Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday: Fame & Afflicting the Comfortable

A theme commonly preached in Palm Sunday sermons is how shallow and brief popularity can be. And it's true. How many movie, TV and pop music stars that were hot 5 or 10 years ago have self-destructed or disappeared when "their" public moved on to the next to the next "big thing"? But what Jesus did was no blind accident. Jesus knew what was about to happen - the whole week, not just the day we call Palm Sunday. He could have - and had done so before - entered Jerusalem quietly. He chose instead to enter in a way that would attract lots of attention.
I believe Jesus had at least two purposes in mind. He wanted the attention of as many ears as possible. Many would just forget what they heard almost as soon as they heard it. Some would even be calling out, "Crucify him!" at the end of the week. But Jesus was planting seeds, seeds that might only germinate months or even years later. He wanted as many as possible to hear his preaching and teaching so that some would later become His followers. Jesus was also posing a challenge to the Jewish religious leaders. They could: stand by and "watch" their following, their power and wealth, melt away; swallow their pride and join Jesus; take drastic action. They chose the latter. Jesus knew what their choice would be - He had escaped previous attempts to seize him. This time He would not try. But the religious leaders still faced and made a real choice (and not all Jewish religious leaders agreed with the choice of the majority), they were not actors following a script.
Fame and obscurity come and go. Sometimes we seek them, more often (I think) they just come. They can be blessings or curses. If we use either to indulge ourselves, it is a mistake (or worse). The number of celebrities who achieve fame and then quickly self-destruct demonstrate this. They arrogantly think they are all their fame makes them appear to be plus indestructible. A better approach, that Jesus used, it to use celebrity and obscurity as opportunities - for service, for developing one's relationships with God, family and friends. Don't waste fame in pride and self-indulgence; don't waste obscurity through laziness.
On entering Jerusalem, Jesus didn't hustle off to the local Holiday Inn, settle into His room, and order room service. Jesus went to the temple, where even more people would see and hear Him. And would they ever! Jesus cleaned house!
 As odd and silly as it seems, it was only just a couple of days ago in re-reading this incident that I noticed that it didn't end with Jesus driving the crooks out of the temple. That "house-cleaning" is so commonly taught that I had a sort of tunnel vision. Anyway, on to what I think Jesus was thinking.

In driving out the crooks, part of Jesus' intent obviously was just that, "cleansing" the temple. Thievery in the midst of God's temple was an utter outrage! So Jesus took care of business. But even this was not that "simple". Jesus had been in the temple many times, and doubtless had seen these crooks just about as often (and had driven out the fraudsters once before, in John 2). But he didn't drive them out every time, so why now? These crooks were part of the religious leaders' racket. They were allowed their fraud, and kicked back to the leaders. Jesus knew what was going on! So, Jesus' purpose wasn't "just" to cleanse the temple. Jesus chose this time - when Passover pilgrims multiplied the population of Jerusalem and thronged the temple - to strike a blow to their racket at the religious leaders' most profitable time of the year! This was another direct challenge to their racket!
Having driven out the fraudsters, Jesus didn't dust off His hands and go have dinner. He stayed, teaching the people around Him who would listen, and healed sick people who were brought to Him (which probably caught a lot of attention and inspired interest). Jesus didn't merely smash up the racket - He knew they would be back. He offered the people an alternative, meeting them where they were, needs, "warts", and all. Driving off the fraudsters cut into the religious leaders' profits, for a few hours. That was bad enough and reason enough to get rid of Jesus. But offering (being!) an alternative was a threat to their whole cozy system, and they decided not stand for that!
All four Gospels recount aspects of the events of Palm Sunday: Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12.

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