[March 24, 2013] Today we accompany Jesus as He enters Jerusalem on Sunday, the tenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, when the households of Israel each set a lamb apart for their Passover celebrations, “an unblemished male a year old,” to be killed on Thursday, the fourteenth day of Nisan, at twilight (see Exodus 12:3-6). We follow Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), in the beautiful prose of the Gospel according to Luke.
Jesus and His disciples had arrived in Bethany and when He awoke that Sunday morning, everything had already been prearranged for His entry into the holy City. Disciples had already begun to gather when He sent two disciples ahead to Bethphage to pick up the donkey’s colt that He would ride. Beth-phage (meaning, “house of unripe figs”) was the little village at the foot of the hill that separated Bethany from Jerusalem. Jesus began to walk slowly along the dusty road as the growing crowd of disciples walked with Him until the two disciples returned with the colt.
The disciples are excited. Mostly they are Galilean pilgrims like Jesus, come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They are disciples who have heard His gracious words and been healed, or seen others healed, and been filled with hope in the coming of God’s kingdom. They are families, a crowd of women and men and children. When the colt arrives, those closest to Him throw their cloaks on the colt before they help Jesus get on the animal to ride it. Then everyone starts to spread their outer garments on the road like a royal carpet for the donkey to walk on. As the people walk, they talk and sing, “praising God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen.”
The road proceeds northwest directly toward the rise of the Mount of Olives and then takes a sharp right turn southwest as it winds around the hill and heads directly toward Jerusalem. The City wall comes into view, and as they approach it, its most prominent structure, the gleaming white Temple, can be seen inside, the rays of the morning sun hitting it directly, and soon, as the road follows the Kidron Valley north, the sun radiates its gold. Even before they get this far, the disciples are shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:26), welcoming Him into their City, for though they come mostly from the northern countryside, Jerusalem is the place where the Temple is, where they come to worship God several times a year. It is the royal City of David, where his dynastic throne is, Mount Zion. It is the City of God, chosen for His abode. Those who live and work there do not own this City; they and its leaders are its guardians and stewards—for all Israel in all nations, for the Messiah when He comes, for God who has chosen it for His dwelling, for the gentiles that they may seek God too. Jeru-salem means “city of peace.” As the crowd accompanies Jesus, welcoming Him into their City as the Messiah and as the heir to David’s throne they transcend the political realities of the day and shout, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
The crowd of disciples swells now with people coming from the city, both pilgrims who have places to stay behind its walls and residents who loved Jesus. People also come out to watch, residents and those camped both in and outside the City walls. The disciples become a parade with spectators. Some Pharisees approach Jesus and said say to Him, “Rabbi, rebuke Your disciples.” They recognize Jesus as a peer, calling Him rabbi, but they think that the crowd’s acclaim of Jesus is over the top. They probably are also embarrassed. Soon this parade will be visible to the Romans, and while they (the Pharisees) might be able to appreciate the people’s messianic hopes, the Romans will not, especially when the crowd calls Jesus “King.” It broods trouble, trouble at a time when they do not need trouble, when the governor is in town (his seat is in maritime Caesarea) and the Roman military presence is intensified for the Passover season and the soldiers are particularly fidgety on account of the multitude of pilgrims. It is not simply their imagination. Barabbas was arrested (or about to be) along with the insurgents who will be crucified along with Jesus. Jesus, what are you doing? “Rebuke your disciples.”
“But Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” These words are not in Matthew’s earlier account that Luke relied on (nor in Mark’s and John’s later accounts). Matthew quotes Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9 to emphasize the fulfillment of prophecy. But Luke, as characteristic of him, reveals to us what Jesus feels. Jesus does not merely tolerate this as if it were a charade. He planned it, and in His view it has not gotten out of hand. He sees what is happening as necessary, and not just circumstantially, not just providentially, but in fact, as what He deserves. He deserves so much more, for the shouting of the crowd is barely restraining the stones themselves from crying out. This is His City that He is approaching, and these, all of these people, the people around Him and the people in the City beside Him, are His people over whom God has made Him the Shepherd, and King, and Savior.
What is displayed before us in types and symbols and similes—we simply do not see the reality of it. What Jerusalem is supposed to be, with its worship and kingdom, is the navel of the earth, its center. Behind the veil is the creation itself. Every place on earth, every particle of its surface, is in reality what the Temple is symbolically; it is in reality the place—wherever it is—of God’s kingdom. Humans live in their minds, in a realm of their own construction. That may be necessary by the very nature of mind, but what humans have constructed is not a reflection of reality but a projection of their own confusion and alienation and rebellion against reality.
“If these [people] become silent, the stones will cry out.” The praise that the people offered that day is but a vague impression of what the stones themselves actually feel. All creation loves Him, all created things, for He is their “Firstborn,” in Him their destiny is seen and fulfilled and promised. If they had mouths they would offer endless and resounding praise. Worship is innate to creation. It is its meaning and love and longing, every creature in their own way, simply by being themselves. If only this were true of humans—and it is on some level—but we fight it so. We want to be on our own, as if we—our minds and its ideological and material creations—were “God” and had no need of the reality of GOD on which we moment by moment depend. We want life and frantically attempt to seize it, but actually we reject it and create deadness everywhere.
Jesus sees reality and knows that the stones will cry out in praise of Him if they have to, yet He feels this not as we would but with the magnanimousness of God, without ego, without pettiness, without insecurity, as seeing what IS, with compassion and humility and, perhaps, fear.
“When [Jesus] approached [Jerusalem], He saw the City and wept over it.” At a certain bend in the road the City of Jerusalem comes into view, and stays in view. The crowd is lifting its voices, the Pharisees are disturbed, and Jesus looks over the walls into the City and sees what no one else does. Everyone else is happy, and according to Jesus they ought to be, but He is now weeping audibly. Perhaps He stops the procession when He says to Jerusalem in a prophetic tone, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things that make for peace!” Jerusalem the City of Peace, the crowds shouting, “Peace in heaven,” and Jesus saying to the City, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things that make for peace. But now they have been hidden from your eyes!”
What is Jesus heading into? This is not the triumphal entry that it appears to be. He is indeed a King, and He was coming to save the people. But His victory is going to be a strange one; indeed, an unseen one. His resurrection is in fact only going to be seen by a few. His victory is not going to be a political victory, certainly not for the City. In the days to come, many of the inhabitants of the City will come to believe in Him, but it is not going to be enough to save the City from destruction. “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another.” This is an exaggeration of what will literally happen to the City in the days of the first and the second Jewish War (66-73 and 132-135 C.E.), though what will happen will be horrible enough. Most devastating of all will be the complete destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
“Because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” Isaiah and the Psalms talk about the coming of God (echoed by John the Baptist), and Isaiah and the other prophets speak of the coming of the Messiah. As we see in the proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus, the visitation is to be an opportunity for Israel to repent. Many do repent throughout Galilee and beyond, and even in hated Samaria; but the City of Jerusalem is obstinate in its “baseless hatred” (the Talmud, Yoma 9b). In the days before Rabbinic Judaism (which arose in the second century, after the beginning of Christianity) this refers to the zeal of the “Judaizers” who hate all gentiles and “sinners” (non-observing Jews), goaded on by a certain brand of Pharisaism. The Judaizers hate Jesus and His words and acts. The City of Jerusalem is pervaded by their influence, but also by those who fear the Romans and collaborate only too willingly with them, namely, the aristocratic class, the chief priests and the party of the Sadducees.
Destruction did not come upon Jerusalem because it rejected Jesus but because it rejected the opportunity He offered them. God does not hate the Jews because they do not believe in Jesus. So many Jews did believe in Him, and He continues to be the Messiah of those who do not believe (so Christians believe). Nor did the wrath of God come upon the “Jews” who were scattered east into Parthia and west across the Mediterranean. God does not hate the Jews, period. These words of Jesus are about Jerusalem (think of Jeremiah!), and as we see in chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel, it is about their leadership, the “stewards” of the City.
The procession goes through the eastern gate of the City directly onto the grounds of the Temple, the court of the gentiles. Descending from the colt, an angry Jesus at once drives out those who are selling, saying, “It is written, ‘And My House shall be a House of prayer,’ but you have made it a robbers’ den.” The sellers are exchanging pagan coins (which have graven images on them) for Jewish currency and selling sacrificial animals to the worshipers, things not in themselves unwarranted, but Jesus attacks what they symbolize, for like all merchants, they profits from their trade and are themselves not there to worship.
It is a small demonstration, even as Jesus’ procession would now seem small in the scale of things, for they are now surrounded by a great multitude of people that dwarfs them and in effect makes them invisible. What is the point of Jesus’ action? It was a prophetic act that alludes to the coming of God’s wrath on the Temple itself. It forebodes the end of Second Temple Judaism: Jewish worship that centered on the Temple. Already in the known world Judaism had morphed into a religion of the Book and of the synagogue, though everywhere Jews still look to the Temple and make pilgrimage or send offerings there. Jesus and the early church (see Acts 7) predict a Judaism without the Temple, where the forms of worship at the Temple will be replaced by other acts. The destruction of the Temple will necessitate but also make room for Rabbinic Judaism to flourish. It also will make room for that competing form of Judaism (so it was perceived in the ancient world) we know as Christianity to come into its own.
Jesus accuses the merchants of thieving, but probably He is accusing the whole Temple establishment of thieving from God, the Temple establishment including not only the priests but also the Temple scribes, the teachers. In Luke 20:9-18 Jesus accuses the leaders of Jerusalem of stealing from God the fruit of the vineyard (the vineyard being the people of God). What are they stealing? What is the fruit that God is looking for? Surely God is looking for the fruits of repentance, the spiritual fruit of true worship and good works. But these people are taking advantage of the people’s religiosity to boost themselves. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is a reflection of that. When Jesus tells them to render to God the things that are God’s, the implication is that they are not.
What is God looking for from us that we are not giving God? Having gone through an entire season of Lent, a season of self-examination, should we not be able to see that we are all caught up in the strong tide of our culture, that out of our spiritual sloth we have all allowed ourselves to become too busy and distracted? We have become again the slaves of the age of this world, the powers of the gestalt of the world. Though we claim to be Christians we rob God of ourselves, as though we—our true selves—are no longer worth saving. We may even be concerned with changing the world, saving others, and yet if we ourselves no longer know what we are after for ourselves (namely, our salvation), what are we in fact offering to others. We are adamant about “beliefs,” and we identify with the Bible (as a symbol) and with our churches (as one of our particular in-groups), and are obsessed with social mores, but at barely a point do we touch the reality of Christ. I do not say that we do not, but I question whether we touch it more than any unbeliever. We rob God because we speak the name of Jesus and refer to the Scriptures, and then live our lives completely within the matrix of the world.
Christians love to speak of free will as if it were a Biblical doctrine, but it is a Pelagian import that allows us to retain the center for ourselves and keep God as a symbol with which we interact. We turn Christianity inside out, not realizing that by this ploy we make the church out of the same substance as the world, using the idol of self to keep us isolated from reality even while we think we are “redeemed.” A Lenten self-examination that might be helpful (even though late) would be to question whether our faith in fact is real, and if we are not culpable in using Christ’s Name to steal from God what is God’s.
This should be a topic for Holy Week, for in the next few days Jesus challenges Jerusalem along this line, but for now, not unmindful of His tears, let us celebrate—by praising God—the coming of the King to His rightful place, and the victory that He has come to accomplish in Zion. It is a bloody and quiet victory but one so momentous that it will transform the entire cosmos to the reaches of the furthest galaxies, and by the eternal Spirit, already has. “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”