He loosens the belt of kings,
ties a waistcloth on their loins.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance
He rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.
Holy Wednesday, or Spy Wednesday, always leaves me pondering the question of exactly how much money would it take – and under what circumstances – for me to sell out my best friend to certain imprisonment and death. After all, none of us are better than Judas, not really. We are subject to the same temptations and are capable of betraying not only those we love, but ourselves.
Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, a pitiable sum for another person by any account. I think many of us would like to think that we’d never fall to the depths that Judas did, we think “I’d never do that!” But really, I don’t know. Maybe we are far more like Judas than we’d like to admit.
God in the Marketplace
As Holy Week unfolds we are reminded of the events that led up to Jesus’ death, one of the most prominent being the Cleansing of the Temple. Recounted here is the version appearing in Mark 11:15-18:
“They came to Jerusalem, and on entering the temple area he began to drive out those selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area. Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”
The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it and were seeking a way to put him to death, yet they feared him because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.”
When I was a child and heard this particular part of the Gospels it never really hit home how outraged Jesus must have been upon seeing the money changers and those who were selling doves. At one point someone told me that Jesus was angry because the doves were not the ritually pure animals required for sacrifice, but instead lower quality birds that weren’t suitable for an offering. That idea is, of course, reading into the text quite a bit. No, Jesus was shocked by the mere fact of commercial activity taking place in a holy space.
I think what really confused me was that in America, specifically in American Christianity, everything is for sale. Christianity is rife with marketing trends and schemes, from WWJD to Fireproof. Not only that, but we want to buy things because they are marketed as holy or pure. PureFlix exists, as does an entire genre of music, books and movies; all vying for the dollars of American Christians. There are even churches where you can buy coffee in the narthex (perhaps this is actually common, if it is, more’s the pity). Everywhere an American Christian looks there is stuff being sold in the name of God, so when the Son of God walks into the outer courtyard of the temple and sees money changing hands and animals being sold his overturning of tables seems like an overreaction. But perhaps looking at it from another angle will put it into perspective. This is a clip from the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar:
In this scene we see all kinds of wrong going on at the temple, all condoned by the Caiaphas the Chief Priest. We see quack doctors, drug dealers and whores. All of them are singing about what you can get there, what’s available for sale.
Watching the pushers and the prostitutes look for business is a little unsettling the first time you see it. It feels all wrong to see such activity in a place that is supposed to be holy, and the camera work revels in the gratuitousness of it all. All this excess is the real focus of the temple during the busy season, the God-thing is just secondary. When Jesus flips out and begins flipping tables you can sympathize with his feelings. While there were no drugs for sale in the temple the sense of revulsion elicited by the movie is perhaps a taste of what Jesus felt. I first saw this movie as a child and every time I think of the Cleansing of the Temple I come back to it. Buying and selling in a holy space is a big deal, something that can profane the sacred and sully the pure. This movie was able to cut through the fog of our selling obsessed culture and get the point across. Jesus wasn’t overreacting, not by a long shot.
as you delivered the Hebrews safely
out of the long labor of slavery,
so, morning by morning,
you draw us forth into the new day.
Surround us with a cloud of witnesses,
and sustain us by your powerful word,
that, in the night of loneliness and fear,
we, being weary, may not lost heart
but push toward the joy that is to come,
laboring with Christ
to give birth to your promised kingdom. Amen.
Source: Revised Common Lectionary
In the 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar the movie recreates the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. An excited crowd gathers around Jesus waving palm branches and lifting him up above the crowd. Children skip alongside Jesus while colourfully dressed women and men jubilantly press close to him. High above the fray the Pharisees order Jesus to quiet the “rabble” before a riot breaks out. Jesus says the people must rejoice or else the very rocks will be forced too, because this day is one of celebration. The crowd continues to cheer, but as they continue they take a dark turn, they ask if Jesus will fight for them and die for them.
I think there’s a strong impulse, as Christians, to be like the crowd on Palm Sunday. We get excited and cheer and rejoice when we draw close to Jesus. We want to praise him and press in close to him, especially when it seems like something exciting is about to happen. But then, often without really realizing it, we start putting our own expectations onto the encounter. We are excited about what we think he’s doing, rather than what he actually is doing. We praise him, but we expect certain things from him, things he may not actually give us.
The crowd in the movie wanted a warrior king who would come in and drive out the Romans. They wanted a prophetic overlord who would, in an act of righteous vengeance, overthrow the foreigners and take back the nation from those who were ruining it. But Jesus wasn’t there to do that, he was there to take back the people from their ruinous sins. He was there to return the hearts of the people to God.
Today, I think, the crowd scene plays out when people expect God to intervene in the running of the nations, or during an illness, or in a person’s financial life. We praise God when everything seems to be proceeding like we think it ought to. We get excited by how we think Jesus is working in our lives when sometimes the reality is that we don’t even have a clue.
Sometimes the work of Jesus is a hard thing to bear.
Sometimes the work of Jesus is the work of grief and mourning.
Sometimes the work of Jesus is impossible to comprehend.
So, we should certainly cheer for the Lord and be excited by him, but also, maybe, we should let him show us what he is doing instead of deciding for him.
Lord, give me a mind to look to you and a heart to follow your lead. Amen.