To say it was a busy day would be quite an understatement. The life of Jesus is bracketed by chaotic occasions. He came into the world in an ordinarily sleepy town called Bethlehem which was transformed into a scene of mass confusion and no vacancy signs due to Caesar’s decree that a census be taken and that people return to their ancestral homes to be counted. And now the last week of his earthly life will be spent in the jam packed city of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, the busiest week of the year there.
Passover is a Jewish festival celebrating the Exodus, the events by which God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Jews who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem were expected to come for the Passover celebration, and many more came from throughout Israel and from throughout the world to celebrate this holy time in the Holy City.
One of the Roman governors about 30 years later decided to document the activity in Jerusalem during Passover week and came up with a count of around 250,000 lambs being sacrificed there that week. If you take into account the requirement that a minimum of ten people gather for the Passover meal using one lamb, you come up with about 2.5 million people in Jerusalem for the festival. Imagine being at Disneyworld on the busiest day of the year, or New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and you’ll be on the right track for understanding it.
The roads were packed, religious fervor was at a fever pitch. Extra Roman troops were on hand and had sharpened their swords to make sure things didn’t get crazy. The priests had sharpened their knives for all the sacrifices, made sure there was plenty of incense on hand to mask the stench of death. Street vendors had laid in a good supply of their wares to entice tourists and pilgrims.
So when Jesus and his followers arrived in Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, they were entering a bubbling cauldron of a city, filled with people with different agendas. The route of the Palm Sunday parade is an awe inspiring one. It begins on the Mount of Olives, which looks over the Kidron Valley to a panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem. It descends through the valley and up the hill again to the Golden Gate into the city. It was the route for parades for coronations of kings, and some of the parade Jesus and his followers enact is meant to call to mind the coronation of a king. Other aspects of the parade are meant to call to mind the coming of a messiah, humble and riding on a donkey instead of a war horse. Psalms are sung on this parade, and I expect it was not unusual for pilgrims to joyously sing psalms as they approached the holy city of Jerusalem. “Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew quotes the prophet Zechariah, who writes, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
While this made a lot of sense to the followers who were entering the city with Jesus, that was not true of those who packed the city. Matthew says the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The followers answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” If that sounds impressive today, it did not then. It would be like saying someone was the grand poohbah of Pickens.
Matthew wants us to see clearly that this is the Messiah, that this is an appropriate messianic entrance into the city, that it was not the kind of Messiah the city was expecting or the kind of arrival it expected from the messiah. He comes in humility and gentleness, with no weapons in his hands or armies at his disposal. He is, in other words, vulnerable. And who exactly did you say this is? And why should we care? John admits that even the disciples didn’t get it at the time, and that only after his resurrection did they look back at Palm Sunday and understand the significance of what he was doing.
Soon, however, people would know who he was. Because he went to the Temple and started shaking things up. Outside the temple proper in a large open space called the court of the Gentiles, the vendors were set up. Animals were being sold for sacrifices. Tables were set up for currency exchanges, the coins of the empire for the Jewish coins in which the Temple tax had to be paid. They were providing services needed by those coming to worship, so it must have been the circus like atmosphere or the percentage markups on the merchandise, or something like that which hit Jesus wrong. He started turning over the vendors’ tables and disrupting their business. He quoted from Isaiah and Jeremiah, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it into a den of robbers.”
Instead of finding at the Temple a place of worship and praise, repentance and forgiveness, Jesus finds a place of commerce where people are buying and selling the means to become right with God. Right relationship with God is reduced to a transaction. Jesus is on a mission to reorder those priorities, and that begins with turning over the tables representing the economy of justification.
Next, blind and lame people come to Jesus in the Temple and he heals them. The blind and lame were regarded as of little value, they were outcasts; it was believed that it was because of God’s displeasure with them that they were blind and lame. They were not supposed to come into the temple because of their imperfections. Jesus knows that hope for God’s healing should be one of the centerpieces of the Temple, so as he has done everywhere else he has gone he provides healing for those who come to him. It doesn’t matter what day it is, where it is, whether he is in charge or has standing in the place where he is.
And this draws the attention of the chief priests and scribes, those who do have standing and authority and are in charge in this place called the Temple. This is a really busy week for them and they do not need any additional distractions or complications, so they are becoming annoyed at Jesus acting like he owns the place and doing these miraculous acts.
But ironically the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the words coming out of the mouths of children. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they cry. This really ticks the authorities off. I wonder if children were routinely allowed in the temple, and if so, if they were to be seen but not heard? Anyway, the chief priests and scribes asked Jesus if he heard what the children were saying, obviously with the sense that he should reprimand them for speaking such blasphemy. Son of David was, after all, a messianic title. Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them.” And referencing Psalm 8 he asked, “Haven’t you read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself?’”
This is a sharp dagger. Jesus is telling the religious experts that infants and nursing babies see more clearly and speak more insightfully than they do. Tom Long writes, “It is a sign of the sickness of the old regime that what angers the chief priests and the scribes about Jesus’ temple assault is the sight of people being healed and the sound of children singing hosannas.” (Westminster Bible Companion, Matthew, p. 238)
As we enter Holy Week we need to do so humbly. Instead of easily condemning the religious leaders who rejected Jesus and the crowds who turned on him later in the week, we need to remember there is a pretty good chance that we would have failed this test as well.
You may remember that around 10 years ago the Washington Post conducted an experiment. They had world renowned violinist Joshua Bell play his Stradivarius violin in a D.C. metro station with no fanfare and his violin case open for people to throw money into. He wore a t-shirt and a Washington Nationals cap and played six classical masterworks for violin. It was all video recorded, people passing by with their eyes averted as with any street musician, oblivious to the fact that a man they would have paid a couple of hundred dollars to hear in concert was putting one on for free right beside them. No one ever recognized him, a crowd never gathered, no one ever applauded. The one exception to this was the children. Children invariably wanted to go to where he was playing and watch and listen, and each time the adults they were with shooed them along toward their destination, not letting them stop to be caught up in the wonder. Told about this experiment later, a mother laughed and said of her son who was eagerly trying to stop to listen, “He doesn’t miss much.”
Those of you who currently spend all of every day with two or three little children will roll your eyes at this, but it is good to spend a day with a child now and then to view the world through their eyes, to experience the uninhibited joy and wonder and desire to turn aside from the path and explore some heretofore unnoticed aspect of the world.
Those children in the temple that day did not know the theology behind the words they were singing. They had not studied messianic prophecies or what it meant to call someone Son of David. But they knew this one they were singing about. They knew he always had time for them, never sent them away, liked talking to them about the flowers of the field and the birds of the air and would let them sit on his lap and blessed them. They trusted him and loved him and they didn’t care who knew it.
Do you hear what these children are saying, what they are singing? Do you see their faces, their joy, their wonder, their palm branches waving? They are the ones to watch in this story. They are the ones to learn from. They can teach us the song. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 20, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church