I recently watched Netflix’ series Messiah. It depicts what might happen if a christ-figure entered our contemporary world. The series was intriguing because it kept you guessing. Was he Jesus? Or an imposter? Maybe a terrorist? What were his real motivations? Were his miracles tricks or real? Were his teachings good news or were they a bit off? Would I follow him?
I wonder if my reactions to the character in the Netflix show were at all like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day.
We read what Jesus did on that first Palm Sunday, and maybe we are accustomed to his actions: Jesus cleansing the temple. Jesus healing. Jesus teaching. These are classic Jesus kinds of actions. Remember, though, that Jesus is not out on a mountainside, or in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, or inside a friend’s house. The religious leaders were watching him in all those places too, but now he is on their turf, the most important turf they had. Jesus is right in their headquarters. This is happening on what they considered the center of religious life, the temple.
Because he is on their home field, is Jesus deferring to them, asking them permission? No! He isn’t caring one lick about their opinion. Jesus has walked right into the enemy’s lair, and he is taking charge as if it is was his. Furthermore he is making changes, and as he does, he is telling them they were wrong about how they did things with their concessions stand in the Court of Gentiles. He knew they were wrong, he told them so, and he took action.
Imagine being those religious leaders hearing this from Jesus. They had a hard time when he confronted them out on the mountainside and in people’s homes. Now he’s confronting them in their house. At the end of verse 15, Matthew gives us one word to describe how the leaders felt: indignant. I think that Matthew could have probably written, “They were really, really, really, really, super, deeply, angry.”
Matthew goes on to tell us how, in their indignancy, the leaders react toward Jesus there in the temple. You’d think, with rage simmering just below the surface, they’d muster the temple guards and kick Jesus out of the temple. Surprisingly, their response is very muted. In just a few days they will arrest him, beat him, falsely accuse him, and hand him over to the Romans demanding that the Romans crucify him. For now though, right there in the temple, there is a party going on, and the leaders’ hands are tied by the fact that the people are loving Jesus, wanting to enthrone him as King. Even the kids are chanting “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
All the leaders do is ask Jesus one question, as we read in verse 16, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” The leaders are looking at this party, this almost-coronation, as if it is utterly ridiculous. In their minds, Jesus, and his UNtriumphal entry, is the furthest thing from the messianic king they expected, and the children praising him are just being children. Therefore, the leaders, when they question Jesus in verse 16, are insinuating that Jesus is off his rocker to receive the praise of the people. They would say Jesus is being heretical, blasphemous. We know from our vantage point that those kids were speaking 100% truth, and Jesus was absolutely right to allow it. Jesus truly was the king of the Kingdom of God.
How the leaders did not see this truth is hard to imagine. Just looking at the miracles Jesus did should have been more than enough. But the reality is that we can be hard of heart too, doubters, pessimistic, especially when, like those leaders, our authority and viewpoint is being called into question. To admit that Jesus was right, those leaders would have to eat some serious humble pie and make major changes to their worldview and their livelihood, perhaps giving up power. That’s asking a lot of anyone who believes they are right, and who sees things one certain way for their whole lives. Yet that is what Jesus is doing. His whole life and ministry centered on the idea that God’s Kingdom was near, and it was being revealed in a new way through him. This was too much for the leaders, blinded as they were by their selfish ambition. Of course, then, they believe him to be an imposter, and their question about the children gets at his validity and authority.
Look at verse 16 to see the astounding way that Jesus answers their question with a question of his own, “Have you never read…?” Think about this. Jesus is talking to the Bible scholars, the people who knew their Scriptures better than anyone, the people who were quite willing to let it be known that they were the religious experts. To them he is basically saying, “Hey so-called Bible guys, it seems like you haven’t read your Bibles.”
If cleansing the temple was an act of war, Jesus now launches the first assault, essentially making fun of the Bible scholars for not seeing their world through the lens of the Bible. Just as he quoted Scripture to defend his actions of cleansing the temple (see previous post), he now does so again, defending the children who were praising him. He quotes Psalm 8:2, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise,” thus shutting down the Bible scholars, who should have applied the Bible to this situation. Jesus’ confrontation of the leaders is a classic burn. You know they are enraged, hating that they can do nothing about it.
Matthew describes no further response from the leaders. Jesus leaves the city, travels to the nearby town of Bethany (almost certainly to the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus who lived there), and spends the night there.
Might it be possible that your impression of Jesus is incorrect, like the religious leaders? If he were standing in front of you, would you know it was him? If you want to have the correct understanding of Jesus, I encourage you to start learning about him by reading the four stories of his life, the books that a traditionally called the Gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As you read, take notes about how these four writers describe Jesus. What surprises you? What didn’t you know? Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, is also a helpful guide.