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It must have been a long, lonely, sleepless night for Jesus: his mind spinning with excitement and anxiety; his stomach churning with joy and sorrow; his heart beating out of his chest with fear and trembling. We heard most of the Palm Sunday story yesterday. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna! People worshipped God and praised Jesus, expectant that the promised one, the anointed one, the Messiah was coming to claim his rightful place as King of Israel. The Lectionary omitted the part where, as the day came to a close, Jesus and his disciples made their way to the Temple for a quick look.
It must have been a long, lonely, sleepless night for Jesus as his mind turned, again and again, to that most holy place. Part of him probably wanted to believe what the people believed. Part of him thought that without too much hardship, he could have the Temple. After all, the people weren’t too happy with its leadership. They were fed up with the system: a system in which the priests robbed the poor to give to the rich; a system where the half-shekel Temple tax brought with it a fee to exchange any non-temple currency into the officially sanctioned coinage; a system where the money changers only paid out in large denominations and another fee had to be paid for the Temple to make change; a system where sacrificial doves purchased outside of the Temple Court were always found to be blemished; a system where sacrifice-worthy, blemish- free birds costing fifteen times the going rate were readily available only once you crossed the threshold of the Temple. It wouldn’t be hard to raise up an army of citizens ready to overthrow the Chief Priest, Ananias, and his corrupt family. Part of Jesus knew that he could easily reign as King and Chief Priest, but the other part of him knew that this was not his calling. Jesus knew that despite how easy a coup attempt seemed during The Passover, his Father had not sent him to bring about victory by power and might. Jesus would defeat the powers of the world through service, humility, death, and resurrection.
I wish it had been a long, lonely, sleepless night that lead Jesus to engage in two very out of character activities on Monday of his final week. That poor fig tree: what did it do to incur such wrath? It wasn’t the season for figs. Was it just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was Jesus just tired and cranky? Or, was it a sign of what was to come? Was God making another statement, in a long series of statements, that fruit is more important than outward appearances? Was the cursing of the fig tree a reminder that God desires ourselves, our souls and bodies, rather than faint praise on our lips?
It is the Temple story, however, that gives us the most to ponder. Who is this Jesus that casts people out? That overturns tables? That blocks people’s paths? That in John’s Gospel uses a whip to drive people away? It certainly makes us more comfortable to think that this Jesus had just suffered a long, lonely, sleepless night, and he very well may have, but that’s not why he unleashed his wrath in the Temple Court. Jesus went berserk because the Temple had become a “den of thieves.” The system was built on the backs of the poor pilgrims who came to dutifully fulfill their obligations to worship God in the Temple, but it goes even deeper than that. The Temple had become a byword. For some, it had become merely a short-cut on the way to work. For some, it was just another in the laundry list of taxes and obligations. For some, it was a profit center. For dangerously few, the Temple was a place to meet with the holiness of God and be changed.
As we begin our week of walking the Way of the Cross with Jesus, I’m reminded that it isn’t about duty or obligation. It isn’t about appearances. It is about meeting the holiness of God and being changed. It is about producing fruit, even when it isn’t expected. It is about living a life worthy of our calling as beloved children. Holy Week is about transformation from fear, oppression, and death, to freedom, joy, and resurrection. That process is painful: ask the fig tree or the money-changers, but it is good. Welcome to the way of the cross, the way of life and peace. Amen.