Today is Palm Sunday. I intend to go to the peace rally. I've been studying the Book of Mark, and have only just realised how apt it is to have a peace rally on this occasion. The events that led us to celebrate Palm Sunday - Jesus on a donkey riding on a path made of palm leaves and people's cloaks - was the prelude to the clearing of the temple. The parade was not an isolated event, but, according to Mark, part of one of Jesus' most powerful political and social statements. So I thought I'd relate the story in this blog, using my own words.
Jesus and his disciples are traveling into Jerusalem from the Palestinian countryside. They get to Bethany, which is a sort of suburb of Jerusalem - much like Footscray or Coburg. Jesus tells two of his disciples to go down the main street and get a certain donkey which would be tied there, and gives some instructions as to what to say if people question them. So the disciples do this and bring the donkey to Jesus. A crowd of ordinary people gathered, and they immediately recognised Jesus as their working-class hero! They take their cloaks off and lay them in front of Jesus and the donkey, making a path for them also with palm leaves. People are going crazy – it’s like a ticket tape parade. They’re shouting out and celebrating, and quoting old scriptures that pretty much say that Jesus is the king and he is going to transform society. It’s weird, because Jesus is riding a donkey, which was the transport that ordinary poor people would use. It would be like someone saying she was the queen and riding through Footscray on a bicycle!
Anyway, the ticket tape parade ends, and Jesus goes on into Jerusalem and makes a bee-line to the temple. He’s planning on doing something. Now, the temple ain't no ordinary temple. It is the political and economic hub of Jerusalem, which was one of the big cities in the Roman Empire. It's absolutely massive - King Herod had knocked down the old temple and built its monolithic replacement out of imported marble in 19 BCE, which was apparently around 450 x 300 m (outer wall dimensions)! There were various courts for different classes of people (women, Gentiles, Jewish men, priests), plus the temple itself. There were large areas for buying and selling sacrificial animals, souvenirs and food.
The temple was so much more than a place of worship – in some ways, it was more like Wall Street or the World Trade Centre. It was a place of business and commerce and the abiding place of the rich and powerful (businessmen, politicians, lawyers, priests). Laws dictated that people participate in the temple life, or else they would not be an acceptable part of society. For example leapers (outcasts) and women would have to buy doves to make them ritually pure, whether or not they could afford them. It reminds me of the way people feel like they have to buy brand name clothes, shoes and handbags, so that they will fit in, even though they might not be able to afford them. It’s only really the corporations that benefit, in the same way that it was only really the businessmen who benefited from selling animals in the temple.
So Jesus goes to the temple and has a good look around, but it’s getting late, so he goes back to Footscray. The next morning him and his disciples get up early and go back to the temple. His aim is to SHUT IT DOWN. So he starts driving out the people doing business there, overturning the tables of the brokers changing currencies and throwing aside the benches of the people selling doves. He tried to stop anyone carrying merchandise through the temple courts. This was a bigger deal than usual, because it was Passover time, so there were people there from all over the Roman Empire, buying and selling produce.
And then Jesus speaks to the whole crowd, in this massive temple, and says, “My house is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers!” The whole crowd was completely captivated by Jesus’ message, because they’d never thought of it like that before. Until this time, they might not have considered how they were participating in something that benefited the rich but kept the poor in their place.
Jesus was a pretty big threat to the priests and politicians and lawyers, because he was exposing the system for what it really was. They were scared because people seemed to be listening to Jesus! The priests, politicians and lawyers plotted to kill Jesus.
Jesus didn’t stick around – in the evening, he went back to Footscray.
So, the Palm Sunday ticket tape parade was really a prelude to a larger political act. How fitting it is for us to have a peace rally on Palm Sunday! This occasion should be used to challenge the powers that be, just as Jesus did in the temple.
The 'clearing the temple' story is sandwiched by a curious tale involving Jesus and a fig-tree. While Jesus is in Bethany (or Footscray!), he is hungry and sees a fig-tree, which is not in fruit because it's the wrong time of year. So before Jesus goes off to Jerusalem he curses the fig-tree, saying, "May no-one ever eat fruit from you again". The next morning, after the temple episode has concluded, Peter notices that the fig-tree has indeed withered and died.
It is as though the fig-tree is a metaphor for the temple - in Jewish tradition, figs are a symbol of peace, security and prosperity. Like the fig-tree, a fruitless temple will wither and die. At Peter's surprised exclamation, Jesus tells him to "have faith in God". Jesus points to the Mount of Olives - a cultural and historical icon for Israel - and says that if you tell it to throw itself in the sea, and really believe that this will happen, then it will. Jesus is telling Peter that he has the authority to dismantle the systems that oppress, if only he will believe it possible. In partnership with God, we can tell a fruitless fig-tree to die or end an oppressive system symbolised in a temple. In some ways, the system will end itself, just as the mountain, on your command, will throw itself into the sea.
Jesus ends the sequence by saying that when you pray, you should forgive people who have hurt you, so that God will forgive your sins. The system you have helped destroy will be replaced by God's system of mutual forgiveness, where you must forgive those who oppress you, because you are also an oppressor.