The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
That’s how the reading from John starts. The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
If you care about Jesus, you’re saying, “what the heck. Don’t you know those folks are looking for a reason to kill you? It’s Passover. The place will be crawling with Roman soldiers to make certain nothing gets out of control. Their co-conspirators in the Temple have been plotting. They don’t need much of a reason to kill you…nor much of a plan. You need to think this over.”
Holy week always reminds me of the last week of Martin Luther King’s days on this earth. Or…actually…of so many of MLK’s days on this earth. Whether it was Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, or Montgomery. Anywhere he went, it could have been asked of him, “what the heck. Don’t you know those folks are looking for a reason to kill you? They don’t need much of a reason. You need to think this over.”
So…why’d he go? Why do people who care about social justice go where they’re not wanted, say what most people don’t want to hear, especially those with power, why do they go where their bodies, or lives or reputations are put at risk? When MLK was asked why he was in Birmingham, he answered, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
He said, “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" message far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
The Gospel of John tells us of the time when…just like the prophets and the Apostle…and Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X and others…Jesus knew what he was walking into and the danger he was placing himself in…as MLK said the night before he was murdered, as he was in Memphis to help lowly garbage workers, “The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" and he said, “Then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out there. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now,” he said. “But it doesn't matter with me now. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.”
He knew he was about to lose his life, about to be killed and thought only about God’s will. It’s not likely any of us will ever be in that position...all we have at stake is a little bit of our reputation, will we be liked or criticized or ostracized, or ridiculed…if we do God’s will.
“The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”
And like every one of the other prophets, then and now… he’s not bashful about why he’s there. Jesus heads straight for the Temple. If he’s gonna hide, he’s gonna hide in plain sight. Why, you ask, did he choose the Temple? In those days, the temple was the center of the power of the rich and politically influential…it was used to abuse.
This is where the chief priests, chosen by the Roman Emperor, maintained a boot on the neck of the poor. The Temple was where the politically powerful and the religiously corrupt conspired to make certain the unjust social, economic, and political systems of the day survived any effort to reform them.
It was the first century’s den of robbers.
At Passover, Jesus knew it would be filled and while the danger was great, so was the opportunity to speak out about the withering injustice.
When he walked through the door, he didn’t just say that’s too bad, that makes me feel sorry for those who are hurting and hungry…Jesus lost it. He lost it. He knew what he was going to do, the statement he was going to make, the symbolism of turning over the table of the money-changers. None of that was an accident. None of that was coincidental…any more than was Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks taking a seat at the front of the bus, the Freedom Riders getting off the bus at disembarking from the safety of the Greyhound and wading into a group of bigots who had hate in their hearts and clubs in their hands.
Jesus walked into that Temple and challenged the very things that propped up the injustice of those times; just like Gandhi challenged the tax on salt, a critical product for the masses or Rosa Parks took the seats at the front of the bus which were a symbol of white privilege…just as the Freedom Riders submitted themselves to the brutality of those who thought their clubs were more powerful than God’s will.
Gandhi and Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders knew as did Jesus that if you take away the symbols of power, the oppressors have no power. The empire could not maintain control over the oppressed without the religionists. The temple was the symbol of their power. The religionists could be counted on to calm the people when they reached the boiling point. That’s why the Temple leaders sought to kill the trouble-maker Jesus.
That’s what John was trying to tell us in the 11th chapter when he later told of the chief priests and the Pharisees calling a meeting of the council, and saying, “What are we to do? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You don’t get it. You need to understand that it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
I received an email this week from someone about the column I wrote a week ago criticizing the legislature for its votes against gays and lesbians, the poor, people without healthcare, criticizing them for ridiculing working people on food stamps, ignoring people struggling with two or three low wage jobs…and others who are different. The email talked about friends who are gay and how people, politicians, church leaders…mistreat them.”
The email said this has contributed the writer’s decision to be an atheist!
I wrote back and said, “Don’t let them take away your faith. Don’t let them get by making you to feel as though there is no God.” I said, “You don’t have to be an atheist. Jesus is on OUR side, not theirs. Don’t let them think for a minute that Jesus doesn’t see them as the 21st century’s den of robbers. They rob others of their faith by claiming they speak for God and that God doesn’t really love everyone.
You see, the center of corruption is no longer the temple or the church. Today’s chief priests tried to teach their Gospel of oppression and hate from the pulpits. They tried to abuse scripture to make it appear Jesus was on their side. They failed.
It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day. I want to illustrate what I am saying with a little Irish history. When the English first started trying to control the Irish and enslave them, they sent the priests to explain why the word of God expected them to be good slaves. It didn’t work. Why? Because the priests spoke English, not Gaelic. They didn’t speak the people’s language.
So then the English went to the government. If they’d just pass the right laws or refuse to pass others, the Irish could be controlled by a unjust, discriminatory, oppressive system.
You see, that’s where we are today. The fundamentalists tried to make their case that God wants the poor and the gay and the immigrants and others to be oppressed. But they found they don’t speak our langauge and we don’t speak theirs. When they learned they could not persuade us from their pulpits, they went to the Capitol Building.
There’s a hymn called “The Anger of Christ” the lyrics of which speak to this third Sunday of Lent, the day Jesus lost it in the temple:
May the anger of Christ be mine, when the world grows hard and greedy; when the rich have no care for the poor, when the powerful take from the needy.
In a world of restless change, standing for love and faith and justice; in a dark confusing time, we bear the light, the shining light of Christ
If Jesus were around today, he would not have headed for the temple. He’d have headed for the modern day den of thieves, the place where the politically powerful have conspired with the religionists to maintain political, economic, and social injustice.
If Jesus were around today, he’d make a whip of cords, and drive all of them out of that den of robbers, along with their sheep and cattle. He’d overturn their tables and their lives and the power they hold over others. If Jesus were here…
…wait…Jesus is here! Jesus is among us and he’s working through us. Have you seen the trailer for the CNN special about Jesus? “The clues he left behind? WE ARE the clues he left behind.
The Passover is near. Jesus is going up to Jerusalem and he wants us to with him. AMEN