Tag Archives: Matthew 21

Jesus vs. the System

Jesus vs. the System (CaD Matt 21) Wayfarer

The blind and the lame came to [Jesus] at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
Matthew 21:14-15 (NIV)

I remember once, as a young believer, my friends and I decided that we wanted to organize a weekend event in our church. We wanted to bring in a guest teacher we knew, have evening services each weekend night with some music and we’d invite anyone who wanted to come. We agreed to plan the whole thing, host the event, line up volunteers, and raise the funds necessary. We were so excited to do this thing.

Our plan came to a screeching halt when we were told that our plan had been swiftly and summarily rejected by our pastor and the Director of Christian Education. They would not give their stamp of approval because our guest speaker was not in our denominational silo. We were heartbroken, but it was a good lesson for me in learning how the world works, even in religious institutions.

A few weeks ago I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I contrasted the major tenets of fundamentalism which are clearly seen in the words and actions of the religious leaders, teachers of the law, and Pharisees who oppose Jesus, with what Jesus was teaching and exemplifying in His ministry. Fundamentalism is not just about religion. You can find the basic tenets of fundamentalism in almost any human system including families, businesses, schools, and political groups.

In today’s chapter, Jesus enters Jerusalem and the Temple to celebrate Passover. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims were there from all over. In yesterday’s chapter, Jesus clearly stated what would happen to Him in this week:

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Jesus has never been popular with the religious leaders, but He’s spent almost all of His ministry traveling around rural, backwater regions. Now Jesus is at the center of religious, political, and commercial power. The religious leaders Jesus has encountered up to this point were local minions and middle-management. The Temple in Jerusalem was the religious C-Suite. Jesus is walking into the seat of religious power, and the first thing He does is to piss them off by causing a riot in the Temple’s lucrative money-changing operation. If you want to make racketeers angry, threaten their cash flow.

Jesus is dealing with a fundamentalist religious system. Like all fundamentalist systems, these religious leaders have an unwavering attachment to the irreducible belief that they are God’s appointed rulers of God’s chosen people, and they have absolute, unquestionable authority over everyone and everything in their religion. So, on the heels of this act of “domestic terrorism” Jesus perpetrated against the Temple, the religious power brokers go to find Jesus who has giant crowds surrounding Him as He teaches in the Temple courts. They watch Jesus healing people. Blind people can see. Lame people walk. Deaf people hear. The crowd is going nuts.

Then the religious power brokers hear children shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This was the chant the people were shouting when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. At this, the religious power brokers “were indignant.”

As good religious fundamentalists, these dudes applied strict literalism to their religious dogmas and beliefs. They were more important than anything else, and the cheer “Hosanna (a form of the word “save”) to the Son of David (a moniker for the coming Messiah)” was strictly and systemically inappropriate. Only they had the power and authority to say who the Messiah was. The Messiah could only be the Messiah with their authoritative stamp of approval. Children shouting that Jesus was the Messiah threatened the entire fundamentalist system and their authoritative control.

In the quiet this morning, I just sat in the reality of that moment for a while. People are being healed. Jesus is revealing divine power no one had ever seen on Earth right in front of them. There is joy, tears of happiness, and the lives of countless individuals and families being forever changed for the good. While the religious leaders are indignant that children are shouting Jesus’ praise.

That is classic fundamentalism. “If it doesn’t exist within our established authoritative system and according to our strict, literal dogmas then it must be rejected, tossed out, and crushed as a threat.”

This brings me back to my and my friends’ hearts being crushed when the religious institution rejected and tossed out our desire to bring in a speaker for a weekend of meetings. As much as I wanted to fight the system, I learned at that moment that it was better to walk away. A fundamentalist system will go to any length necessary to protect the system. They’ll even conspire with political enemies to commit murder. Which is just what they are going to do to Jesus, and He knows it.

FWIW: Here’s the message I gave contrasting the tenets of the fundamentalist religious system of Jesus’ day with what Jesus was teaching and doing.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 21

"The Solemn Mock Procession of the Pope, ...
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Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” Matthew 21:31b-32 (MSG)

Along my journey, I’ve worshiped in, served on staff, or been in positions of leadership in a handful of different churches and denominations: Methodist, Baptist, Non-Denominational, Community, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Reformed. It’s given me a wide variety of experiences.

As I read the accounts of Jesus’ run ins with the religious leaders of his day, I always picture the religious and denominational leaders of my day having the same conflicts and run-ins with Him. In almost every denomination I’ve experienced, I’ve witnessed or been engaged in run-ins with religious leaders and authorities who act not unlike the Pharisees and Saduccees of Jesus’ day. It’s made me wonder if all human religious institutions, even those dedicated to Jesus, don’t follow the same paths towards human pride, power, and self-importance. I begin to think that it’s inevitable given the nature of man.

Today, this leads me down a path of introspection. As we begin Holy Week, I’m thinking about myself and where I fit in the story. What character in the story of Jesus’ final days, crucifixion, and resurrection do I most identify with? Am I more like Caiaphas the high priest, or Mary Magdalene? Am I more a part of the human institution of the church or a heart and life follower of Jesus? I don’t want to be like the religious leaders whose life was dedicated to the practice of religion but whose hearts and lives would not change to embrace  the Truth. I want to be like the “crooks and whores” whose belief is evidenced by a changed life. I want to go to the grave still becoming more like Jesus.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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