In case you’ve been following along in our outline, you’ll note that we have reached the final Sunday of Lent. Each time of worship has been shaped by one of these six images, drawn from the scriptures: the bow of the flood story and God’s reconciling relationship with humanity. The family tree of Abraham and Sara and the trees seen by the blind man who received a double touch from Jesus; the beehive dripping with honey as a reminder of the sweetness of God’s teachings; the snakes in the wilderness, which Jerry Sears noted, despite being a most unwelcome gift, had the effect of lifting up people’s eyes toward heaven; the water of purification and King David’s repentance from sin; and now the parade of palms for a peasant king riding his donkey into a confrontation with the forces that would soon take his life. All of these images share the simple arc, that shows up in whatever size or quantity or arrangement to make up each picture. Thanks again to Connie Briggs for making this wall hanging, and for Violet Sears’ Sunday school class for creating your own version of these images that we’ve been using for the children’s story and have kept out in the forum area.
We could think of the simplicity of the arc as reflecting the simplicity of the season. Lent is a time to repent, confess, reflect. A time to fast. To strip away the extras, the excesses of life and get down to the basics, the core of who we are. Like the simplicity of the barren wilderness. Or the simplicity of an open, listening spirit.
My personal Lenten confession is that for our family, this season has been anything but simple. Ever since discovering, the evening before the ordination on Feb 1st, that we would be expecting our third child, life in our household has pretty much been a whirlwind of change and adjustments, both realized and anticipated. Enough change, that our household now has a different house to hold than when this began two months ago. I’ve already reflected some on this process through Musings and conversations and don’t need to say much more about here, except to say that it has made this simple season of Lent rather complex.
Alongside this, this has not been a simple time in the life of our nation. The economic unraveling that started toward the end of last year has continued up until now and how this will shake out in the next year or two is still very much unknown, even to the supposed experts. We have been confronted with the extreme complexity of our economic system and the financial instruments at work within it, seeing how the failure of one aspect of the economy can influence the entire system of credit and employment and consumption. We’re left frustrated with asking questions whose answers we’re pretty sure we don’t know and are worried that no one else may know either. Do we focus on pumping more money into the economy for stimulus or do we focus on regulation? Is a bank bailout really the only option for stabilizing the economy and restoring credit flow? Should the poor and middle class get a bailout? Should anyone get a bailout? How much do we give to prop up an auto industry that would apparently fail if it were allowed to go the way of market forces? And if it fell what all and who all else would fall and how painful would it be? The unknowns and the precarious nature of the situation has left economists and editorialists speaking in terms that echo the apocalyptic warnings of ancient prophets.
As much as I would wish for the simplicity of the season to be the norm, approaching Holy Week with these complexities in mind puts us in a good position to enter into the experience of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion. This final week of Jesus’ life, to which the gospels dedicate such a surprisingly large amount of narrative, deals with all these same swirling political and economic forces. Jesus, the itinerant preacher, folk healer, and wonder-worker, comes up from the more simple life of rural Galilee where he has carried out his ministry, and walks into the urban center of Jerusalem, into the economic powerhouse of his time, the temple complex, confronting and speaking to the powers that be, disrupting and angering them enough that they seek his death. This is the story that we enter into now.
I’m going to be tracing different parts of this story as it’s told in Mark’s gospel and encourage you to turn there, starting in Mark chapter 11.
When Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem, it is done with a great deal of intentionality and aforethought. He knows what he’s doing, is fully aware of the potential consequences, and carries out the actions necessary to make his message clear. This shows up in a couple ways in the text of Mark 11. As the chapter begins we read that Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. Bethany was about two miles southeast of Jerusalem and, as the story continues to unfold, proves to be a place where Jesus has connections. It will be his home base throughout the week, as he shuttles back and forth between his place of lodging there at night, and his activity in Jerusalem during the day. Along with lodging accommodations, arrangements have been made for the key prop in a parade type entry Jesus plans to have as he enters the city. Jesus knows where this donkey colt will be located and gives his disciples the correct words to say to those who were watching over it until they arrived to take it to Jesus. “What are you doing, untying the colt?” some people ask them. “The Lord needs it, and will bring it back immediately,” the disciples reply, and are allowed to take the colt with them. Half of the triumphal entry story is given to this process of getting the colt, which could very well signal the well-planned out nature of what is to follow.
It would have been just as easy for Jesus to walk on foot into the city, but what he has in mind is something akin to a piece of street theater, acting out the words of the prophet Zechariah about the king who comes to bring peace, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout along, 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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech 9:9-10)
As Mark tells the story, this raucous, joyful procession from Bethany toward Jerusalem is a highly symbolic act, with the actual act of traveling somewhere not being nearly as important as the meaning of the parade itself. Verse 11 gives a fascinating, almost humorous description of the anticlimactic entry into Jerusalem. The journey that began two miles away in Bethany has ended, the praises have been shouted, branches waived in the air, and then verse 11: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Either the parade ran a little longer than Jesus had expected, and now it’s too late to carry out his plans for the day in the temple, or this was all that had been intended, and Jesus just scouts out the temple grounds. Whatever it was, he was scoping out, it will have to wait until tomorrow, as he turns right back around and walks the two miles back to Bethany with the twelve to return the colt as promised and get some sleep.
Verses 12-14. The heading in my Bible is “Jesus curses the fig tree.” The next morning, Jesus is up and back on his way to Jerusalem with the twelve, this time by foot. He’s headed straight for the temple, but first, another highly symbolic act. One of Mark’s techniques in his gospel is something like a literary sandwich, where he will tell about one event, move on to another, and then go back to the first event. The sandwich is all related and the outer parts help interpret the meaning of the inner part, the meat of the sandwich. So what may first appear as Jesus just getting up on the wrong side of bed and getting mad at a fig tree that won’t give him his breakfast, turns out to be something much deeper. Something else that we are about to encounter has not been bearing the fruit that it was intended to produce — desolate, and withering to its roots. Jesus gives it to the fig tree, the disciples hear him do it, and they move on toward the central institution in Jerusalem, the temple.
In a book about the social structures of first century Palestine, authors Hanson and Oakman make this summary statement after a chapter speaking about the temple: “What stands out about Palestinian society is the centrality of the Herodian temple, especially in maintaining the political-economic system, and the preeminence of the priestly oligarchy in the system’s management and benefits. The role of the temple in the life of early Roman Palestine was so pervasive that it should be thought of as an institution intruding into and organizing the social life of every Judean region and settlement. Its effects upon the distribution of social goods within Palestinian society cannot be overemphasized. The temple was the hub of a redistributive economy; goods and services, raw materials, crops, animals – all flowed to this central point. There, these goods were redistributed in ways not necessarily benefiting their original producers. Religious ideology legitimated (and sustained) this arrangement.” (Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts, KC Hanson and Douglas E Oakman, p. 156).
The time Jesus looks least like a Mennonite pacifist is this time when he enters the temple industrial complex and starts driving out those who were buying and selling and, nonviolently I’m sure, overturning tables. The terminology here, “driving out” is the same used throughout the gospel for Jesus driving out demons. This is a public, institutional exorcism. The presence of economic activity in a house of worship would not have been what Jesus found scandalous. If Jesus were to visit a CMF Ten Thousand Villages Christmas sale in past years my guess is that he would have been the first in line to purchase some beautiful handicrafts that would have also served to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. In the temple, he aims his efforts at the money changers and those who sold doves – doves being the sacrifices that Leviticus prescribes for those who are poor. He halts the flows of goods through the temple and laments that the purpose of the place is to be a house of prayer for all nations, but that is has become a den of robbers, with the wealthy benefiting off of the ritual obligations of the poor.
This is not received well by the authorities, who themselves benefited from the temple economy, for whom the temple was simply too big to fail. Verse 18 says that “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him.”
Evening comes, Jesus heads back out of the city, and when they set out again the next morning the final slab of the sandwich shows up. Peter says, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” With the temple mount visible in front of them, Jesus says, “have faith in God, Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘be taken up and thrown into the sea and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” The fig tree is the temple. Jesus then continues to describe a spiritual economy of grace that imagines a life after the temple, free from the debt system. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” No dove purchase necessary.
When Jesus stands trial later in that week, one of the accusations brought against him is that he had said, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” It’s not clear whether Jesus had actually said this or not, but it does help illustrate Mark’s theme throughout the events of Holy Week. In speaking to the question, “why was Jesus killed?” Mark seems so be saying something to the effect of “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Jesus was not anti-temple, per se, but he was introducing, imagining, urging an alternative economy. A way of exchanging gifts and graces with one another in a way that builds us all up, in a way that glorifies the God of the poor, the God of all nations, the God who rescues and delivers us from our debts.
In place of the massive space filled with the system of temple economy, Jesus offers an almost laughable alternative around which to form a community. Laughable because it pales in comparison to the sheer scale of our economic apparatus that we’re still barely able to understand. Laughable because it is so decentralized, so localized, so simple, that it is hard to fathom how it can have the power to transform us. But it does. It seizes us, haults us in our path, and converts us to its ways.
The complexity of our economic lives gets boiled down to these edible symbols of life under the reign of donkey riding King Jesus. The simplicity of the bread and the cup. We can’t get much more basic than this. Much more subsistence. On the night that he was betrayed Jesus gathered together his closest followers, and he offered them a new covenant, a new center around which to orient their lives. During the meal he took the bread, and he gave thanks and he broke it and he gave it to his disciples saying, Take this and eat, this is my body, which is given for you. And in the same way after the meal, he took the cup, and he gave thanks, and he gave it to his disciples saying, take this and drink, this is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. As often as you do this, do so in remembrance of me.
This is a bread and cup based economy, where all are welcome at the table and where there is enough for everyone. We never quite get what all it means for us. What all it asks of us. How these simple exchanges of bread and juice impact all of our other exchanges of time and money and goods and love and grace. But we’re pretty sure that it gives us everything we need, even as it demands everything of us.
When we share our offerings on Sunday mornings, we are participating in this economy. When we use our resources in ways that support practices that improve the welfare of others and the planet, we are participating in this economy. I know that Abbie and I felt like we were participating in the grace of this economy when a whole slew of you showed up to help us move a couple weeks ago.
Here are the simple elements of God’s holy economy. Bread and cup. The body of Christ. You and me, the body of Christ. Blessed, broken, shared.
As you prepare to come up and receive these elements, hear this invitation from the words of Isaiah 55:
“Listen, everyone who thirsts, come; and you that have no money, come, buy, and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me; and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come, listen so that you will live. God will make with you an everlasting covenant, God’s steadfast, sure love.”