By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 25, 2018
John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This week we bear witness to something spectacular. We see the clash of two worlds. The world of thanksgiving where we express the thankfulness for all the blessing we have. The blessing of family and food. A celebration that was initiated by followers of Christ to express their gratitude for all that God had given them. Then before the food has settled people line up to participate in a different expression of life. The lifestyle of desire and envy. I have nothing against holiday shopping to be honest without it many people in the world, including me, would not have jobs. The problem I have is that the two busiest shopping days have such vastly different attitudes attached to them. The first is a rush to get stuffing and cans of green beans before the stores sell out, so we can share with others. Then the next day people are lining up to get TV’s and iPads for discounts. Sure, they are buying them as gifts, but the feast of thanksgiving has not even digested before we rush into the desire for more.
I will confess that I have a bad attitude about this. Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday but working in retail has caused me to miss eight thanksgiving dinners with my side of the family. And this year I missed seeing James who was able to come home on leave for the holiday. I am grateful for the job, and I love the people I work with, but this lifestyle causes us to miss so much. This lifestyle has really weighed heavy on my mind as I read today’s passage. It causes me to take a step back and consider and reexamine life in general. What do we really live for?
Today we meet Jesus after his betrayal and imprisonment, and the authorities are beginning their interrogation. Pilate enters the scene. When King Herod died just after Jesus’s birth, the kingdom that included Israel was divided between his children and sister. The reason this happened was because Rome did not want a single strong province that could potentially rally together and cause a revolt. The Provence of Judea which Rome called Palestine was first ruled by one of the sons. This was an important province because of the city of Jerusalem, and because of the temple of God that was in that area the ruler of this province had influence over the other three. Oddly enough the nation of Israel did not really like the idea of living under the influence of Rome, and Rome knew this. We often forget that for a brief period after the closing of the Old Testament and the New Israel was free. The celebration of that freedom will begin on December 2nd. But many of us do not understand the significance it.
The people of Israel were allowed to go home and rebuild their temple while Persia ruled over them. Israel and Persia had an interesting relationship, yes at one-point leaders within Persia tried to eradicate the Jewish people, which you can read about in the book of Esther, but for most of the time Israel was under the lordship of Persia they were great allies. This is why the wisemen from the East come to honor the Jewish king. These wisemen, or Magi, were most likely people that worked closely with the prophet Daniel during the time of Judah’s exile.
Persia had an enemy though. One of the greatest military generals ever to live, Alexander the Great, had a desire to conquer Persia because Persia continuously threatened to overtake their lands. Alexander pushed Persia back, he conquered Israel by simply marching into Jerusalem. He then conquered Egypt, and after that he marched into the heart of Persia. His army march and conquered nearly the entire Persian Empire, which at that time stretched from the Mediterranean deep into India. And in the conquest of India Alexander met foes he could not conquer. Elephants and disease. After his death the Hellenistic Empire was split between his generals and one governed Syria which included Israel. Eventually this dynasty with their desire to bring the Greek culture to everyone met resistance with the Jewish people who only wished to worship their one God. They resisted to the point that their ruler marched into the temple of God with a swine. Some stories say that he rode this swine up to the very alter where it was sacrificed in honor of Zeus. The temple was desecrated, and this caused the people to revolt. This seemingly insignificant group of people started a war with one of the greatest militaries of history to restore their temple. They reclaimed the temple and immediately set out to purify it, but they only had a small amount of sacred oil, only enough for one day. As the armies fought and pushed back the Hellenistic forces, this oil lasted not one but eight days. Enough time for the purification of the temple, and the blessing of more oil. Every year since they celebrated the festival of lights or the feast of dedication. Even Jesus celebrated this holiday.
But this triumph gave people a strong nationalistic view. They were free, yet they were constantly threatened by the Hellenistic Syrians wishing to reclaim the lands of Israel. So, the kings formed an alliance with a new emerging empire. With the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is how Rome eventually came into possession of Israel. They were initially invited to pursue a common threat, but they did not leave. The people of Israel were full of pride and wished to be free, so they then began to rebel against Rome, and these revolts caused Rome to tighten their grip. They removed the king of Palestine and place a governor appointed by the Emperor to rule the province. And Pilate was one of those appointed governors.
Pilate was not exactly in the good grace with the emperor though. To get an appointment like that you must know people. And the person that recommended Pilate to this position eventually became a threat to the Emperor, so anyone that was connected to him was being watched closely. Pilate was a governor over a rebellious people that required a standing army to maintain order, while Pilate was attempting to keep his job and life, the people of Israel proved to be a constant threat, and eventually his downfall. This trial is important because it speaks to not only our salvation but the entire political climate of that day. Everyone was living on a thin line between pride and fear. And if those two forces were to come into contact war would erupt. Jesus spoke about this war that was to eventually come, we looked at that last Sunday. A war that would decimate the very monument that represented the center of life of Israel.
Pilate comes to Jesus, with disdain and bitterness brewing within. At every turn they are capturing religious and nationalistic zealots bent on purifying the land of Israel from the pagan influences. At this very moment there is one of those zealots in their prison a man we know as Jesus Barabbas. Pilate comes in and asks Jesus a very important question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is important because if Jesus is the king then he is a threat to Pilate’s life and the peace of the Empire. Pilate does not have a great love for the Jews, they are a constant source of trouble and this week as every Jew of the Empire travel to Jerusalem he is afraid that violence erupts. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he demands.
Jesus remains calm and asks his own question, “Do you ask this or did someone tell you this?” And Pilates disdain shines by the response, “I am not a Jew, am I? your own people handed you over.” I am paraphrasing of course, and I am sure that even John edited Pilates words a bit. To this Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If it were my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
I want us to think of this for a moment. That response is filled with such weighty words. My kingdom is not from this world. What does Jesus mean when he says this? Every one of his disciples wanted him to be that kind of king. They wanted Jesus to unite the tribes, to reclaim the throne of David, to push back the pagan overlords and usher in a new golden age of Israel where they could live and worship in the ways they saw fit. Yet so many times Jesus refused. They did not understand, they desired to sit in the seats of honor in court, yet Jesus said this is not something that I can offer, because it is not mine to offer. He said things like for you to be first you must become a servant of all. If you want to lead you must take the lowest ranking honor. Stooping so low that you must be willing to wash the feet of those around you.
They wanted a worldly king, but Jesus refused. He would say things like love your enemies, do good to those that persecute you. If you love your life you will lose your life, but if you lose your life for his sake you will gain your life. He spoke in crazy riddles, and he lived a radical life of worship, prayer, and serving others. His lifestyle did not resemble the ways of our world. Because he did not respect or honor the things that this world honored.
My kingdom is not from this world. The idea of world can mean many things. It can literally mean this earth, or it can mean orders of mankind. In this case I believe that Jesus is referring to a system an ideology of man. This idea of power and influence by force and authority. It is a system of man, a system of might gives right. This is not the kingdom or influence that Jesus desires nor has. Yet this is often our attitude.
We get so worked up over elections, because we might lose some perceived power or influence over mankind. We might lose might and then we might lose the right to rule. Jesus said that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, because might has right. This must happen he says because we live in kingdoms of men, and men use force to gain authority and when they lose authority or wish to extend authority, they gain it through the power of the sword, in whatever form it may be. This is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus lifted his hands, it was not to brandish a sword, but to bless bread, or to touch the eyes of a blind man. When Jesus spoke, he did not command those that listen to take up arms, but he encouraged them to pray, “Our father who art in heaven hollowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
My kingdom is not from this world. His influence is not derived from the wisdom of mankind. Think about this. Think about it deeply, let it soak into your minds, peculating deep into the very center of your hearts. Jesus’s kingdom is not a kingdom derived from the wisdom or the systems of mankind. Our nations of the western world often like to say that they are Christian nations, yet they rule from the systems of this world. Each one of these Christian nations have fought against one another, they have conquered other nations and brought them into their various empires all under the banner of Christ, yet Christ himself says that my kingdom is not from this world. As we watch the news of a missionary going to a remote island in India only to meet his death at the hands of the people there, we hear people debating that it is yet another attempt of colonization by the church against those that see it as a heartfelt attempt to share the gospel. I do not know the heart of the man, but I understand the debate. We have used religion to extend the empires of men, and in doing so we have in many ways diluted the true gospel of Christ.
Jesus does not say that he does not have influence. He knows he has influence in this world. He even says that as it is his kingdom is not from this world. He uses both concepts of world in this paragraph, one meaning creation and one meaning systems of men. As it is his kingdom is not from this system, but he does have a kingdom in this world. And that kingdom is built on the influence of truth. We did not read it in this section, but the next verse is probably Pilates most famous statement, “What is Truth” It is a question that we all ask at some point. It’s a question that I hope we ask often. The concept of truth in this sense is sincerity, honesty, reliability, something that we can trust. We struggle with truth, because we want it to be something that it is not. The question of Pilate is nearly the motto of the post-modern cultures. What is truth? Last week I mentioned that faith is not about everything turning out okay, but faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out. This is truth. Our churches struggle because we have placed our faith in the wrong place. Our sincerity, our reliability, our trust is placed on things of this world, the systems of men. When Jesus is saying that his kingdom which is built on truth is built on things outside that system. It is built on people being the embodiment of truth. People being trust worthy, people being reliable, and sincere. It is about people living the love of Jesus out in their communities even though it might cost them personally.
Our churches are struggling because we have replaced Christ with an imposter. Wealth is our king. Power is our king. Security is our king. But what happens when the company we work for downsizes and king wealth is not more? People often say that younger generations do not have a work ethic like previous generations. They say they are not loyal to companies and refuse to invest their lives in them like previous generations. I ask why should they? How many of the parents of this current generation have been downsized? Their parents built their lives on a king that was toppled, and we wonder why this generation is not faithful. The world around us is based on systems of mankind, built on the wisdom of men, even our churches and we wonder why the younger generation does not keep the faith. Is our faith in the right place?
Israel wanted a king. They wanted an earthly king that could push back Rome like they pushed back Greece. They wanted a nation of their own. But they nearly forgot the miracle within their first taste of freedom. The festival of light or Hanukkah does not honor the war, but worship. It honors the source that allowed the presence of light. The oil lasted when it should not have lasted. The nation should have turned to God and continued to focus on that grace. The scarcity of resources can miraculously be extended when we focus on God. But instead they wanted a king from this world. The wanted power and influence not oil for a lamp. That desire led to war. That desire for a king within this worldly system led to the destruction of everything they built their life on. They built their life, they developed their faith on something other than truth, on something that was not reliable. What is truth? Jesus is truth. His lifestyle is truth. His holy rhythm is truth. The rhythm of worship, prayer, and service to others is truth. If we build our lives of that, if we live our lives devoted to that we will see amazing things happen. When people see that even though the world might crumble around us, yet we remain steadfast in truth they will ask why. And we will be given an opportunity to testify and give an answer. It is not about power, but love. It is not about wealth but service to others for mutual profit. It is not about us, it is about those around us.
Who is your king, and where is the kingdom?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 13:1–8 (NRSV)
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
(Mt 24:1–8; Lk 21:5–11)
13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
I have had the privilege to visit many monuments over the course of my life. I like monuments. They give us a sense of history, a story that is larger than ourselves, and that great things have happened around us. There are a few monuments that really stick with me though. One is the monument of the unknown sailors in Odessa, Ukraine. According to the guide during our visit, and our guide was our translator, so he was not exactly a historian, the monument was built to honor the sailors from the city that got into boat to fight the Nazis. They just got on any boat and went out, no one knew who was on what boat, but they bravely tried to protect their port. This monument had an impact on me because of the pride and the mystery. Fighters against all odds going out in whatever boat they could get on to do what they could.
The second monument that has had a profound effect on me is right here in Kansas City, the National World War I memorial. If you have not visited this monument recently please go and visit it. It is breath taking and allows us to see just a small glimpse into the conditions and the politics of that era. This monument is one that leaves me a bit uneasy. I am very passionate in my beliefs and one of those beliefs is our testimony against war, yet I visit these memorials and it makes my heart ache and swell with pride at the same time. I know the sacrifice, I know the desire to serve, I know the passion, but I also know the pain that is connected to these monuments. They remind us of all this and hopefully inspire us to try even more to prevent such bloodshed.
On our honeymoon, Kristy and I visited another monument, the crazy horse monument. This is a massive sculpture that is being built near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When we visited this monument, we were able to witness the workers conduct one of their strategic blasts, which was very exciting. But what impressed me the most about this monument was the flags from all the Native tribes across our nation that were represented on the site. And to see the hope of a university for native American studies that they intend to build on the site. I am impressed by this monument because of the unity and the strength of the tribes. They have faced many trials and hardships, yet they strive to maintain their culture.
I have visited many monuments, but probably the most impressive that I have visited is the actual city of Washington, D.C. This city is filled with monuments. The Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Arlington Cemetery, the Capital building, the list could go one. I visited this city when the summer before I entered Junior High, I remember this vacation because it was near the end of the first gulf war and we saw many military vehicles in the national mall. I remember looking down over the city from the top of the Washington monument and seeing the lights of all the federal building illuminating the skies. And at a young age I fell in love with everything American.
Monuments are a source of pride, and of hope. They let us who were not there join with those that were in the story of us. But there are sides to every story. We also visited the Vietnam Memorial. I am too young to know the actual war but know people who were there. I saw homeless veterans crying as they touched the names of friends. I saw flowers placed on the sidewalk. I saw this, and it etched things in my heart. In the city of monuments, I saw for the first-time real homelessness, and I also saw the first glimpse of pure hate as I saw two skinheads beating a man for no reason. These monuments, these structures to remind us of our greatness, often come with a cost.
As I reflected on this week’s passage I thought about those monuments. The feelings I felt as I approached. I considered the importance of each, even though some of them have very little connection to me. And then I considered the Temple of God.
It is hard for us to even imagine the colossal presence of this structure, because none of us have been to anything that would come close to its greatness. People throughout the ancient world would visit this temple. It was greater than any other religious structure at that time, it might even have been the most impressive religious structure of all time. The platform on which the temple was built covers thirty-six acres. And this platform is filled with arches and tunnels, aqueducts and storage vaults. And that is just the foundation of the temple. This structure was the central to the identity and culture of Israel.
When the disciples proclaim to Jesus their awe of this structure, they are voicing the pride of their nation. A massive structure that is more impressive than anything else in the entire empire. It was seen to be as close to perfection as humanity could build. And this structure was the temple of Israel’s God.
The stones, the buildings! Just look at them! Consider the most impressive building you have visited and then multiply it by a hundred. And that is just the part that they could see. The interior was of limits to all people except the priests, yet we can get a glimpse as to what it might be like if we were to read the histories of Israel in the Old Testament.
The disciples are just breathing in the pride of their nation and standing in reverence. But Jesus does not let them enjoy it. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Imagine their shock at those words.
What can he possibly mean by it? This would be the equivalent of every monument of Washington, D.C. being reduced to rubble. How would that make us feel? In a moment we would lose our entire identity. No more pride, no strength, we would seemingly be reduced to nomads or a people with no home. Imagine the feelings. Everything that you value, everything that you have built your life upon, toppled.
They proceed to the mount of olives which is opposite the temple complex, and they look back to the structure. This massive structure that we could fit twenty-six football fields within. To put this into perspective there are thirty-two NFL teams. This is like having all but six of their facilities in one place. twenty-six arrowhead stadiums. They observe the activities going on as they over look this structure. And Peter, James, John and Andrew come to speak to Jesus alone. Jesus has just told them that their entire lives are going to come crashing down around them, and they want answers. “How will we know when this is going to happen?”
We often fail to see the significance of this question, because we live so far removed from this time and place. We live so far from the context of this passage that we have begun to give new meaning to the words all together. So often when we read this passage, we look forward to the second coming of our Lord, and that is fine, I hope to see Him soon too. But we need to remember that this is before Jesus was even crucified, this is before the Jewish wars had even begun. As far as the religious culture is concerned things could not be better. Attendance is up, the treasury is full, people from all the corners of the Earth are coming to pay their respects to the God of Israel. Yet Jesus is saying, everything you have built your faith on is about to be demolished, and not one stone will be left standing.
He then uses apocalyptic words to describe it. There will be stories of Wars, earthquakes, famines but do not be alarmed. He even says there will be people that will come in his name, saying that “I am He.” But do not be led astray. For most of my life I have been taught these words in fear. People asking if I am ready for that day to come. I have fellow pastors that will send nearly weekly updates on the quantity of earthquakes that occur around the world, and attached to these messages is the question are you ready? When I was in high school on through to when I was married there were series of books focused on the very same thing. Earthquakes, wars, famines, false prophets. They were working us all up into a panicked frenzy. But we missed the most important part of what Jesus had to say, “Do not be alarmed.”
We miss the significance of this passage because we are in a rush for something else. Jesus is simply asking in what do we put our faith? He has just spent several days in the very temple’s courts teaching the masses about the kingdom. He has been asked questions by the religious leaders and has parried each to strike at the heart of truth. And those ended with one answer, “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor yourself.” He continued teach the disciples as they watched the religious leaders walking by in their long robes, and as people placed their offerings into the treasury boxes. Through all this teaching, illustrating, through all his life and ministry the one point he was trying to make is this. Love.
His life was dedicated to Loving God, as he made it his custom to worship with the community in the synagogues. He embraced the holy Spirit while he withdrew to the isolated places to pray. And he lived that love out as he had compassion for the people and healed them, fed them, and taught them the good news. Jesus showed us how to live a life of love. Yet every one of the disciples misinterpreted what was going on, and we see it in this passage.
Everything Jesus did was focused on the real application of the primary law of God. Yet the disciples argued about which one was the greatest. He would teach about being a servant to all, and a couple of them would then ask can I sit at your right hand and my brother on your left when you come into your kingdom? Their minds were caught in this unrelenting cycle of nationalism and pride. Everything about their lives revolved around restoring the kingdom of their ancestors, and that was centered on the temple. Just look at it they say, look at the huge stones! Look at the magnificent buildings! We are great, so when will you bring in the kingdom?
Their focus is not on God. Their focus is on themselves. Sure, they love their countrymen but ultimately, they want power to rule. They want influence. They do not want others to tell them what to do. We want to be great, so we can tell others what to do.
What is the result of these attitudes? Wars and rumors of wars. Nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famines, and earthquakes. People coming in his name saying I am the anointed one listen to me and if you do not, we will smite you with everything we have to available to us. Do not be alarmed Jesus says, because these things must happen. They must happen until we realize that there is a better way. They will continue to happen until we put our faith in the proper perspective.
Jesus bluntly tells the disciples, your way of thinking and the way of thinking of everyone else here is going to lead to your destruction. And it happened. The might of Rome marched into Jerusalem and they leveled the temple, and they removed everything of value and carried it back to Rome. We look at the monuments of Rome, and every one of them was financed by the looting of the Temple of God.
Jesus is saying there will be a day when you must decide. There will be a day where everything you have built your life on will fall and you must decide what to do next. There will be a day when the world around you will no longer be recognizable, how will you react? Jerusalem will fall, what remains?
Do not be alarmed. Jesus says this because he has shown them the truth. He has invited them to participate in that holy lifestyle that he enjoys. He knows that when everything we build for ourselves falls away, faith remains. A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook a few days ago that says, “Faith is not about everything turning out okay. Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.” This is the essence of what Jesus said that day. Do not be alarmed, the things that are going to cause you to fear, the things that will cause you to question yourself and everything you stand for, that might make you stumble they may even make you cry out but do not be alarmed. Keep living His holy lifestyle. Continue to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others. Because it is that lifestyle, that faith in action that will cause those around us to see something different. It is that faith that will cause those around us who are also facing their own monumental crashes to grab onto the faith that we have.
The disciples looked at their great city, with its massive stones and magnificent buildings and they were filled with pride. And many of those early disciples saw that city burn to the ground. On that day a great decision had to be made. What do we do now? How do we live our lives when there is no symbol to grasp hold of? How can we stand for truth when the very monuments to it lay in ruin? Choices were made, and those choices resulted in modern Judaism and Christianity. But since that time several other monumental events occurred and with each one a choice would have to be made, and each choice leads us another direction. Leaders emerge, and they say I am the one to follow and many are led away from Christ even though those leaders claim to speak in His name and they lead the people to more wars, more famines, more of the same. And with each war more destruction that causes more people to answer their own questions and make choices. This is how it is to be…until someone says no as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. And they look to Christ and live in his holy lifestyle once again.
Today is not so different than any other era of history. The main difference is the amount of harm we can cause with so little effort. The question remains the same, if everything you built you life on were to tumble what would you do? Would you be alarmed? Or would you continue to walk in faith?
Mark 12:38–44 (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
(Mt 23:1–7; Lk 20:45–47)
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
At times there are things that annoy me about organizations. Things like absolutely no overtime at work. It is not like I am one to work a ton of overtime, but when I am told to cut my overtime when there is only three minutes it just seems a bit petty. But even when things annoy me about an organization that same organization can amaze me.
Religious organizations are often the source of these mixed feelings. If we were to listen to those who do not attend meetings for worship, we would hear horror stories at times for why they neglect the gathering together. I even have a few of my own comments to add to them. At times we as a collective whole can be judgmental over things that really do not matter to salvation. But this same organization can also give assistance to people that can nearly be overwhelming to those they have blessed. This has happened to me several times within my life. At times I question if God can use people like us and then I wonder how God pulled it off because I know the people involved.
Today I approach this scripture and to be honest I do not really know what to say. I studied all week, had a good idea of which direction to go, and then something happens on Saturday which brings me to my knees. And this time it is not prayers of a grieving heart but prayers of praise. All because God uses people like us in ways that just confound me.
Let us remember where this passage is taking place. This portion of Mark’s Gospel is during the passion week of Christ. The time we recognize between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. The crowds have cheered him on proclaiming him to be their long-awaited king, and the religious leaders are left stewing over their loss of influence. It was one thing when Jesus was up in Galilee teaching and healing, but now he is on their home turf, he is teaching in the temple courts. This is where they teach, this is where their teaching reigns supreme and no one is supposed to question them, because they hold guard the gates of redemption. Yet here is Jesus teaching right there in the temple courts.
That Sunday, Jesus was proclaimed king, he came to the temple and left. He returned the next day He again entered the temple courts. And this time he came with vengeance. The temple courts were filled with venders. The temple would not allow Imperial currency to be used within so there were people exchanging currencies. If you happen to read the currency markets, you would know that at times you can make a great living just by simply converting one currency to another at the proper times. This happens to be a time leading up to one of the greatest feasts of the year. All of Israel is making pilgrimages to the temple to offer sacrifices and celebrate the feast of Passover. And when there is high demand for temple currency the exchange rate shifts. There is more to the story though, not only are there people exchanging currency but there are people selling animals for sacrifice. This is very convenient for the worshipers. They no longer have to make their pilgrimage while hauling animals acceptable for a sacrifice, they can simply buy on when they get there. There is a flip side to this enterprise as well. Who authorized the sacrificial animals to be sold and are they getting a cut of the profits? It does not take much imagination that the religious leaders would be involved in this enterprise. A priest inspects an animal and deems it unworthy and sends the penitent worshiper to their dealer, who sells them an animal that is guaranteed to be acceptable for the altar. There is a closed market, people must convert their money to temple currency, they are potentially required to make a purchase of an animal using only temple currency. This is an enterprise that reeks of opportunistic and predatory greed. What does Jesus do? He storms into the temple courts and he turns the tables over, he drives releases the animals and chases the venders out. The then proclaims, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers”.
He has embarrassed the religious leaders. He has removed a profitable source of income from them. He has the ear of all the worshipers. He has just caused the status quo of the temple to crash, and the religious leaders are furious. By what authority does he do this they ask, and they join forces with their religious opponents to take on this common threat. They begin debating and asking questions in the attempt to catch Jesus in his words. For the next several days they do this. Each time a question is asked Jesus steps around it in such a manner that the truth is revealed while and their religious ideologies are shown to be what they truly are, human attempts to control the masses.
Then one wise scribe asks a question, of all the commands and laws what is the most important. This question, which we discussed last Sunday, was one that Jesus answered head on, because this is a question of value. It was one that spoke to the truth of why everyone was at the temple in the first place. It was a question that spoke to life and not just religious observance. “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. And the second is this, Love your neighbor as yourself.” The wise scribe agrees with Jesus, and even says you are right, and this is more important than all the sacrifices. To which Jesus replies, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
It is important to visualize the scene. It is important to recognize what Jesus a few days had just done prior and why the religious leaders were asking these questions, because if we do not recognize the context of the story, we might miss something important. In today’s passage Jesus begins his teaching by saying watch out for the teachers of the law.
When Jesus is saying this, he is not meaning all teachers are like this, because he just said that some…well one was not far from the Kingdom. Jesus is speaking about those that exploit the system, the ones that make the temple into a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer for all nations. He says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Those who like to walk around in long robes. Recently we discussed long robes in our Sunday morning bible study. This is like the multicolored coat that was given to Joseph that enraged his brothers. As people have gained more understanding of the ancient languages that were used in scripture, they have decided that the coat given to Joseph might not have been multicolored, although that is probably part of it, but it might have been irritating because it was long sleeved. If we were to find something similar today the difference between this coat and the clothing of the others, it would be like a suit compared to a uniform. So, Joseph was clothed in the garments of management and the brothers wore the clothing of labor. When Jesus refers to the teachers wearing long robes, he is speaking not only of their clothing but the divisions among people. They made sure that people knew their position and they also wanted you to be aware of your own. They were not leaders who walked with those they managed but they were separate elites.
The people Jesus warned his disciples about were those who made demands not based on character but on position. These teachers make interpretations of the law, yet they themselves do not live by them because they can twist their interpretations to allow themselves to live how they desire while requiring everyone else do what they say. And these same people were the ones that could deny your offering within the temple if you did not support their agenda. They like their position because people were required to give them respect. They walked around in the finest of clothes and when they walked by people would greet them with proper words. They would have the seats of honor in the places of worship and you would not think of giving them a seat anywhere but at the head of the table at a feast. These are people totally disconnected with reality, and they consume the faithful.
Our early Friends had something to say about these types of people too. They called them the hirelings. They were religious leaders that had positions but did not have true life. This is why our spiritual ancestors of faith turned from the steeple houses of England, stopped the use of religious sacraments and met in silence. Because many of the leaders were void of life. They went through the motions, they said the right things but lived contrary to what they spoke. They were dishonest to the people and themselves. Beware of people like that Jesus said.
But not all the religious leaders are like this. Jesus knows this and even said that one of those people that held position was not far from the kingdom. And there were others as well, one of those religious leaders gave up his own tomb so that Jesus could be laid to rest in it. But it should cause us all to take note and consider our words and actions.
This is why Friends have the spiritual exercise that we call the Queries. These are simple questions that we read in every business meeting, we discuss them on occasion and hopefully we sit with them and consider our answers. Questions like, “Do you love one another as becomes the followers of Christ? Are you careful of the reputation of others? When differences arise do you make earnest efforts to end them speedily?” We could simply answer, yes or no, but are we being honest? Beware Jesus tell his disciples. The words and lifestyles should match. And if they do not, then listen more closely.
Then Jesus takes the disciples and they sit and observe as people place alms in the treasury box. They watch as some place large sums of money into it, and they observe a widow that places seemingly nothing, two small copper coins. Jesus tells them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The warning and this observation are connected. The cleansing of the temple and this observation are connected. Jesus’s advent and this observation are connected. I imagine that the disciples sat there watching countless pilgrims placing money in the treasury box. They probably gasped as some place into this box a month’s wages or possibly more money than they made in a year. And as the widow approached with her coppers they probably laughed. But the words of Jesus probably leapt to mind. BEWARE, and they took a second look. They might have even thought about who these people were, because they had probably greeted some of them in the marketplace earlier that day.
Then as they watch Jesus speaks again. He tells them that the widow gave everything she had, and the others gave out of their abundance. The others gave large sums but what they gave was only a fraction of what they had available, but the widow she did not even consider herself.
I speak often about the rhythm of Jesus’s life. He has a distinct cycle in his life and lifestyle. He made it his custom to worship in the community he visited, and he went to the synagogues on the appointed days. He withdrew often to isolated places to pray. And after worship and prayer he would move out into the community and minister to the needs of the people and taught them what life with God was like. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus doing these things, showing this lifestyle to the disciples and encouraging them to participate. Jesus lived a certain way. And to be his disciple we are called to take on his life. This does not mean we simply say magic words, but we take on a new life. We take on the lifestyle of Jesus. No longer do we look only to our own good, but we look out for the good of others.
Jesus showed his disciples what that looked like. He told them beware of the teachers, the teachers who built an economic religious empire selling redemption to feed their greed. And then he shows them the sacrifice of the widow who gave her last two copper coins.
At times, organizations can bring me sorrow. It pains me when religious groups and teachers get caught up in petty arguments that do not really matter in the larger picture. But then I also see groups that give their last two coins to help those in need. I have seen this small meeting give. We have given to teachers, knowing that new teachers do not always have the funds they need to provide for the children they teach. I have seen us rally around individuals who have had health concerns and trouble financially. I have seen us give to missionaries, enabling them to devote their lives to sharing the Gospel. We have even given to missionaries who have gone to places not to start churches but to simply live their lives to encourage others. I have also sat through meeting where attendees have argued with red faces, making threats and demands.
I have seen a great deal in my life. But there are some things that mean more than the others. The hugs and tears from friends, when words could not express sorrow at my sister’s funeral. The fact that most of this meeting drove to Wichita to attend the event at yearly meeting where I was recorded as a minister. My aunt coming here to Kansas City to watch my son being dedicated in this Meetinghouse. And more recent, with expenses that I really cannot cover our yearly meeting and our Friends here in this monthly meeting have helped. I personally have witnessed people giving of themselves to encourage someone else. I have personally seen them give knowing full well that that gift is a sacrifice.
I have seen true faith and I have seen things that have caused me to beware. I have seen it all around me, but I stand here today because the truth has more power than the lies. I stand here today because a Sunday school teacher loved Jesus enough to put up with unruly boys. Because a pastor shared with me the rich history of Friends. Because a Meeting looked through the sin and offered grace. I am here today because so many people throughout my life have given of their lives for me. Each of these people gave because there was a long line of people that invested in their lives, and people that invested in theirs. And it goes all the way back through history, to this one moment where Jesus stood in the temple and showed the disciples teachers in long robes and a widow with two pennies. And Jesus said some will give everything and some will take. And then later that same week Jesus would say this is my body broken for you and this is my blood as they ate together. And later Jesus would cry from a tree, “Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”
Some give it all and some take. Who are you?