Matthew 21:23-32 “Good Trouble”
Jesus was unafraid to speak truth to power. And in the city of Jerusalem, he seemed to be determined to create, what Rep. John Lewis might call, ‘Good Trouble.’ We are entering into a series of Gospel lessons that take place after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem – essentially, these are the lessons he taught after what we celebrate today as Palm Sunday. Thinking about it from another perspective, for the next several weeks we will be following Jesus around Jerusalem during Holy Week – the time between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem until his betrayal by Judas. It is all very odd, timeline-wise, I know. We are quickly approaching the season of Advent, the weeks we prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus. But yet, the lectionary has us entrenched in the events of Holy Week. Chock it up to the peculiarities of the church year. I invite you set aside worries about timelines and progression of events. Instead, I invite you to hear today’s scripture, and the scriptures we will be considering for the next several weeks, from the lens of Jesus speaking truth to power, in the place of power. Jesus’ time in Jerusalem was a very specific time of his ministry and I believe the wisdom he shares in his lessons are vitally important for us today.
Because I make no assumptions about anyone’s familiarity with the story of Jesus’ life as told in the Gospels, allow me to orient you to the context in which we are hearing Jesus. In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the home of the Jewish Temple, the huge and ornate center of Jewish religious teaching and life. And I do mean huge and ornate. Archeologists believe the footprint of the Temple was about the size of six football fields. It was extravagant in appearance as well, not just size. It is believed the entire east facing wall of the Temple was covered in gold leaf, so it would glow as the sun rose. And around this awe-inspiring Temple the city of Jerusalem was arranged. A large city filled with millions, whose ethnic, social, and financial diversity would be familiar for many of us today. There were people of extreme power and wealth and those who lived on the absolute margins, whose poverty was so entrenched, that for many it had seeped into their very cells.
But, the other very important thing to know about Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was that it was also a city, and therefore a people, under hostile occupation. The Roman Empire had conquered and taken control of Jerusalem and the entire surrounding region. It was a city under foreign rule, and the Roman Empire was clear that everyone who was not Roman was less than. Less than worthy, less than equal, less than deserving of justice. Jerusalem was therefore a complex and dangerous place. It was the home of religious authority for Jews, and that religious authority – NOT the Jewish faith, I want to be clear about that – but the religious authority had in many ways been co-opted by the Roman Empire. The Empire kept certain people in power, ensuring their allegiance by also keeping them in wealth. Those religious authorities then used that power to maintain the status quo of the Jewish people. And the status quo was simple – the Roman Empire ruled over the Jewish people, using their forced labor and their crops to enrich the wealthy back in Rome.
That was Jerusalem, but, here is something we sometimes forget – Jesus did not spend much of his ministry there. In fact, most of his ministry was in the countryside around Jerusalem. That area was too under Roman occupation of course, but the power structure wasn’t as prevalent. There were tax collectors, most people were tenant farmers, meaning their land and whatever crop it produced were owned by distant Romans, and the religious authorities were far more concerned with rules than they were with justice. But, it was safer for a radical prophet like Jesus. For most of his ministry, Jesus wasn’t speaking truth to power. He was speaking truth to the poor. This was revolutionary in itself, but still relatively safe. But, Jesus knew his message of justice and equality, of God’s love and grace, needed to be heard by those in power as well. Jesus knew his message needed to be heard in Jerusalem, not just by the religious authorities of his day that were more interested in maintaining the status quo, but it also needed to be heard by the Roman occupiers AND those they were oppressing. Jesus knew that for him to fulfill his call from God to spread the Good News of God, he needed to go into Jerusalem. And on the day that we celebrate at Palm Sunday, Jesus did just that. He went through the gates of Jerusalem. He went through the gates of power. He went through the gates and spoke truth to that power.
My Beloved Community, I have come to realize that one of my callings as a preacher and teacher in a Christian church is to re-amaze you. Re-amaze is not a word, I know, but I can’t think of a better descriptor of what I am trying to do. You see, for good and bad many of the stories about Jesus have made their way into our secular life. Someone does not have to be Christian or even familiar with a worshipping life much at all to know something about Jesus. It is hard, though I admit not impossible, to find a person who when asked – who was it that walked on water, or fed the five thousand, or was crucified, or was resurrected – who wouldn’t know the answer to those questions was the Jesus of the Gospels. Those stories have ceased to be amazing. At one time in Christian history people would have gasped, reacted, had some sort of emotional response. But, not much anymore. So much of what shaped our faith has ceased to be amazing and I have found that my calling is, among other things, to try to re-amaze people. To connect heart and head, faith and spirit. To move from apathy to amazement – because apathy is what stops a movement, amazement is what carries it forward. And as I have studied Jesus’ teaching after he arrived in Jerusalem, the things he said directly to the people in power, I have come to realize he was doing the same thing. He was trying to amaze the people. He was trying to move them from apathy to amazement.
Jesus covered a lot of ground during his time in Jerusalem before his betrayal, trial, and death – and much of it we will hear over the next several weeks. But, here are just a couple of highlights: Jesus talked about taxes; he said the man-made rules of a religion have nothing to do with God; he told the poor they were worthy of love; he told the oppressed that they were equal in the eye’s of God; he said the Roman Empire was in direct opposition to the Empire of God. He said all of this to people who had been told all of their lives that their condition was their conclusion. He said all of this to the religious authorities who were paid to maintain the status quo. He said all of this within earshot of Roman guards, who eventually arrested and tried him. He was trying to amaze the people.
Jesus had seen for himself the danger of apathy in the face of oppression. The atrocities of Roman Imperial occupation were so frequent they had become common place and hardly anybody paid attention. The religious authorities, whose corruption was well-known were not challenged, they were simply seen as a reality. People had ceased to be amazed by what was happening around them and instead were apathetic. They shrugged it off and said nothing could be done. But then in walks this itinerant preacher from the countryside who said: “Look! Look at what is happening around you! Look at the oppression and injustice! Look at the way they denigrate God by trying to put your faith in a box! Look around you and be amazed!” Jesus knew that the only way for things to change was for them to be amazed by what they were seeing. Jesus knew that amazement is an emotional response, a heart response, that triggers the Spirit into action. Jesus walked through the gates of Jerusalem, knowing full well the dangers that existed for him there, but he did it anyway. The people needed to be amazed.
And that is exactly what the world needs right now. Amazement. We have watched video after video after video of Black men and women being killed for no other reason than because their black skin frightens the world. We have seen the destruction of property and broiling rage that comes after centuries of this country not confronting and repenting of our racist history and present. We have seen people get sick and die from COVID-19 and at the same time heard people insist it is all a hoax. We have watched political hypocrisy and blatant grasping for power from elected officials of both parties, and people are suffering the consequences. We have watched entire regions burn, and more hurricanes churning in the ocean than we have letters in the alphabet. We have seen so much, just in one year. So many people are amazed right now – and that is precisely what this world needs. And we begin to ask ourselves what we can do to make it better.
My prayer for you, my prayer for all of us, is that we stay amazed. Amazement is what leads to action. It is exhausting and overwhelming – but it is vital. It is our calling as people of faith. It is our calling to look around and not only see what is, but what can be. It is our calling to look at our neighbors and see the face of God. It is our calling to look at the earth and see it as a place to be nurtured, not exploited. It is our calling to speak truth to power and to hold our elected officials accountable. As we move through the next several weeks, listening to Jesus’ teachings after he arrived in Jerusalem, we will find there a map of how to live out our calling as Christians. And we will find there hope – hope that no matter how difficult the truth is, God blesses it. We will find there, that when the world says no to that truth, God says yes.
Let us pray
We thank you, compassionate God, that you hear the prayer of every heart:
- those who rejoice at a baby’s new birth,
- those who mourn when the circle is complete and a friend or loved one has died,
- those who are grateful when their work meets with success,
- those who are bored, not having enough to do,
- those who are tired, having too much to do,
- those who are surrounded by the love of family and friends,
- those who are lonely.
Thank you for hearing us in every situation of life, for we all play each of these roles sooner or later. Help us to support one another, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep. For we want to be joined together as members of the body of Christ, in unity loving one another and serving the world. We want, like Jesus, to respond to each human being who crosses our path with sensitivity and compassion. It is in the name of Jesus that we pray as he showed us, by saying together…Our Father…