Texts: Psalm 50: 4-11; Matthew 21: 1-17, 23: 37-39
Back in the early sixties -- those seemingly halcyon days before Presidents were assassinated in our lifetimes even as society was radically changing around us --Frank Sinatra made this wonderful recording of the song "Love and Marriage." Of course, he wasn’t living that image. It’s just that most people back then really saw that as an ideal. "Goes together like a horse and carriage," continued the lyrics. "You can’t have one, you can’t have one, you can’t have one without the other." Well, to put it bluntly, the next fifty years proved Sammy Cahn, the writer of those lyrics, wrong.
Since 1955 when Cahn wrote the song and Sinatra sang it for a television version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, our society has witnessed enormous changes in our perception of what "obviously" goes together. As individuals and as a society we often have mixed feeling about what went together in the past and what should go together in the future. In this way we are not so different from the disciples who followed Jesus as he turned his face to Jerusalem, as the gospel writers put it.
Just consider it. Your country is held by an alien power, one who oppresses you, demands high taxes, and acts with impunity regarding matters of human rights. Sounds like a recipe for a revolution, right? Well, yes, but overthrowing the Romans was not what Jesus had in mind as he "set his face toward Jerusalem." His anger was directed at the collaborators who had only their own interests at heart, who helped to control the masses for the oppressor and who set up the pretenses of power when they knew that real power lay in the hands of the Romans.
Jesus knew their game: hold onto the semblance of power at all costs. Create the semblance of authority so that the people will stay in their proper places. Claim that you’re doing it for the people! But Jesus knew what was what. Like love and marriage, Jesus combined the entry into Jerusalem with an attack on temple practices because they were in and of themselves corrupt and corrupting the House of God.
Imagine the scene. It was close to Passover, a time when the Romans and the religious leaders knew that the seething undercurrent of anger among the people could and often did erupt into some form of violence. Rome and her agents were hated by the people; many Jews, stirred by apocalyptic writings that pointed to a messiah, an anointed one who would save the people, supported the idea of violent revolt as a way to usher in a Messianic age; small bands of semi-organized insurgents, such as the Zealots, routinely murdered Roman soldiers and collaborators. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem in accordance with prophecy was a direct challenge to the status quo.
The challenge, of course, did not stop with our image of children waving palms and singing hosannas. Jesus then took his challenge directly to the religious authorities of the day in his attack on the money changers in the temple courtyard. When he overturned the tables, Jesus did more than challenge corruption; he challenged the essence, the claim, of the authority claimed by those who ran the temple. Bonhoeffer and the confessing church posed a similar challenge to the German ecclesiastical establishment in the 1930s and 40s. Like Jesus, he paid for his challenge with his life.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and his subsequent challenges to authority carry a meaning beyond the events of those days two thousand years ago. First, we are told that we must challenge injustice when it cloaks itself in seeming legitimacy. Jesus makes it pretty clear that our allegiances must be to God and not temporal power. We usually nod in agreement without really considering the consequences of that demand. Jesus was not a "make nice" guy. He is presented by the gospel writers as a man who had few qualms, if any, in challenging the illegitimate authority of those who ruled the people by force and by collaboration. In our not so recent past Martin Luther King and Philip Berrigan posed similar challenges. Last month two priests, two nuns and two other women in their 60s were sentenced to 15 months in prison for cutting through a fence to symbolically disarm nuclear weapons at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base near Tacoma, Washington.
We are limited in our knowledge of the Jesus of history because our only images come through the gospels who proclaim him as the Christ, the anointed one of God who ushered in a new way of living, a new way of relating to people. But this new way takes more than just the palms and hosannas. It requires our willingness to take on those powers that would destroy the power of love in the world, which, in the final analysis, is a new way of living with each other. You can’t have one without the other.
Let us pray: Creator of life who sent Jesus into this world to give us a new vision of you through loving each other, help us to respond to the challenges of living in our daily lives by giving us courage as well as insight. May our lives reflect the one we follow. Amen.