around him without some historical context. So let’s step back for a moment into first century Palestine.
The dominant reality of Jesus’s life was the Roman occupation. The Romans had conquered Israel in 63 BCE and the people there lived under brutal conditions of colonial exploitation and repression. Roman rulers enacted crushing burdens of taxation, driving an impoverished people to utter destitution and desperation. This explains why the figure of the tax collector is such a hated character in the Gospels. The occupying army stole from the people in other ways as well. When they needed something, they simply took it – whether it was bread or an animal they needed to transport something.
The daily reality of living as a subjugated people is an ever-present background in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, when Jesus is talking about loving our enemies, he says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” It seems like an out-of-the-blue idea unless you know that under Roman law any soldier could compel someone to carry his gear for one mile. It is one of a thousand indignities and injustices that the people of Israel lived with.
Economic exploitation and daily domination were matched by an equally ruthless political repression. The Romans swiftly and brutally suppressed any hint of uprising. Jesus was not the first nor the last to challenge Roman rule nor the first or last to be executed as an insurrectionist. Around the time of Jesus’s birth, in the city of Sepphoris, which was less than a day’s travel from Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth, the Romans crucified 2,000 people as punishment for rebelling against Roman rule. The first century Roman historian Quintilian explained matter of factly: “Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear.”
This is the world that Jesus grew up in. From his first breath to his last, he was a member of an oppressed people living under brutal colonial occupation.
Once we know this, it changes how we hear things. When Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads from the scripture, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free” and then says “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” he is giving a direct voice to the plight of his people and issuing a direct threat to the oppressors.
The second central reality of Jesus’s life was the role that religious authorities played in subjugating their own people. The 1% of Jesus’s day included the corrupt and brutal King Herod, some individual wealthy landowners and the priestly class. Economically, the priests enriched themselves through a long list of required religious offerings and tithes, essentially a system of taxation that compounded the poverty and desperation created by Rome’s taxes. Politically, they collaborated with the Romans. That meant they used their religious legitimacy to dissuade and defuse popular opposition to the occupation, and became the de facto local enforcers of Roman rule. In exchange, the Romans disposed of anyone who threatened the religious leaders’ authority. That, of course, is what happened to Jesus. He referred to religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” one too many times.
When we look at Jesus’s ministry in historical context, against the backdrop of Roman occupation and religious collusion with it, it takes on a distinctly political cast. Jesus demonstrates over and over his compassion and concern for his people. He lifts up their needs – for food, for dignity, for liberation – and he does not hesitate to name the obstacles to those needs. His prophetic challenge grows directly out of his pastoral commitment. His unflinching and radical criticism of the system comes from his anger about the desperation of his people.
Which brings us (finally!) to today’s scripture.
For three years Jesus had been teaching and healing, traveling from town to town. He met people who were sick and suffering. He tangled with religious leaders over the meaning and proper place of religious observance – the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath, he declared. He fed the 5,000. He shocked even his companions with his openness and egalitarianism, inviting women into his ministry, eating with social outcasts, touching lepers, even extending his compassion to Romans and tax collectors. The stories he told – the parables – made the same points over and over, about God’s love of the poor and the imperative to treat them justly, about the holiness of ordinary people and the hypocrisy of religious leaders.
And now he and his disciples stood on the edge of Jerusalem, at the beginning of a tumultuous week that ended in his death and the scattering of his followers.
It’s Jerusalem during the high holidays, Passover. The city is filled with pilgrims. These were largely ordinary people, dutifully fulfilling their religious obligations. The people whom Jesus ministered to. The people whom he gave voice to, whose needs he treated as sacred. They knew he was a political leader, challenging authority. And they were excited, even hopeful. If it were 2014, instead of palms they’d be holding up picket signs that said “Rome out of Israel,” “debt relief now,” “occupy Jerusalem” and of course “Jesus for King.”
We just call it “Palm Sunday,” but it was a protest march. And given the circumstances, it had to be a pretty darn tense one. A mass showing of support for a radical leader who was challenging religious authorities at every turn. Add to that, hailing him as “King of Israel” was an act of defiance of both the priests and Rome.
But as bold is it was, the march into Jerusalem paled in comparison to what followed. The first thing Jesus does when he gets to town is head straight to the temple. Now the temple in Jerusalem was not just the holiest site of the Jews, the destination of their pilgrimage. It was also the seat of political power for the Jewish religious authorities. They controlled it and from there extended their authority over all of Israel. And because so many of the religious tithes and offerings were transacted there, the temple was also at the heart of the economy. It was like the White House and the New York Stock Exchange and the Vatican all rolled into one, and then some.
The temple functioned, in essence, to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. Those that ran the concession stands that sold necessities for worship to pilgrims, like doves, came from Jerusalem’s wealthiest families. And a portion of every sacrifice and every offering went to the priests. With tens of thousands of people making sacrifices on holidays, that was a lucrative business. In addition, there were a series of prescribed offerings. These included, for instance, a five-shekel payment for every first-born child. For the vast majority of people, these payments were a considerable hardship, and many of them had to borrow money to make them. Debtors who could not repay their loans were often sold into slavery.
So when Jesus goes into the temple and literally throws out the money changers and the dove salesmen, he is taking on – head on – all of the political, economic and religious rulers of Israel. There is nothing remotely subtle in the message. The scripture that he quotes – “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” – is from Jeremiah, where God delivers a scathing condemnation and communicates an ultimatum to the leaders who control the temple: if they act justly with one another, and do not oppress the alien, the widow or the orphan – the poorest and most vulnerable members of society – God will be with them. And if they do not, God will destroy the temple.
Jesus’s physical seizure of the temple grounds and his expulsion of the oppressive merchants is not a critique of the excesses of the system. It is a wholesale condemnation of the system itself.
He follows it up, true to form, with ministry to the people on whose behalf he had just driven out the money changers and salesmen. The next verse in Matthew says, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” He throws out the 1% and then invites in the 99% to tend to their needs.
There are three lessons I take from this story about the meaning of Jesus’s actions and what we, as his followers, should be doing.
The first is this: Radical egalitarian politics is at the heart of the Gospel, not a side show to it. Jesus’s occupation of the temple that day isn’t an aberration from the rest of his ministry; it isn’t a temper tantrum that he throws in one moment of righteous anger. It is the culmination of everything he has observed and taught and exhorted others to live. He challenges exploitation and oppression at its root cause, in the center of power.
The second lesson from today’s scripture is perhaps the hardest one: What Jesus does is dangerous. He does not play it safe. He does not tone down his message or modify his actions in order to avoid retribution. To say that he took risks to give voice that day to the grievances and needs of the people is an understatement.
The third lesson is this: Jesus strikes at the heart of religious collusion in social oppression. Throughout his ministry, the primary targets of Jesus’s rebukes are religious leaders. While the Roman Empire was the ultimate oppressor, the collaborationist relationship that the Jewish priests had with their Roman overlords made them his target.
It is this third point in particular that I want to suggest is imperative for us as Christians in the 21st century to follow: fighting the collusion of our own religious authorities in social oppression. Meaning, where the church supports an unjust status quo rather than opposing it. Where the church is complicit in reinforcing prejudice and discrimination rather than challenging it. Where the church is silent rather than speaking up for the oppressed.
Nowhere are the consequences of religious collusion in oppression more obvious than in the case of LGBTQ people. In the United States, even as civil rights gains are being made for gay people, Christian condemnation of homosexuality has been the main obstacle to extending those rights to a majority of states. Queer youth face an epidemic of bullying, violence and homelessness; and some states are trying to pass laws that give businesses the right to refuse to serve gay customers – on religious grounds.
Outside the U.S., the role of Christianity in oppressing LGBTQ people is even greater. Laws that criminalize gay people and outlaw any advocacy for their rights, like the ones passed recently in Uganda and Russia, are being promoted heavily by Christians.
But I need to bring this story even closer to home. It’s not just that in 2014 religious authorities – Christian religious authorities – are reinforcing homophobia, making churches complicit in the continuing oppression of LGBTQ people. It’s also our church, the United Methodist Church, that is doing it. Our Book of Discipline contains a wholesale condemnation of gay, lesbian and bisexual people – that we are “incompatible with Christian teaching” – and prescribes systemic discrimination against us.
No one knows this better, of course, than the Memorial community. One of our own, Sara Thompson Tweedy, has for the last 15 months been the target of an official complaint based on these unjust church laws.
Our church is in the middle of a great struggle. There are those of us, including many in this room, who have signed a declaration – our Covenant of Conscience – that we will no longer discriminate against gay and lesbian couples. There are some 1,500 clergy across the United States in 15 annual conferences who have signed similar pledges. Among them are many who have had the opportunity to follow through on their pledges. They have chosen to follow the example of Jesus by honoring the needs of the people and ministering to LGBTQ people, in defiance of the law. Karen is among them. So is Sara. And you can read a story every week by one of these clergy, published in MIND’s We Did: Stories of United Methodists living marriage equality series.
Then there are the conservatives in our church, who have called for punishments that instill fear for those who dare to minister to us. They would like the church to be using the most crowded roads to make an example of people who minister to us..
And then there are the bishops of the church – our religious authorities. They are not corrupt or oppressive the way the high priests that Jesus confronted are. Yet they do have a vested interest in the system as it exists. Some of them would earnestly like to get rid of our discriminatory laws. Some of them enthusiastically support those laws. So far, only one has broken the law – Bishop Talbert. A few others, including our bishop, have found ways to mitigate the impact of the laws. Bishop Carcano publicly offered Frank Schaefer a job as a pastor after he was defrocked. And Bishop McLee declared as part of the resolution in Tom Ogletree’s case that he is committed to a “cessation of trials.”
Some of our church leaders would agree that the temple needs some “cleansing.” But a more radical road to reform – like the one we have organized, the withdrawal of our complicity in discrimination – is not the path they want to take.
The image of Jesus they have may not be the one hanging over my grandmother’s bed, but it’s not the one of Jesus driving out the money changers either. The unsanitized Jesus – radical, provocative, a threat to the status quo, fearless in his advocacy for the oppressed and scathing in his criticism of religious collusion in oppression – is an uncomfortable one for anyone in a position of authority, especially religious authority.
But the important question is, Which Jesus do you want to follow?