Matthew’s Gospel is a cymbal crashing over and over again. If you’re looking for subtly or mildness, you’ll have to look somewhere else. Matthew is a fog horn with a thousand trumpets blasting in the background.
A few weeks ago I was wringing my hands over one of the parables I’d be preaching on Sunday. The person I was talking to about my consternation with Matthew’s wrath quipped, “I’d probably want to kill Jesus too, if he went around saying things like that.”
It’s hard not to see Jesus provoking a rather nasty encounter with the rulers of the day. It’s Passover in Jerusalem. And while the Roman authorities generally left the city open and under the auspices of the temple leaders, Passover was a time when guards moved in. It’s a tense and anxious season.
Can you guess why? Do you remember what Passover is about? It’s the retelling of the story of God’s chosen people, Israel, freed from the horrific oppression of Gentile overlords who make their life miserable, restrict their worship, and oppress them at every turn.
Sound familiar? It was not lost on either the Jews or the Romans how similar that story sounded to the situation they faced, right there and then in the first century. And it was not lost on the revolutionaries and would-be messiahs who were known to plan insurrections around Passover.
Jerusalem is a powder keg at Passover. And Jesus throws in a match.
Here’s one way he does that. Parables — these intense stories of wealth being uprooted and the hell of people who live in the failure to care for their neighbors. All those stories that riled us up — all of those stories are told after Jesus enters Jerusalem. He rides in giving clear instructions on the way to construct this scene to fulfill Old Testament prophecies about the messiah. And then to go into the Temple and tear it up, throwing out money changers and dove sellers.
There’s an expression that sums up what’s happening here: poking a bear. You don’t want to wake up a bear by poking it because something very bad will happen to you, and to everyone else around you.
But that’s where we’re at. This scene of a triumphant king entering occupied Jerusalem — it spits in the face of Herod Antipas. These parables comparing kings to maniacal tyrants — they kick dirt at Caesar.
Now imagine that you are in charge of keeping people safe and secure. Imagine your job is to keep your religious community walking this tight rope of survival. Imagine seeing horrific political executions and bloody, overthrown rebellions. Imagine all that was on your shoulders.
And if you can get that feeling of fear under your skin, you’ll have a good sense of what’s behind the angry response from the scribes and chief priest who hear the children crying out Hosanna in the highest! “Do you hear what these are saying?” they ask Jesus.
Do you hear what they are saying? They are going to get us killed! Everything you love will be lost, everything we are will be ruined. The crowd is causing a riot.
I have a soft spot for the scribes and chief priests in this Jesus-created predicament. Throughout much of the history of the church the Jews in these stories have been portrayed as an other, an enemy. As the split between Judaism and Christianity widens over the centuries the Jews and their temple leaders become the ones who crucify Jesus, the enemy of the church.
I will not repeat to you the vile tropes about Jews that crop up in the writings of theologians like Martin Luther. That anti-Semitism eventually turns deadly, creating persecution and expulsions of Jews around the world.
It’s lazy, poor biblical reading to see the Jewish leaders of the temple as the enemy in this story.
Instead, they find themselves in the place of many religious leaders — working hard to figure out how to stay alive in terrible times, and how to protect the people under their care.
It wasn’t long after the death of Akiel Denkins by Raleigh police in Southeast Raleigh that city officials called in a room full of pastors, asking them to help keep the peace, to calm people down, to keep the streets from erupting in protest and property destruction. This is a scene played out around the county in times of unrest. Religious leaders are called in as trusted arbiters of peace.
It’s that room, religious leaders who have been called to bring a certain kind of peace that I imagine when I hear this angry cry from the religious leaders of ancient Palestine. They’re doing the best they can to hold things together. Can’t Jesus see that?
The frustration that boils over in this angry response to Jesus — it reveals not something about the Jews but about us, about every person who puts their faith in maintaining structures of power for fear of what might happen when those structures give way. It isn’t unusual to be part of a maintenance project where you simply get by within what you’ve been given.
Jesus throws a wrench into this way of thinking. He shatters the foundational assumptions of where we place our security, of what we tolerate in the name of peace-keeping.
The church, throughout history, has been on the front line of these maintenance projects.
On April 3, 1963 a series of nonviolent direct actions caused a shudder through the city of Birmingham, Alabama. These coordinated efforts led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights were met a week later with a legal injunction forbidding demonstrating, picketing, or protest. The actions continued and movement leaders were arrested, then imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail. Among them were Fred Shuttlesworth, Frank Abernathy, and a young preacher named Martin Luther King.
A couple days later, a group of white clergymen offered a response in the local newspaper. Their op-ed was titled, “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” Fearing the potential for violence or disruption they appealed to black leaders to stop breaking the law. “We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area,” they wrote. “And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.”
Find proper channels. The timing isn’t right. We have laws for a reason. Let’s compromise. There are better ways.
From a cell in the Birmingham jail, King wrote back. This is what he wondered, penning his letter on the floor of a prison cell:
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”
Over and over what the white church feared was the disruption of systems that kept in place the ways that made it possible to keep their lives as they were. On Palm Sunday Jesus will have none of that. Palm Sunday is a riot.
Every parable that came after, every story that proclaimed that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, every parable that displayed how the tyranny of power was upended in the reign of God — all of this was a riot.
Church — it is no different today than it was in ancient Jerusalem, no different today than it was on the streets of Birmingham. Jesus comes into the city on Passover and the people start to see that something else is possible. Even children start to cry out. The order of coercion and violence and fear is being uprooted.
On Palm Sunday the song of Mary comes to the streets.
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”
What is it that you have put your trust in? What is it that we rely upon to keep safe, to keep a kind of peace that steadies system of injustice? How has our acquiescence rationalized systems of oppression as helpmeets of the common good?
This is the question for every Christian who lives in the world, so it is the question for all of us. What are we willing to lay down? What chance are we willing to take, not on Jesus as a program for keeping things calm and orderly, but to open up the world to a possibility that we cannot control? What will it take for us to trust that the order of creation is upset not in revolutionary violence but in things dying and being raised back to life? What are you willing to let be undone in order to make space for resurrection?
These are the questions of Holy Week, the questions that stretch out before us into time. I want to make an invitation to you. I’d like to welcome you into this story, to reenact it this week together with your faith community.
Holy Week begins with us becoming atheists to common sense, atheists to a belief in forms of security to which we have handed over control of human history. In just a moment I want you to hear just a few words of the letter from a Birmingham jail from King himself. Let’s see what the riot will bring.
(This is a recording of the letter in its entirety. For a snapshot listen from 8:52 to 10:03.)