Micah 7.1-4 Psalm 31.9-16 Philippians 2.5-11 Mark 11.1-26
The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
March 25, 2018
As the Gospel of Mark tells it, Palm Sunday started out with a bang but ended in a bust. Jesus parades down from the Mount of Olive accompanied by shouts of Hosanna from his disciples. But when he reaches the Holy City, his disciples are nowhere to be found. He climbs the temple steps, looks around all alone, and returns to a quiet supper in the village of Bethany.
Apparently the people of Jerusalem did not stream out of the city to join Jesus’ disciples in his triumphal procession. Even the palms are absent from Mark’s Palm Sunday. It appears that only group of his disciples spread garments to line Jesus’ path along with rushes which they cut from the fields. As the shadows of the evening put a lid on the day, a Palm Sunday that began with a shout ends with a sigh.
It’s what happens on Palm Monday that makes sparks fly. What does Jesus do on Palm Monday but create a major incident through trashing the worship service in the Temple! It’s like a one-man takeover of the Temple. No one was able to move without his permission, and he did not give it. Jesus sits outside on the Temple steps with his back to a pile of debris from a smashed religious establishment. There, he spell-bounds the crowds with his teaching. He is so popular that the religious authorities would not dare to kill him. The chilly embarrassment that brought Palm Sunday to a close has melted in the heat of Palm Monday’s uproar, created, first, by Jesus’ one-man assault on the money-changers, second, a population electrified by his teaching, resulting in, third, furious religious authorities with blood in their eyes.
It appears that Jesus has done all this deliberately to set himself up as the teacher to the crowds, to the common people, in order to spite the establishment’s credentialed professors. Mark reports that the “multitude [outside the Temple] was astonished at his teaching.” And that’s how it had been all through his life. When he first began with his trial sermon in Capernaum, “all were amazed and said, ‘This is a new teaching.’” People hounded his path throughout his life to hear him teach. The demons recognized his true nature from his teaching. Even into the final days of his life, Mark says that the common people heard him gladly. (Mark 12:37)
So you shouldn’t be surprised that it is his teaching that compels the religious authorities to conspire to kill him. The common people were glad to hear him. But the religious authorities who spoke for the establishment, the teachers, the sages, the opinion makers and cultural arbiters could not let him go on. What happened on Palm Monday sets off the ultimate battle between two types of teaching, two stories to live by, two narratives having power to shape you in two different ways. His teaching sets up the battle of Good Friday.
I want to know what the crowd heard Jesus say that so electrified them, that so astonished them, that made them beg for more. And I want to know what they had been hearing week in and week out, Sabbath by Sabbath, that made what Jesus had to say, by contrast, so electrifying, so heart-rending, so soul-satisfying that they could get enough of it. What had they been hearing all this time?
To answer these questions, let’s begin with what Jesus said on that Palm Monday. Turning to everyone outside the Temple, he quoted from the prophet Jeremiah. “My house shall be the house of prayer for all peoples.” With his back toward the wrecked Temple he looked back over this shoulder and said, “But you have made it a den of thieves.”
On Palm Monday Jesus actively destroys the machinery and liturgy of the Temple. He sets himself up in a position outside the Temple to teach about the very things which should have been taught inside the spiritual center of a nation—prayer to God and building community with each other. He gives his back to a junkyard of a Temple. Something is at stake here in his turning the Temple into a junkyard. What might that be?
We can figure it out from Jesus’ comment, “den of thieves.” A system of collusion existed between religious leaders and political leaders. Jesus calls this collusion the “den of thieves.” This combine of religion and politics used the sanctuary both as a place to rip-off the common person, and to give religious cover to oppressive policies of an occupying power. And to fill out the picture of a “den of thieves”, remember what the prophet Micah supplied today. “The official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice.” This is what Jesus destroys.
Jesus makes the Temple and its religion a junkyard. Jesus turns his back on junkyard religion. Jesus puts himself physically between us and junkyard religion. Now listen to me carefully. Jesus still has to teach his way against the lure of junkyard religion which is filling the minds and hearts and spirits of fellow Americans Sunday by Sunday.
- Junkyard religion is shaping political candidates to say, “If you want to dream, go back to your own country and dream!” and “If they were brought here as children, they’re still illegal.”But Jesus says, “My house is a house for all.”
- Junkyard religion makes Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, unable to see that the money African-American ball players earn makes them all the more obligated to take the knee in support of racial justice. Jesus points to a better way for that pastor to read his Bible.
- Junkyard religion denies same-sex couples their request to adopt a child because they do not represent a “holy family.” What kind of holiness is this religion talking about?
- Junkyard religion insists that religion stay out of politics. That’s what national evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University, said as he tried to rally evangelicals who are conflicted with President Trump’s alleged affairs. Falwell tweeted: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome—he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” What Jesus-story has he been reading?
- In what religious junkyard does a man worship who thinks he has a perfect right to enter a pubic restaurant wearing a tee-shirt bearing an obscene political message?
- What junkyard religion encourages politically correct extremists, usually on the left, to shout down unorthodox opinions on university campuses instead of engaging in reasoned and civil debate?
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples,” says Jesus. The crowd gasps in astonishment. But, didn’t we learn this when we were kids in Sunday School? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, [also brown] they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Has the religion now being taught in our national temples gotten to such a state that this simple nursery song has become astonishing news, electrifying teaching, something to make us clap our hands in joyous surprise?
Jesus says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” It is his house. He makes the rules in his house. Religion in the Jesus-house is global in reach, inclusive to all, discriminating to none. Religion in the Jesus-house turns its back on all elitist, nativist, racist, sexist or chauvinist cant. Religion in the Jesus-house surrounds you with the strong presence of God as you step into a global future. The religion of the Jesus-house is expansive in human scope and deeply rooted in transcendent power.
But somehow, all people in one house is not good news to lots of people. They say they are overwhelmed by powerful economic and cultural anxieties. They blame globalization, immigration, and multiethnic societies for their stagnating wages. They fear they cannot keep up with the pace of change, so they have opened the doors of their hearts to the junkyard dogs of religion and politics who prey on these anxieties. And in order to feel secure they are willing to sacrifice their very children in school houses so that they can keep any gun they want.
Remember I told you that what happened on Palm Monday sets off the ultimate battle between two types of teaching, two stories to live by, two narratives having power to shape you in two different ways. The Jesus-way was put to the test on Good Friday. Well, again, the Jesus-way is being put to the test. Jesus taught a religion that insists that the past does not have to be forgotten, but it can be left behind so you are freed up to move forward into greater wholeness. That is good news for forward looking, forward thinking people. This news is being put to the test. The religion of Jesus keeps your moral compass true as the country gyrates under a libertine, quixotic president and the media is filled with the swill of on-line nihilists. This is good news for folk who want to feel clean in their daily lives. This news is being tested. The religion of Jesus promises to you that God can make astonishing new life come out of the most deadly of situations. This is good news for you to hang your hopes on. This news is being tested.
Jesus is our Savior because he puts himself between us and junkyard religion. With our eyes fixed on him we can know gladness in our hearts and generosity in our spirits. The junkyard dogs are out there roaming. Jesus gives his life in order that you may be safe from their pernicious teaching. And Easter will show that this simple nursery song about Jesus and the little children of the world has the power to bring crashing down the house of cards dreamed up by a den of thieves.
See Paul Brooks Duff, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco-Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992), 55-71 and David R. Catchpole, “The ‘Triumphal’ Entry,” in Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (eds.) Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 319-334.
Bud Kennedy, “Joe Barton Liberal?” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 20, 2018.
https://www.vox.com/2018/1/26/16936010/evangelicals-jerry-falwell-trump-caesar-rome. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores the connection between a type of evangelical theology and Trumpism more fully in Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder-Religion.
Cynthia Allen “T-shirts, f-bombs and Responding to Trump in Kind,“ Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 16, 2018, 11A.
Amy Wax, “The Closing of the Academic Mind,” The Wall Street Journal.February 17, 2018, https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.tcu.edu/hp/printsavews.aspx?pp=Print&hc=0