As we enter Holy Week, might I suggest that we might consider Holy Week, the week that Jesus came to the Capitol to demonstrate. It was in the spring, the season of Passover. Perhaps about 30 AD. Jesus has determined that he must take his cause to Jerusalem, the Capitol of his nation. Or as Luke put it, “Jesus set his faith to go to Jerusalem.”
Jesus had a feeling of urgency, a sense that time was running out. For three years he traveled the dusty roads of the rural hamlets and villages, of the small towns around Palestine. With each success of his gaining the interest and hearts of common folk, his religious call for change, spiritually and socially, his enemies in the local communities became more threatened and were determined that they would eliminate him.
You see, Jesus proclaimed that religion must be rooted in the heart and not simply in ritual piety or religious rules. That one did not need an immediate intermediaries or sacrifices to know or to please God. But that God was lovingly seeking each one, personally and intimately, even those who were considered to be sinners and social outcasts. In fact, Jesus even went so far, once, to say that prostitutes and Jews who made their living collaborating with the Romans as tax collectors would get into heaven before some of the religious leaders who were ritually poor but arrogant of heart. Another time Jesus taught the people saying, “You look on the outward appearance to find a righteous person, but God looks on the heart.”
Yes, many who sought to sustain the status quo were very unhappy with Jesus, and they were plotting seriously. In fact, Jesus came to know that even his closest circle had been penetrated by the plot of those who wished to destroy him.
But no matter what the risk, it was time to take his message to the seat of power—Jerusalem.
And what a better time than Passover! …when Jews and Gentiles and God-fearers from every part of the world would be gathered.
Jerusalem was normally a city with a population estimated to be as high as 70,000. Of course, it ballooned during the week of Passover. Passover was the great national celebration of God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt. But also other oppressors. It was sort of like coming to Washington, DC on the fourth of July. Not only did Passover in Jerusalem inspire national religious pride and excitement, but it also had a way of stirring the passions of revolutionaries and insurrectionists.
Now the Roman government was aware of this latter point. So they would send military reinforcements to the garrisons in Jerusalem. Sometime at the beginning of Passover the Roman governor, in this instance Pilot, riding on a great stallion and tended by the official banners and insignia of Roman, the political and military authority, would lead a great procession of soldiers through the West Gate into the City. I’m sure this display of political and military power was both an entertaining spectacle as well as an intimidating experience for the crowd.
Most of the Galilean pilgrims, the areas from which Jesus would come, would enter through the East Gate, climbing the grade to enter the City. Now just think how you felt, especially if this was your first time coming to this Cathedral. As you approached this great magnificent building with its spires reaching to the sky, Washington National Cathedral, a symbol of faith in our nation. Yet most of us have seen big churches and temples before. But imagine: coming from a small first-century village of huts, or a town with low, one or two story stucco homes and small synagogues. And now you are approaching a great walled city, with a Temple at its center much larger than this Cathedral. It was awesome. Pilgrims approached Jerusalem full of holiday cheer and excitement. And there was a rare sense of collective power and identity that comes to an oppressed people when they feel free to revel in a critical mass. They felt reassured that they were a nation, and that they were the people of God. Some thought, ‘we are oppressed, but as long as Jerusalem stands, God has not forsaken us. So, hosanna!’
It was into this context that Jesus stages his first demonstration, the Triumphal Entry.
In Zechariah, the ninth chapter, the writer prophesies that the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, would enter Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. Being mounted on a humble donkey with Palm branches was an obvious message of peace. But it was also humorous in contrast to the Roman oppressors, the Governor on his great war horse with banners and insignias and standards and all the trappings of power. So as the throngs of pilgrims streamed into the city, Jesus inserted his entourage of demonstrators into this milay. And they came along with his Disciples shouting, “God save us. Hosanna!”
We know that the demonstration had some success because there were many who did come to Jesus’ teach-in in the courts of the Temple. But the demonstration actually took on a larger reality of revelry, as political demonstrations often do. Many saw it as a spoof, and they laid their cloaks down for the donkey to pass over. They broke off branches and threw them in the way, and waved them as a banner or standard would be waved. And others cheered them on. Others joined in thinking it was a pious way to enter the Holy City. Whatever I dare say, that most did not get the message.
There was another problem. Many thought that as long as Jerusalem and the Temple stood, God was on their side. But Jesus could see the growing strength of Jewish insurrectionists and revolutionaries, such as Barabbas and Zealots, on the one hand and, on the other, the brutal power of the Roman military. Jesus knew that Jerusalem and the Temple would soon be destroyed, as it was shortly after his crucifixion. Jesus said, “the time will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” Then what would the people do? What would they do without the rituals? What would they do without the place of sacrifice?
Jesus was protesting one other thing. He was protesting the role that religion played in creating a caste society. A dominant attitude was that if we cannot be more powerful than the Romans, we can be holier than they. Many oppressed nations today feel that way. If we cannot be more powerful than America, we can at least be more holier than the great sances. Formal religion had become a complex code of rules and rituals, remedies so that they might be pure before God. This served as a moral burden to simple poor and working class people to keep in their daily lives. It is like some Christian bodies today which have rigid codes of moral and society do’s and don’ts, things to prove one is truly God’s or saved. Of course, some constantly find themselves backsliding and having to get saved over and over again. Others are able to master the codes, and they like the Pharisees become self-righteous judges of others.
The Temple priests and officials also had something involved, for they used this culture of purity codes to accommodate a lucrative system of moneychangers. This was changing regional currencies which had the image of Caesar on them, which in reference to the Second Commandment concerning graven images they had to change to money that had no images, which was money-minted by the Temple. It’s sort of like if you were in Las Vegas, and you’re going to church that Sunday morning you probably would have your chips changed into American currency. Thought I don’t know of any ministers who would refuse your chips! Of course there was the cost of the exchange. And since most of the pilgrims traveling from a distance, they had to buy their sacrifices at the Temple. And of course this money changing and selling of sacrifices were fraught with injustices, especially for pious peasant pilgrims.
This led Jesus to his second demonstration of Holy Week. It was an act of frustration and violence. We call it the “cleansing of the Temple.” Although Jesus had preached against the sin of ritual piety and the abuse of the poor long before coming to Jerusalem, now that he was there in Jerusalem, seeing it in daily operation and the submission and acceptance of the people whom Jesus said were like sheep without a shepherd, it overwhelmed him. How could these priests and merchants use and abuse religion so blatantly—and right in the court of the Temple?! And how could the people be so stubbornly naive?! It was more than Jesus could take. And with the energy of his anger and passion Jesus sets out to express his disgust—and to get their attention.
It was indeed a violent act. Evidentially, this eruption was not enough to disturb and get the Roman soldiers’ attention. Other than intimidating a few vendors, there’s no Scriptural evidence that this display of righteousness and frustration had any positive effect. There’s no evidence anyone cheered him on. Business certainly continued in other parts of the court, and no new disciples were made. But he did get the attention of the priests and of the officers of the Temple. The brazen nature of this disruptive demonstration, which certainly intimated some, was bad for business. And it also challenged their moral authority. And so the Pharisees who didn’t like the Temple priests and the scribes, combined together to stop Jesus.
Jesus has now tried prophetic spectacle and venting his anger, even though his own Disciples didn’t really get it. Jesus was frustrated with pious exploiters and with naive victims. He once said, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Thou that kills all the prophets, how many times have I tried to gather you together to protect you from this gathering storm? But you would not heed me.”
This week I was talking with the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi at the Gandhi Institute in Memphis. And he talked about Jesus’ influence upon Gandhi. And he said one of those things was that Gandhi often said, “We must become the change we would see in the world. We must become the change we would see in the world.”
Perhaps the person who really learned most from these demonstrations was Jesus. For people are often more drawn to the spectacle of our demonstrations than by interest or commitment to its message. And that is why movements are so hard to sustain long enough to make real change. As a change agent with faith, Jesus had to trust God to make the ultimate statement for change. Christians with passion for justice and peace must include faith in God in the work that they do. To believe our agenda is God’s is to accept that whatever our effort, we cannot do the work of our partner, God, just as God will not do our work. For when we feel that we are alone in changing hearts and circumstances, we are vulnerable to becoming consumed by the fire of our passion and often becoming an enemy of our cause.
Well, for all intents and purposes, Jesus’ week of demonstration had failed. And additionally, he had caused his enemies to plot against him. So, should he run away and disappear and leave this world to its deserved fate? Or was his conviction important enough that he would not disappear, but demonstrate the ultimate in submission to God?
St. Francis understood this kind of submission. You remember that he wrote that we are in places where there is hate, to sow seeds of love; where there is injury, to sow seeds of pardon; where there is discord and division, unity. But sometimes our efforts and our actions don’t work, and St. Francis understood this, so he added, “We must also and most importantly, seek not so much to be consoled and to console; not so much for others to understand us, but to understand; not so much to be loved, but to love.”
So Jesus makes the decision to seek, to save, even if he is not saved; to understand, even if he is not understood; and to love, even if he is not loved. He will love those who are worthy and he will love those who are not. And so Jesus is on the Cross, and he looks down, and he sees those saying, “Crucify him, crucify him” He saved others. They laugh at him.” And he looks and he sees on each side those who by their violence and by their immorality belonged on the Cross with him, two wretched and violent victims of justice, maybe a Hussein and a bin Laden!
But what does Jesus say to the people beside him and the people before him? He looks to God and says, “Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do.” Jesus became the change he would see in the world.
Today, even without the Resurrection, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords, and there is no religion, no culture, that is uninfluenced by his life.
Well, as we enter this Holy Week, I ask you: Is the limit of your demonstration of faith simply going to be this liturgy? Or will there be evidence, will there be demonstrations of love to the poor, the fearful, those who have no faith, those who are without hope? Will there be something in your life for the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the victims of violence and abuse? Will you do something that will demonstrate your passion?
As we enter this Holy Week, are we so righteous that we have no love for society’s outcasts? Do we have love, I ask for those who are racially or socially different? Do we have love for those whose sexual orientation is different? Or have we only judgment? Do we have love for those who are politically different? The conservatives or the liberals? Do we have respect for them? Do we have respect for women who won’t stay in their place?
In this time of war, whether we have demonstrated for it or against it, the real question is, do we really love the Iraqi people? Do we as Christians really believe that they are a part of the world that God so loved? Will we have enough commitment that beyond the announcement of victory, with the same passion and vigor, that we urge our government and the United Nations and others in nation building? That we ourselves will make personal sacrifices, to give of our time, our resources and our commitment, to serve them and other people in development worlds? Or will we as Christians seek simply to be understood by Muslims, rather than to understand them? Will be more concerned about the world comforting us because of 9/11, than to reach out and to comfort others who suffer from violence day after day after day?
America is a good country, a country of good people. But we do tend to wish to be loved by the world for our generosity, for our democracy and for our power. Can we be seen to grow now in our respect and understanding of others, to demonstrate that God expects most of us that as Christians especially we will be like Jesus. Being like Jesus we will allow our lives to demonstrate that we will become the change that we wish to see in the world.
May this be a week of demonstration for us.