By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.[a]” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
12 Then Jesus entered the temple[c] and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard[d] the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
The Jerusalem of the First Century was at the very height of its greatness in the ancient world. At the time of Jesus, Jerusalem had been under Roman rule for 60 or more years, and it had thrived. Herod the Great was the first Roman puppet ruler. He began a massive rebuilding of the Temple, tearing it down and rebuilding it as far larger and more beautiful. The project would take almost a century. Herod was extremely politically astute, and he used religion exactly the way that Karl Marx warned it could be used: As the opiate of the masses. Herod knew that if he fed their religious fervor, he could control their revolutionary tendencies.
Building up the “Temple Industrial” complex in Jerusalem also, of course, built up Jerusalem. With the Temple grounds seven times larger than they once had been, more Levites were needed to perform ceremonial duties and more menials were needed to maintain all the facilities. Construction at the site was ongoing and thousands of workers had come to Jerusalem. All this led to vast urbanization and expansion. It especially led to growth in wealth to the powerful Temple elite. Much of the rebuilt Temple was funded by Roman money, a lot of which trickled down to the priestly class and the religious leadership.
When Jesus rode into town on a donkey he had left nothing to chance. He had taken his time to journey to Jerusalem, along the way drumming up the enthusiasm of crowds in every city he entered with teachings and healing miracles. The last village he passed through was Bethphage, and there he sent his disciples to acquire the donkey and colt. “If any asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say ‘The Lord has need of them and will send them back immediately.’” It was no miracle that the owner of the donkeys gave them over to Jesus’ disciples. It is evidence of pre-planning. Likewise when the crowds throw their cloaks down and wave palm branches it isn’t spontaneous. The crowds are there because they know Jesus is coming. He had probably sent an advance team ahead of him. Jesus had used his long circuitous trip from Galilee to Jerusalem to build up excitement and enthusiasm and to spread the word that, like the hero in a Western, Jesus was coming to town to do some business—with a big gun on his hip.
Only Jesus’ big gun wasn’t a gun at all, but the Gospel.
The three so-called Synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—tell us that after preaching in Galilee possibly for years, Jesus reaches a decision point where, as Luke puts it “He set his face to Jerusalem.” This was no small decision on his part. Almost his entire ministry had been spent in Galilee, around the Sea of Galilee, a place quite different from Jerusalem in about every way imaginable. It was poor, a place where undereducated people lived subsistence lives, mixing with Gentiles from the Roman settlements and Syria. Jesus had butted heads with the religious leadership in Galilee, but they were Pharisees, quite different from the Temple elite, called the Sadducees, in Jerusalem. It appears that once Jesus began his ministry, he didn’t go to Jerusalem even for the religious festivals. The most likely reason for this would be that he had many enemies among the Sadducees and knew that he ran the risk of being arrested there. His disciples knew that for Jesus even to go near Jerusalem was to take his life into his hands. In the Gospel of John, at one point Jesus decides to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, and his disciples say in frustration, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). In other words, Jesus knew that to decide to go to Jerusalem was to risk his own death.
And Jesus was no fool. He wasn’t about to go there without a plan.
The average bible reader might assume that Galilee and Jerusalem were right next door to one another, but they weren’t. And though Jesus was causing quite a stir around the Sea of Galilee, he was at best a rumor once you got a few miles away from there. And so he used his journey to Jerusalem to drum up support and to increase awareness of who he was. It caused ripples and stirs all the way to the Holy city, where the rumors of this Galilean prophet began to morph into the long-simmering hope of the one who would come and free Israel from its subjugation to the Romans and from what many viewed as the corruption of the Sadducees. By the time Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he is no longer a country preacher from the sticks but, at least to a fair number, he is “The Son of David” and “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee!” Throughout his week in Jerusalem, as he preaches on the steps of the Temple, crowds will gather to listen. His popularity will grow so great in that span of just a few days that when the Sanhedrin wants to arrest him, they decide to do it under cover of darkness, so as not to cause a riot.
It is important to note this, because one of the myths that surrounds the death of Jesus is that it was “the Jews” who wanted him dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, Jesus was hugely popular and held to be a prophet by a good number of Jews both in Galilee and in Jerusalem. Leaders, both Jews and Romans, wanted him dead. But I think we all know how true it is that sometimes our leaders are hardly representative of the people.
So yes, as I mentioned, Jesus had a plan. Was it the plan we picture—that he goes to Jerusalem to die to save us from our sins? Perhaps. But it’s always good to look not only at our theology of who Jesus is, but also at what he says about himself. And the Jesus of the Gospels really doesn’t talk much about dying for our sins. What he talks a lot about is injustice and how to truly love and worship God. He preaches that to love God is to love your neighbor, to love the stranger, and to love the enemy—a radical idea that no one had ever stated before. He preaches that to be truly right with God, you must show mercy and practice forgiveness, rather than concentrate on performing the right rituals. He reaches out in compassion to the poor and the needy and he is frustrated that often the poor and needy are cast aside or neglected. He says that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the needy, the blind, the lame, and to children. He criticizes religious leaders who burden poor people with rituals and obligations while themselves getting the best seats and the best cut of meat at the banquet. He tells people that the true worship of God should come from the heart, and that the true measure of our faith is how we treat others. And he criticizes certain people a lot. Those people are religious leaders, whom he quite regularly calls “hypocrites” –people who claim to be true followers of God but in reality are nothing of the sort.
And so all of that is what shapes Jesus’ plan as he enters Jerusalem during this particular Passover. That is what decides for him what his first target will be. His first target is the Temple itself. Many of us have the impression that Jesus’ overturning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple was a spontaneous expression of outrage. But it wasn’t. Jesus’ Temple action had been planned ahead to start his week in Jerusalem as the expression of his main theme: true worship of God that doesn’t exploit the people.
The Temple was magnificent. The walls towered several stories high, comprised in part by Carrera marble all the way from Italy, as well as marble from a huge quarry just outside of Jerusalem. Some of its stones weighed hundreds of tons. It was topped by pinnacles in key places. The gold on the roof of the main building gleamed for miles around: ancient commentators said it was like “a second sun.” Jesus was there at Passover, the most important celebration of the Jewish year, and as many as three to four hundred thousand Jews from all over the world crowded the city’s streets and entered the Temple through its south entrance, at the gigantic Huldah gates. The parapets were hung with gigantic colorful banners and streamers.
Once you had entered the main gates you were in the Court of the Gentiles, a stretch of land several footballs fields long that led to the Temple itself, where the Passover sacrifices were to be made. The point of these sacrifices was not to wash away anyone’s sin. They were an elaborate ritual way to show your gratitude to God. No one who was there thought that somehow they were appeasing God’s wrath. In fact, the vast majority of those who were there had come because they truly believed in God and it was a vital part of their identity as Jews to worship and honor and thank God– especially on the Passover, when they remembered how God had freed them from slavery in Egypt and in the process had created the nation of Israel. Once they were no people, but now they were God’s people, thanks to the Passover. They were there to celebrate the unique relationship with God that made them who they were.
The Court of the Gentiles was lined with merchants selling everything from Temple bling to animal sacrifices. According to the Book of Leviticus, sacrifices operated on a sliding scale: The rich offered bulls and the like; the poor offered pigeons. Now the Temple grounds were actually as loaded with pigeons as a New York City park; pigeons loved all that marble, and Levites had to clean up the mess. But if you wanted a sacrifice, you couldn’t just grab a pigeon off the street. Sacrifices had to be “without blemish.” Many people brought the goat or the bull they’d raised specially to make sure it was “without blemish.” But some people didn’t have a sacrifice; or else when they got to the Temple, the Levites informed them that their sacrifices were blemished and therefore no good.
And this is where the problems started. Because the merchants at the Temple sold everything at a huge mark-up. And then there were the money-changers. You see, every year each Jew had to pay the Temple tax. But it could only be paid in Jewish money, which did not have a representation of a human being on it. Money changers changed money from all over the world into Jewish money; but this, too, they did at a huge mark-up—after all, if you’d gotten this far and didn’t have the right money where else would you go?
When Jesus entered the grounds, he went straight to the tables of the merchants and money-changers and began to overturn them. The Gospel of John says he made a crude whip so that he could drive out the animals. It was chaos. Then—this is something we rarely talk about—according to the Gospel of Mark “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple” (Mark 11:16). In other words, he and his disciples actually seized and controlled the Temple grounds for several hours. This was a striking example of what we’d call today non-violent direct action. “My house shall be called a house prayer,” he cries, clearly angry at the way the merchants were exploiting the worshipers; “but you have made it a den of thieves!”
And then Matthew tells us that “the blind and the lame came to him in the Temple and he cured them.” And we discover furthermore that there are children in the Temple crying “hosanna to the son of David!” Children. The Blind and the lame. The blind and the lame were allowed in certain areas of the Temple grounds, but were considered “blemished” and couldn’t participate in the full Temple worship; but here is Jesus, receiving them and healing them thus making them “without blemish” and able to worship in the Temple fully.
Jesus is using the Temple grounds as an object lesson of what he has taught from the beginning: that the Kingdom of God is made up of the poor, the blind, the lame, and children. The outcast and the marginalized. He is illustrating the Kingdom of God he proclaims by taking over the Temple in Jerusalem.
In doing all of this, it is worth noting, Jesus is actually perfectly and completely in line with the teachings of the prophets who were before him, and with the criticisms of many of the Jews of his day, that the Temple had become corrupt and that Temple worship and sacrifices had become poor substitutes for practicing righteousness and mercy. This dramatic act was a kind of performance art that had been practiced by many prophets before Jesus—though it must be said that it is perhaps the most dramatic act of performance art of any of the Jewish prophets. And it had the effect of galvanizing the people there for Passover: something interesting was happening!
And also of infuriating the Temple elite. And giving them a reason to want to get back at him, whether by arrest—or by some other means.