Tag Archives: Holy Week

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.

Chapter-a-Day John 13

 

Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is sh...
Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?”
And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”
“But why can’t I come now, Lord?” he asked. “I’m ready to die for you.”
Jesus answered, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.
John 13:36-38 (NLT) 


It is Holy Week as I write this, the day before Maundy (Sorrowful) Thursday. How appropriate for our chapter-a-day journey to bring us to the events of that night as all who follow after Jesus remember them in our annual pilgrimage through the calendar year.

The truth is, as I sit in the darkness before dawn and read about Judas, and read about Peter, I want to distance myself from them.

“Who is it that will betray you? I would never. Not me. I would never deny you. I’d die for you!” I hear my own spirit in the words of Jesus closest friends. “Not me. I’d never…”

But, then I hear the rooster crowing in my own conscience. I do it every day. I betray Him with each willfully sinful thought, and word, and act. I deny Him with  each self-centered motive. That’s the point. Not that we would be just like Judas and Peter if we were there then, but that we are just like Judas and Peter here and now. That’s why Jesus went to the cross. Not just because of Judas’ kiss, but also because of mine.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 24

MOAB, UT - OCTOBER 10:  Ben Chournos (L) welco...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

“Staying with it—that’s what God requires. Stay with it to the end.” Matthew 24:13 (MSG)

Was Jesus talking to his followers when He said these words, or was He reminding Himself? He just finished creating a riot by overturning the money changers’ tables. He has just walked away from his tongue lashing of the religious leaders in the temple. They won’t put up with it. They will kill Jesus to preserve their social standing and public reputations. The pieces are in place. The end is near. Jesus has been telling His followers for months that He is going to be handed over to the religious leaders and be killed.  Now the wheels have begun to move. This is it.

“Staying with it—that’s what God requires. Stay with it to the end,” He said to His followers; He said to Himself.

It is Maundy (meaning “sorrowful”) Thursday as I write this. It is the day we remember Jesus last meal, His betrayal, His desperate prayer to the Father to be released from the sacrificial death that was required of Him to pay the penalty of our sins and make way for forgiveness.

“Staying with it—that’s what God requires. Stay with it to the end.”

Today, I remember and celebrate that Jesus stayed with it to the end. I’m also reminded of the song I sang on a cold February night 30 years ago when I set out on this journey:

I have decided to follow Jesus.
I have decided to follow Jesus.
I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back. No turning back.

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Chapter-a-Day Matthew 21

"The Solemn Mock Procession of the Pope, ...
Image via Wikipedia

Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” Matthew 21:31b-32 (MSG)

Along my journey, I’ve worshiped in, served on staff, or been in positions of leadership in a handful of different churches and denominations: Methodist, Baptist, Non-Denominational, Community, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Reformed. It’s given me a wide variety of experiences.

As I read the accounts of Jesus’ run ins with the religious leaders of his day, I always picture the religious and denominational leaders of my day having the same conflicts and run-ins with Him. In almost every denomination I’ve experienced, I’ve witnessed or been engaged in run-ins with religious leaders and authorities who act not unlike the Pharisees and Saduccees of Jesus’ day. It’s made me wonder if all human religious institutions, even those dedicated to Jesus, don’t follow the same paths towards human pride, power, and self-importance. I begin to think that it’s inevitable given the nature of man.

Today, this leads me down a path of introspection. As we begin Holy Week, I’m thinking about myself and where I fit in the story. What character in the story of Jesus’ final days, crucifixion, and resurrection do I most identify with? Am I more like Caiaphas the high priest, or Mary Magdalene? Am I more a part of the human institution of the church or a heart and life follower of Jesus? I don’t want to be like the religious leaders whose life was dedicated to the practice of religion but whose hearts and lives would not change to embrace  the Truth. I want to be like the “crooks and whores” whose belief is evidenced by a changed life. I want to go to the grave still becoming more like Jesus.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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