One of the things that drive our world is appearances and concern about what others think. Marketers go to great length to try and play on our sensitivities about such matters. We should always be looking the right way, supporting the right cause, trying the right things. Appearances drive the world and not only that but in many ways they drive our values: the things we hold dear to appear to others as if we are doing the right thing. Appearances seem to matter a great deal. Yet there is a great irony to this obsession with appearances. The vast majority of people who we seek to impress don’t know who we are. They don’t know our name, or anything about us. When we wear something glamorous in a public setting, few will know who we are. If we make an appearance at a particular event, often it goes unnoticed. Even if we stand out from the crowd, even if we are glamorous and glorious, people don’t know who we are.
A friend of mine who is involved in the automotive world made a comment once that I thought perfectly summed up the problems of appearances. He said, “Why would anyone buy $200,000 Aston Martins and smoke out the windows?” Think about it! You want to be seen. You want to leave an impression. We all do it to a greater or lesser degree. But it becomes serious when we are more concerned with appearances and our popularity than with standing for the things that are right and true. Even when it adversely affects our image we have to stand for something that we believe to be true and right.
I thought about that when I listened to Bishop Desmond Tutu talking about corruption in the government of the ANC in South Africa today and denounced President Zuma and the party that he once loved and helped bring into power. He condemned them and said, “We came in here for justice; we did not come in here just for power. We came here for the people; we didn’t just come for position.” When asked by a reporter for the Cape Times if he felt that in saying such things he could destroy his legacy and popularity, he said, “What is that anyway when all I am interested in is justice and truth?” You see, appearances really don’t matter in the end. Truth, justice, sincerity, righteousness are the things that matter.
If there was anyone who didn’t care about appearances it was Jesus of Nazareth. This is aptly illustrated in today’s passage, in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an ass. He rides in amongst his people, waving palm branches, and we all know the story of Jesus and the people singing Hosanna. Jesus set it up. This was a humble entrance into the mighty City of Jerusalem. But then, according to the Gospel of Mark – and there is a difference in some of the Gospels in terms of chronology – but right after Jesus enters Jerusalem he goes to the Temple, to the spiritual and ecclesiastical heart of the nation that he. When he gets there, there is a cataclysm, a moment of confrontation, but you have to understand why in order to understand the reasons for him doing it. What was going on in this Temple that made Jesus so irate?
The Temple in Jerusalem was huge, and known as the “Herion”, a sacred place. It was the ecclesiastical and spiritual centre of the people of Israel. In this particular Temple, as in all the other great temples of Israel, it consisted of four courts. The first court was the Court of the Gentiles, and in this court there often was buying and selling of things, activities, social gatherings, coffee times, times to chat with friends, a gathering place. The next court was The Court of the Women, and it was for Jewish women, women of faith, who could gather with those of a like mind to be able to worship their God. Inside that was the Court of the Israelites, consisting only of men. That particular court was the place where the Torah was read, where prayers were offered, and where the sermons were given, a place of worship. Inside that, there was another court, and this was the Holies of Holies, known in Greek and in Egyptian as the “Naos”, the sacred place, the holy of the very holies that only the Chief Priest could enter and only from time-to-time.
Jesus observed that the Gentile Court had actually become a place of corruption. He noticed that people on their way in to the other courts had to pass through the Gentile Court, and so doing, brought their corruption into the very heart of the people of Israel. What was going on? There are two reasons for the corruption. One is that people were supposed to pay their taxes when they came into the Temple. The idea was that you would pay your taxes in the Gentile Court before you went into any of the other courts inside. The problem was that in this Gentile Court there were money changers. Jews came from all over the world to this Temple, from Damascus in Syria, North Africa, and Persia, and they brought with them their own currency. However, the only currency that could be received in Temple was the shekel, so there were moneychangers, who would exploit these, charging exorbitant rates of exchange.
People also had to bring their sacrifices, an animal, or if you didn’t have an animal, you could buy a bird to sacrifice it in the Temple. So many people, particularly the poor, did not have animals and had to buy the birds to make the sacrifice. Those who were selling the birds were exploiting people by charging an exorbitant amount of money, knowing that people couldn’t go into the Temple unless they actually bought the birds as a sacrifice. Even in the Jewish Talmud, Gamaliel says that these were being overcharged. Many of the Jewish leaders knew this, and certainly after the time of Jesus, recognized that this was corruption. Think of it in this way: In a little while, you are going to receive the bread and wine of Communion, and it is almost as if I were to say to you, “You can have the bread and the wine if you give me $10 first, or maybe $20, or maybe you could contribute to the Andrew Stirling Advancement Fund.” How absurd! That is what was happening!
Jesus comes into this, and in different versions of The New Testament says slightly different things, but basically the purest is “Have you not read (which is from Isaiah) that my Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of thieves!” He overturns the tables, he quotes from Holy Scripture, and he makes the point that they are corrupting the House of the Lord. You can imagine how popular Jesus was with the authorities at that moment! They hated him! Scholars agree – E. P. Saunders, N. T. Wright and many others – that this was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry. It was right at that very moment when he declared his authority, “This is my Father’s house, this is meant for all nations, it is supposed to be a place for prayer, and you are turning it into a den of thieves. You are exploiting people!” This was Jesus at his most prophetic. But it wasn’t just as a prophet; it wasn’t as if he was a Jeremiah, an Amos, or an Isaiah, all of whom had challenged corrupt practices before. No, this was different because of who Jesus was. It is different because this is the Son of God saying these things.
The hypocrisy of all that was going on in that Temple and the brokenness and the exploitation of the poor and the weak and the foreign were so grievous that it was destroying the very Temple and the sacredness for which it had been built. I love a story that a friend of mine in Carolina told be years ago about a woman who opened her door one day and there was a man standing there and he said, “Madam, I am wondering if you can help us. I am here on behalf of the community because there is a family in the area in very dire straits. The husband and wife have both lost their jobs. One of their children is very sick and needs medical care. They have lost their medical insurance because they are unemployed. They have problems with their health. They haven’t much. Unless they find money, very soon they are going to be evicted from the place where they live.”
The woman was deeply moved by this request for help. She said, “I will do that, but who are you that you are asking?”
The man said, “I am the landlord.”
The governors, the leaders, the religious officials and those in charge of the Temple were the landlords of the House of God. What they were doing was excluding the Gentiles and corrupting them at the same time. They were allowing people to be exploited by having people of no means become dependent on the unscrupulous greed of others. Jesus walks into this and he overturns the tables and says, “This is my Father’s house and it is a place of prayer for all nations.” It was even more profound than just a prophetic moment standing against corruption. Jesus was making an even bolder statement, and that is that God cannot be or should not be domesticated. This is the God for all nations. What Jesus was saying was in the great tradition of The Old Testament, in the great tradition of Abraham, when he along with Sarah, received the covenant from God saying that all nations will be born from you. All nations will know God because of you. It is there in the Prophet Isaiah, quoted here “All nations will come into the House of prayer.” Jeremiah believed it. The psalmists believed it.
It was not as if Jesus was reinventing the spiritual wheel, rather Jesus was reigniting the very purpose that his Father had established from the very first covenant with Abraham. It was a covenant of faith for all peoples. That is why the Apostle Paul, in writing to the Galatians in Chapter 3 verse 28, makes it abundantly clear that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, nor male, nor female, nor slave, nor free: they are one in Jesus Christ. Christ had come to set right the wrong, and the wrong had been the exclusion of the Gentiles from the covenant with God. It was not, as was assumed, a rejection of his own, rather it was the fulfillment of what their calling was from the very beginning.
How prophetic, how timely are his words for our time! Two thousand years later we have come a long way from the Temple in Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem all that is left is the western wall. We have come a long way, because the teachings of Jesus have attached themselves to cultures and empires and governments. Nations have espoused Christianity as their religion. They have ascribed to Christ the prominence and preeminent place. Kings and monarchs have been crowned before him, and his name has been used for empires to justify their existence. Here we are, with such sectarian violence, animosity and fear.
And maybe I am going off script here, but we are living in a world that is dangerous because there are growing movements of anti-Semitism, hatred of other religious traditions, and there are inherent divisions within Christianity itself. What is transpiring is that people are retreating into their own little cultural clusters and defending them. But, here is the irony, here’s the mystery, here’s the problem: Even those cultures that espouse their Christianity are not, in fact, in great numbers embracing it! They are turning it into a cultural thing as opposed to a matter of the heart, conviction and faith. You put up walls and borders, but if you do not practice the faith within those borders, it is hypocrisy. If it rejects people who even share the same faith – people who live in Syria, our Christian brothers and sisters who died this morning on Palm Sunday in Egypt –then are we any better than those who held up the Temple and corrupted and kept out the Gentiles? I think not!
This is an incredible opportunity for the church and for those who are devout, to reach out to the world, to follow the example of Jesus, who wasn’t concerned about appearances, and what others would say, but simply did the right thing and said, “This is to be the house for all nations because He is Lord.”
One of the most inspirational characters that I have ever read is Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, who was the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and in a book written in the 1960s that I thought was prophetic entitled, No Other Name he had a passionate word for people of faith:
That we really believe that there is a unity in Christ such as nowhere else can only be truly demonstrated by acts of unity, by overcoming our divisions. That we really believe that Christ is the Saviour of all can only become a convincing faith if the Church breaks out of its too introverted life, shows clearly its concern for the spiritual and physical needs of all people, and manifests that it is not a national and ideological, a racial or a continental church, but the church universal, which is at home in every nation and yet does not belong to any one nation itself.
Those were prophetic words! They need to be heard again. In a world so divided we need to follow the example of our Lord and Saviour. It was not an easy road for him in the midst of all of the sectarianism and the violence of Rome, of all the outcroppings of empires that had existed before. It wasn’t easy with corrupt leaders, but he didn’t care. He cared for the salvation of all. And he bore a cross for it, but he took the nails from it, and when the Crown of Thorns was put on his head, he didn’t think once of his own appearance; he thought of the world that his Father had made. To this Jesus be our whole devotion! Amen.