A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
August 20, 2017
Tenth Sunday After Trinity
Today’s gospel recounts an event in the week before the Jewish Passover. It’s hard to imagine the excitement that surrounded the Jewish festivals at the time of Jesus. Jews from near and far would travel for days if not weeks to Jerusalem. They would sing Psalms of longing, joy, and liberation as they walked on foot, and tell stories of what God had done for their people while they rested along the road. The journey itself was part of the ritual, and the expectation grew with each step up towards Mount Zion and the center of the Jewish universe, the Temple.
All of these people were there to celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from slavery so many centuries ago. But Passover points forwards to the heavenly banquet as well as backwards to the liberation from Egypt. The crowds of people would no doubt have God’s promises on their minds as well – promises of God’s visitation: God would return to once again liberate Israel and judge her enemies. A restored Davidic King, and a broken Roman yoke.
This was, to say the least, a charged atmosphere, a powder keg ready to go off at the slightest provocation. And in this kind of atmosphere, actions often speak louder than words. Right before this passage, Luke has described Jesus’ triumphal entry. Jesus approaches Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus’ actions speak of the long awaited liberation, and that He was the long hoped for Messiah who would make it happen. The crowds recognized this and rejoiced.
Yet, the mood shifts drastically as we come to today’s passage. The boisterous praise gives way to weeping. Jesus weeps over the very city that the crowds had thought He was coming to liberate. Jesus proclaims that Jerusalem – which literally means “the city of peace” – is blind to what would bring them peace. Because of their spiritual blindness, Jesus prophesies, they face their own impending destruction at the hands of their enemies. Jesus prophesies that the Roman legions will surround Jerusalem, lay siege, and dash the city to the ground.
The reason for this fate is that Israel “did not know the time of [their] visitation.” The “visitation of God” is a kind of shorthand for God’s coming to save Israel and to judge the nations. The Passover celebrated the past visitation of God in Egypt and looked forward to God’s future visitation at the end of the age. The crowds that lined the road rejoiced because they thought they would see Israel’s restoration with their own eyes. Jesus flips the script, proclaiming that Israel will instead face judgment, as the surrounding nations once again plunder Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.
After Jesus’ words, there is no doubt a long, awkward pause filled with confusion. Jesus is acting out the symbols of liberation, but speaking the language of judgment. No doubt, the disciples and the crowds have hurt, puzzled looks on their faces and questions in their minds – what does Jesus mean? Why are we, Israel, facing judgment?
Jesus proceeds to the Temple, the center of Jerusalem and the heart of the nation of Israel. Jesus enters the Temple area and begins to throw out the traders who were selling animals and exchanging currency. As He does so, He quotes Scripture – “’My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’”
There are two main interpretations of this ruckus which we call the Temple Cleansing. First, the more traditional interpretation sees Jesus as cleansing the Temple from the traders. The idea is that the traders are exploiting the poor or otherwise interfering with proper Temple worship. The problem with this view is that none of the Gospel accounts actually say that the traders are doing anything wrong. The word for “robber” does not indicate a swindler or a price-gouger, but a violent bandit or guerilla fighter. Also, money changers and animal merchants were a necessary part of the normal functioning of the Temple, and no other sources from the time accuse the traders of foul play.
The second interpretation, which I think better fits the evidence, is that the Temple Cleansing is a prophetic, symbolic action, in a similar way to how the Triumphal Entry was a symbolic action. Jesus has just proclaimed that Jerusalem would be destroyed in judgment, and He acts out that prophecy in the Temple, the symbolic heart of Jerusalem. His actions would disrupt the Temple sacrifices for long after He leaves the scene, as the traders scurry around to gather their animals, count their coins, and restore order. Jesus disrupts the sacrifices in the Temple to symbolize the coming time when its sacrifices would cease for good when Israel is defeated.
For Jesus, the Temple symbolizes Israel as a whole, just as it did for the prophet Jeremiah; Jeremiah had called the Temple a “den of robbers” because the Israel of his day had become corrupt, marked by injustice, oppression, and violence. As Jesus has just prophesied, Israel still does not know the things that make for peace. They have lost sight of their vocation to be the house of prayer for all nations, to be the light of the world, to be the embodiment of God’s justice. Because of this, they will refuse to join Jesus’ movement of renewal, of true justice and peace, and instead will maneuver towards rebellion against Rome.
Jesus knew what the outcome of this rebellion would be. Israel was expecting divine intervention to come to their aid, just as they did in Jeremiah’s day; surely God would act to save them from their enemies. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, Jesus knew that God would not intervene to protect them. By rejecting the Prince of Peace and choosing the path of rebellion, their fate would be sealed. And so Jesus wept for the people He loved.
As we think through what this passage means for the church today, we should start with Jesus. Jesus wept for the people He loved – the people who were confused, who rejected Him, who were placing themselves on the path to destruction. Jesus was prophetic in the sense of predicting future events, in the sense of offering insightful criticism, but He was also prophetic in His love for the very people He was rebuking.
This is important to remember because by all accounts the church universal is struggling in its vocation. The church is called to be one, and yet it is marked by schisms and discord. The church is called to be holy, and, well, you don’t need me to tell you that we’re not doing so well with that either. It’s easy to be critical in such an environment, and we do need good, healthy criticism to help us acknowledge that something is profoundly wrong.
But Jesus wept for the people He loved. Now more than ever, we need a renewed sense of love for the wider church, including those parts from which we feel estranged. We need a renewed sense of desire and longing for a church that lives up to its calling. We need to take the small steps available to us that build towards that larger goal – to work towards unity in our own church and denomination, to work towards holiness in our own lives.
Most of all, what we need to do is pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit may inspire the church universal to a renewed sense of vocation. Pray that we may recognize how God has visited us in Christ. Pray for vision of those small steps that are so easy to miss or ignore, that contribute to the larger unity and holiness of the church.