It's about Jesus
The gospels, once we understand them, force us to an inescapable
conclusion. They are not advocating a philosophy, a religion or
a system of belief. They are not even advocating "Christianity."
They are advocating Christ. They are advocating a Person. And
that's what ultimately makes the gospels irresistible, or utterly
frustrating, depending on what you want out of them. Many people
read the gospels and appreciate the teachings of Jesus, but admiration
for, and even adherence to, someone's teachings is significantly
safer than worshiping that person. The gospels present Jesus as
the Lord, Yahweh, the one true God. He comes first and foremost
to give us himself. But in many ways, we're unprepared for him.
His presence, then, often serves first of all to disrupt our earthbound
way of thinking. Jesus overturns our idolatrous agendas in order
to give us himself.
Matthew, in Chapter 21, describes Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Jesus understands his entry into the city as fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 21:5). The people hail him as the Son of David, the Messiah (Matthew 21:9). Hopes are high. Then Jesus does something very strange. He enters the temple and does something very un-Messiahlike. He disrupts their way of life.
Jesus overturns our agendas (21:12-13)
(12) And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves. (13) And He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you are making it a robbers' den."
Jesus enters the temple area. The people longed for the Lord's
promised return to Jerusalem, particularly to his temple (Zechariah
1:16, 8:3; Malachi 3:1-4). Here the Lord, Jesus, returns to Jerusalem,
and to the temple. Jesus disrupts the ministry of the temple,
casting out those who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice,
overturning the seats of those who were exchanging foreign money
into Tyrian money in order to make their purchases, and overturning
the seats of those selling doves for sacrifice.
The actions of Jesus leave us with two questions: 1) What problem does he have with the what's going on in the temple? 2) What does he intend to communicate by his actions? Jesus' words in the temple help us to understand his actions. His words originated with the prophets Isaiah (Isaiah 56:7) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:11), so we must understand something of the context in which the prophets spoke.
Isaiah 56 concerns the anticipated return from Babylonian exile but also looks forward to an age beyond the exile, and even to the true return from exile. It speaks of the inclusion of eunuchs and foreigners. The Lord says, "For my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples." Mark, quoting Jesus, includes the words "all the peoples," but Matthew leaves them out. Evidently, in the reference to Isaiah 56:7, Matthew sees Jesus being first of all concerned that the temple is no longer a "house of prayer," oriented toward the Lord.
In Jeremiah 7:4, the Lord tells the people, "Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.'" The temple provided them with a false sense of security. Because of the temple, they assumed that the Lord was with them, which allowed them to do whatever they wanted, with the assumption that the Lord would not intervene. Their central sin was idolatry (Jeremiah 7:6, 9). The Lord said that the temple had become a "den of robbers." As criminals would hide out in a cave for safety, the people of Israel were hiding out in the temple, so to speak, assuming they were safe from the Lord's judgment. The Lord said that the temple provided no security at all, announcing that he would destroy the temple unless they amended their ways (Jeremiah 7:12-15). They didn't change, and the Lord destroyed the temple through the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
What, then, is Jesus saying to the people of his day by accusing them of making the temple a "robbers' den"? The New Testament word translated "robber" is used by Josephus, the First Century Jewish historian, of an "insurrectionist" or "brigand." These are the ones who took up arms against Rome. Even the Old Testament word translated "robber" in Jeremiah can mean "violent one." This is the meaning in Daniel 11:14, where it is predicted that "violent ones" from among the Jews would rise up against an Egyptian king. Jesus seems to be saying that the temple is a den of insurrectionists, whose agenda is to overthrow Rome, and that the Lord does not endorse this agenda.
Just as the people of Jeremiah's day turned to another god, the people of Jesus' day have turned to another god that took the form of nationalism. Just as the temple provided no security in Jeremiah's day, neither does it provide security in Jesus' day. Just as Jeremiah predicted the destruction of the temple, and was true to his word, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:2, 23:38), and would be found true to his word, when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D.
How does Jesus link the words from Isaiah and Jeremiah? By invoking Isaiah 56:7, Jesus accuses Israel of rejecting the Lord. By invoking Jeremiah 7:11, Jesus accuses Israel of rebellion against Rome. They had replaced worship of the Lord with a nationalist, pagan-like agenda. Jesus' use of Jeremiah 7:11, then, contains echoes of the Isaiah 56 context, in which the temple was to be a place of worship for eunuchs, foreigners and "all the peoples." Israel, however, was planning to take up arms against Rome. Jesus, however, blessed a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), and when he was crucified, Romans at the scene, unlike the Jews, recognized that he was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54). The biggest tragedy is what they longed for - the return of the Lord - has taken place, but they can't see it, because they are focused on their own agenda.
What does Jesus intend to accomplish through his actions and words? Matthew has just noted that Jesus was called a prophet (Matthew 21:11). Jesus is acting and speaking like a prophet. Prophets acted out judgment symbolically, and that's what Jesus is doing. He temporarily shuts down the activity in the temple. Israel has forsaken its God, and he is pronouncing and acting out judgment on the temple, where Israel was supposed to be worshiping its God. His actions would be especially effective at this time, during the Passover, which attracts Jewish pilgrims. It's the equivalent of having a prime-time audience.
We, too, have our idolatrous agendas, don't we? Like the Israelites of Jesus' day, we may long for the presence of the Lord, but when he shows up, he's not what we expected. He shows up not to endorse our agendas but to frustrate them. He casts out and overturns beliefs and actions that are not oriented toward God. He disrupts our lives, our fellowships, our churches, our countries. In doing so, he shows us that it's not really the presence of the Lord we're longing for but the success of our agendas. Perhaps we're not so much longing for the presence of the Lord as we are longing for the Lord to do what we want. Jesus is here to change that longing. In order to change it, he often frustrates it.
A memorial service for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead brought thousands of people to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1995. One devotee who had attended more than 1,000 Grateful Dead concerts said that the difference between the Grateful Dead and most other bands was "the religious factor." Said he, "When you're in the crowd, there's a definite God-like feeling.
Everybody who comes to a Dead concert can feel that." That's all well and good, apparently, until something disrupts your worship, like the death of the lead member of the band. The same fan said at the memorial service, "I would give anything if I could take this day back." When our idols fail us, Jesus is there to give us himself.
Jesus gives us himself (21:14-17)
(14) And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. (15) But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were crying out in the temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they became indignant, (16) and said to Him, "Do You hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have prepared praise for Yourself'?" (17) And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and lodged there.
Why does Matthew report the healing of the blind and lame?
Such healings were indicative that the new age was upon them,
that the Lord was returning to Israel, that the exile was over,
that this really was the Lord who had entered the temple (Isaiah
35:5-6, Ezekiel 37:12-14, Matthew 11:4-5). There would be a time
of inclusion, when the outcasts of Israel and even the Gentiles
would be embraced, and they would come to Jerusalem (Isaiah 60).
The leadership of Israel was not embracing the outcasts of Israel,
such as the blind and the lame, let alone the Gentiles. Here Jesus
embraces the outcasts and heals them, which has the effect of
restoring them to the community and announcing to all that these,
too, are part of Israel.
Matthew reports that the blind and the lame "came to him in the temple." The temple is not the focus; Jesus is the focus. The outcasts are in the temple, but they come to Jesus, who is not part of the temple leadership. They gather not to the temple per se, but to one in the temple. Jesus is the fulfillment of the temple. Immanuel, "God with us," has come. He is not only the fulfillment of the temple but he will build an entirely new kind of temple, one comprising living stones (1 Peter 2:5). Therefore, the old temple, the one abandoned by the Lord because the people abandoned him, is no longer needed and will be judged and destroyed by the Lord. Jesus' prophetic actions in the temple precincts make precisely that statement.
The chief priests and the scribes respond to Jesus. The chief priests are not noted as being in opposition to Jesus until this point in the gospel. They join the opposition now because the temple is their responsibility, and they now see Jesus as a threat to their power.
The chief priests and scribes become indignant after seeing the "wonderful things" that Jesus did and some children crying out. Presumably, the overturning of tables and seats is not among the "wonderful things" that raised the ire of the chief priests and scribes. Neither do they seem that bothered by the wonderful things themselves, the healings, inasmuch as they do not speak to Jesus about them. Instead, they are most bothered by the children, for when they speak to Jesus, it is about them.
The children cry out, "Hosanna to the Son of David." When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the multitudes were crying out with the same words (Matthew 21:9). The children, probably picking up the cry from the multitudes, continue with it in the temple. Originally, hosanna it meant "help" or "save, I pray," but it came to mean something along the lines of "praise." "Son of David" is a messianic title (Matthew 1:1). The cry of the children, then, acclaims Jesus as the Messiah and praises him as such.
The Messiah would certainly have authority over the temple. Previous "sons of David," kings in his line, cleansed and restored the temple (2 Chronicles 29-30, 2 Kings 22). The Lord told David that his son would build the temple (2 Samuel 7:13), but the description of David's son in 2 Samuel 7 goes beyond Solomon, who built the first temple. A greater son ultimately must have been in view: the Son of David.
If Jesus simply disrupted the temple activities and healed a few people, the priests and scribes probably wouldn't have been too bothered. A messianic acclamation, however, is another story. And if a messianic acclamation is validated by "wonderful things" such as healings, it's not easily dismissed. The wonderful things, then, tended to validate what the children were saying. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah the priests and scribes wanted. The Messiah certainly wouldn't throw things around in the temple and act out God's judgment on it. So the children must be quieted, lest anyone get the idea that this deceiver really is the Son of David and thereby gain a following, take control of the temple and turn the world of Israel upside down.
So the chief priests and the scribes become indignant. They tell Jesus, "Do you hear what these are saying?" The implication in the question is, "Well, if you do hear them, shut them up! You're not the Son of David!"
Jesus, though, responds to their question at face value. He simply says, "Yes." Yes, he hears them, and he has no problem with what they're saying. Now, he has a question for the priests and scribes that calls into question their perceptive abilities. Jesus says his hearing his just fine, but now he calls into question their reading ability. He asks them, "Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have prepared praise for yourself'?" The citation is from Psalm 8:2, which they would have read. Just as the priests and scribes knew that Jesus heard the children, Jesus knows that they have read Psalm 8. Jesus says he hears, understands and endorses what the children are saying; now Jesus asks them if they hear, understand and endorse what the scriptures are saying.
In Psalm 8:2, the "praise" that the Lord has prepared for himself from children has the effect of confounding his enemies. The Hebrew word in Psalm 8:2 means "strength," but the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses a word that means "praise." The Hebrew word can also be used to imply something like "praise for his strength." Jesus is saying that Psalm 8:2 can be applied to the children who are currently praising him, although in Psalm 8:2 praise is prepared for the Lord, Yahweh, the one true God. The implication, then, is that Jesus is the Lord, Yahweh, the one true God. Another implication is that the priests and the scribes are the enemies of the Lord who are confounded by the children's praise of the Lord, namely Jesus. Jesus is further saying that what the scriptures say, in Psalm 8:2, endorses the children, thereby lending further credence to their words.
The Lord has "prepared" children to praise him. In the temple, of all places, the adults should have been prepared to praise him, particularly the chief priests and scribes, experts concerning the temple and the scriptures. But when the Lord returns to Jerusalem and enters the temple, as promised by the prophets, he hears not words of praise but words of anger. As it turns out, the children, in their innocence, reflect a better understanding of the intent of the temple and the scriptures than the experts. Earlier, the adults were crying out, "Hosanna to the Son of David." They are crying out no longer. If they were, the priests and scribes would have mentioned them to Jesus as well. Perhaps the actions of Jesus in the temple caused the adults to re-evaluate their assessment. After the cry of the adults has faded, the children sing on.
Jesus then leaves "them," the priests and scribes. The Lord has returned to Jerusalem and to the temple but has nothing to do with the leaders of Israel and of the temple.
Matthew tells us that Jesus left the city and lodged in Bethany. Why does Matthew inform us of the direction of Jesus' departure and his eventual destination? It doesn't seem at all integral to the story. Perhaps Matthew sees something symbolic in this, just as Jesus intended his disruption of the temple to be understood symbolically.
The prophet Ezekiel, just a few years before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C., was given a vision of the departure of the glory of the Lord from the temple and the city of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10:18-19, 11:22-23). When the temple was completed the Lord filled it with his glory, which symbolized his dwelling with his people (2 Chronicles 5:11-14). But the people had since abandoned him, as can be seen in Jeremiah 7, so the Lord has left the temple, which made it just another building. Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord leave the temple through the east gate. Then he saw the glory cloud leave the city and stand over "the mountain which is east of the city." That mountain would be the Mount of Olives. On the east slope of the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, is a little town called Bethany.
As the glory of the Lord left the temple and Jerusalem to the east and stood over the Mount of Olives, Jesus leaves the temple and Jerusalem and lodges on the Mount of Olives. In Ezekiel's day, it became clear that the presence of the Lord had left the temple, which meant it was just another building, which meant it could be destroyed. The prophets, though, looked forward to the day when the Lord would return to Jerusalem and to his temple. Jesus, by understanding praise of the Lord in Psalm 8 to be equally applicable to himself, has, in a subtle way, just proclaimed himself to be the Lord. But when he returns to Jerusalem and the temple, he finds people who are not oriented toward the Lord, just as the people in the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The first temple, abandoned by the Lord, was destroyed by the Babylonians. It was later rebuilt under Zerubbabel and embellished by Herod, but it, too, ended up being just another building. Jesus, the Lord, could not find a home there. So he lodged elsewhere - east of the city, just like the glory of the Lord in Ezekiel's day. Once again, he is acting out judgment on the temple. Just as the first temple was destroyed by Babylonians, this temple would be destroyed by the Romans.
The Lord returns, but not to dwell in the temple. It is corrupt beyond salvation. However, he intends on building a new temple. After all, he is the Son of David, the temple builder. Now is the new age, the time of inclusion. The pilgrims are coming to a different kind of temple, to a different kind of Jerusalem (Ephesians 2:19-22, Galatians 4:25). They're coming not to a physical building or city but a spiritual temple and city because they want the presence of the Lord who dwells there. They're coming for Jesus.
Jesus disrupts our agendas, but it's only to give us something greater. He does so to give us himself. The evidence of his greatness is all around us, but often catches us by surprise. We don't expect children to proclaim the greatness of Jesus, but sometimes they do. Obscure verses of scripture, read but forgotten, brought to mind again, point us to Jesus. We'll try to shut up the children and discard the scripture or interpret the circumstances in our lives in a way that excludes Jesus but endorses our agendas, but Jesus is here. And he's building something beautiful that centers on himself.
In Franco Zeferelli's film, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," the story of St. Francis of Assisi, Francesco's life is disrupted. He enjoys his family and friends and the family business, and God endorses it all, for all he can tell. Then he and the other sons of Assisi go off to war, and Francesco returns disillusioned. He withdraws from life and keeps only to himself. He no longer goes to mass. Instead, he wanders in the fields to smell the flowers and watch the birds. But still, he can't make sense of life. His tables and seats have been overturned, so to speak. Finally, his father forces him to go to mass, but he finds it completely stifling. He is transfixed by an image of the crucified Christ in the cathedral. In the image, Christ has his eyes closed. Francesco is obviously troubled by false worship in the cathedral and by the presence of this image of Christ. He begins sweating and loosening his clothes, haunted by the mindless worship and the image of Christ. He can't take his eyes of the image. Then he sees a vision of the image of Christ with his eyes open, and he walks out in the middle of the service a changed man - a free man. He has seen Jesus, and that's what freed him. His life was disrupted, but out of the disruption, he found Jesus.
The greater agenda
Jesus told the Pharisees, "But I say to you that something
greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6). Jesus is
greater than our "temples." He's greater than our agendas.
He is the presence of the Lord. He has come not to endorse our
agendas but to give us a better one. He has come to give us himself.
- SCG, 3-29-98
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