Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day when the church traditionally celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the final time. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem forms a significant theme in his recording of his ministry.
Luke 9:51, Jesus ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem. This centre of first century Palestine. The capital, the concentrated centre of Roman power. Seat of King Herod, pretender on the throne and traitor to the nation. Jesus sets his face towards the ancient city of God.
But it would be some time before he made his final entry.
The great preacher and teacher, Jesus, has travelled around Galilee, Nazareth and beyond calling disciples, announcing a new era of God’s reign and gathering a substantial following.
And with this substantial following, the famous rabbi makes for his final destination, the place he’s been headed for three years to accomplish his work.
Perhaps a first century Jew would expect a devout, charismatic leader of the people to use his substantial influence perhaps to influence political change. Reduce the tax rates? Pressure the Romans into removing the vestiges of their idol cult from the sacred city? Grant greater autonomy for the Jewish people?
Jesus does none of these things. He enters triumphantly and proceeds directly to the Temple.
He is indignant at what he finds there. Cheating pilgrims for a higher profit margin in the sale of the sacrificial animals, Jesus is enraged. Overturning tables, scattering coins he laments
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
In this devastating act of judgement, Jesus condemns not the Romans, nor even Herod–who had even killed Jesus’ own, cousin John the Baptist–but the Pharisees, Priests, Scribes and Sadducees. That is to say, the entire spiritual leadership system of Israel. They had robbed God’s people. They had failed in their task to make God’s house a house of prayer for the nations (Isaiah 56:7).
The next day, he comes back into the city. He is hungry. Passing a fig tree, he looks for fruit on it’s branches. He finds none. Instead of simply looking elsewhere, he shouts at the tree. In this most puzzling, even bizarre, miracle Jesus is delivering a fearsome message.
The day before he merely overturned tables in his rage. Today the words from his mouth kill the fig tree.
And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:19)
This terrifying judgement is a demonstration of the judgement God has placed upon Israel. Jesus came to them looking for good fruit, evidence that God’s patience with them had paid off. Evidence that God’s people were obeying him whilst he was ‘away’. He came to see just what Israel had done with God’s blessing to them, his law.
Jesus came and saw that they had failed. With that the measure of their sin had reached it’s fullness and like the fig tree they were cursed.
Can this explain the decline of the Western Church? Read the three parables Jesus tells in judgement against the Jewish leaders of the day. Can you see parallels in the culture today, or in history?
The ways we have claimed to obey, but have not stood up against bigotry and hatred, oppression and greed?
The knowledge of the Lord we have been taught and shown, the Gospel that we have failed to display?
The great invitation to meet God in the poor and needy, yet we have despised the call?
As a ministry worker, a staff member of a church, I read these stories with trembling in my heart.
What if Christ were to walk into my office today? What if he would come looking for fruit, the good harvest of love and joy and peace in my life and in my community. What would he find there?
I tremble because I know he would turn the desks over, he would lay waste to my work. Like the fig tree, surly he would curse.
As a minister in the Church, I am driven to my knees this Holy Week, for I know I have been a lazy son (Matthew 21:30), a wicked tenant (Matthew 21:39) and have despised the Lord’s invitation (Matthew 22:5).
This Holy Week, I will not reject Christ, but I will respond to his warning.
I hope you will too.