What Was Jesus Thinking? (Palm Sunday) (4/9/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This morning’s scripture reading involves Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion. I want to read further into that same passage, regarding what happened the following day.
Then the disciples returned to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.
We know the story well. The religious authorities and the political leaders, the Romans, get together and within the week Jesus is dead.
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Let’s set the stage for how this all came about. Each year, Jews traveled from their native lands to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Passover was the most important of the Jewish festivals. It celebrated the story told in Exodus chapter 12. In the process of freeing the Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt, God sends a plague upon the land. At one point Yahweh plans to kill all the firstborn in the homes of Egypt. He tells the Jews to put lamb’s blood on the doorposts to their homes, and he will know to pass over that house and not take the life of the firstborn.
Exodus 12:13 reads, The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. The celebration of the Passover became an annual feast and celebration that took place at the Jerusalem temple.
While in Jerusalem people visited the temple and paid the annual temple tax—a sort of forced tithe. This was done by purchasing lambs, or doves, depending on your financial situation. The priests then made a sacrifice of those animals on your behalf.
It had evolved into a regular system of commerce. The money changers were a necessary part of the process, trading cash for the rights to an animal that would be sacrificed on the temple altar. In my mind it was a lot like the television evangelists who promise healing and salvation in return for a nice donation to their ministry.
The system had turned corrupt. But that was not a concern for the Roman government. The Roman government was concerned only with keeping the peace during the Passover festival. The Jews resented the occupying forces from Rome, and every so often a leader would rise out of the crowd and attempt to overthrow the Roman government. Many people hoped Jesus would be the ultimate political leader—the Messiah—who would lead the revolution against Rome and restore the monarchy of King David.
And this was the great fear of the Romans every year at Passover. This was the time when Jews from all over the known world gathered in a single place, and talk of revolution was always circulating among the crowds.
Most scholars agree that the Bible lets Pilate off the hook pretty easy. Pilate was not a kind man. He ruled over Jerusalem with an iron fist. The Bible has Pilate agonizing over the fate of Jesus and washing his hands of the entire affair. That would have been quite unlikely. Pilate would have ordered Jesus’ death the instant he heard Jesus was making trouble at the temple.
So the question is, What was Jesus thinking? Jesus was no fool. He surely knew there would be extreme repercussions from his bold act in the temple. Why did he make such a scene? The question many scholars ask at this point in the story is not so much What was Jesus thinking, but rather Who did Jesus think he was?
There are two sides to the story, and scholars are in disagreement on this issue. Did Jesus think of himself as the Son of God? Did Jesus believe he was in some way divine? Or did Jesus think of himself as a prophet, an ordinary man, inspired by God to reform the Jewish faith?
The only place we have to search for an answer to that question—what was Jesus thinking—is the Bible. And as is the case so often with the Bible, there is more than one way to read it. The Gospels of Mark and John give us especially different views of Jesus’ self-perception.
In the Gospel of John Jesus is very much aware that he is the holy son of God. This is the gospel in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me… If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” According to the Gospel of John, Jesus knew exactly who he was throughout his ministry—the Messiah, the Christ, the unique Son of God whose death and resurrection would ransom the lost souls of humankind.
We get a very different portrait of Jesus in Mark. In Mark, we have what is called the Messianic secret. That means that if Jesus thought he was the Messiah, he tried awfully hard not to let people know. In the 7th chapter of Mark Jesus heals a man who is both deaf and mute. Immediately after the healing, which was overseen by a few people, Mark tells us that Jesus ordered them to tell no one. Even when Peter tells Jesus that he believes Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus sternly orders Peter and the disciples not to tell anybody about him.
And remembering Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John about he and the Father being one and the same is really confusing when Mark tells us of the rich man who approaches Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” While he does answer the question, Jesus’ instant response is to avoid the question and rebuke the rich man. Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
What was Jesus thinking? What thoughts were on his mind when he rode into Jerusalem on that little colt and people threw palm branches on his path? This was the way people treated royalty. And according to Luke’s gospel the people shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
I wonder how many people there were lining the streets as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. The Bible says in two of the gospels it was a “crowd” and in another gospel that it was “multitudes.” The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar indicates it was 50-thousand people. That is quite doubtful. It may be of some use to remember that according to the Book of Acts, after this week passes and Jesus has been crucified, there are 120 people who gather to try to make sense of his death.
Most of my favorite scholars do not believe Jesus envisioned himself as anything other than a prophet. This is an area where I disagree with my favorite scholars. Even in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says in his final days, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
In my personal theology, which has the same validity as any of your personal theologies, no more and no less, I don’t really envision Jesus as thinking of himself as the Son of God, the Christ, throughout his life. But I do believe that as he hung on the cross he believed it. As he willingly walked toward the cross he believed it. And in all probability he had come to believe it by the time he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and knocked over the money changers’ tables. He was ready and willing to die for what he believed was the atonement of humankind.
My heart tells me this is true, but it is more than my heart that makes me believe this about Jesus. There are three passages from the Bible that lead me to this conclusion—that Jesus did indeed envision himself as the Christ at the time of his death.
First, there are his powerful words from the cross spread across the four gospels. We will remember those words this Thursday evening—Maundy Thursday. But the power of those words leads me to believe Jesus knew he was the Messiah.
Second, there are his words from the four gospels when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of the Last Supper. This was perhaps his last battle with himself over his self-identity. I’ll read the account from the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake, and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; for the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass until I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.
It is after this third prayer that Judas shows up with the crowd and betrays Jesus with a kiss. But Jesus seemed to know this was about to happen. What was he thinking? Why didn’t he just pack up his meager belongings, walk on over the hill and head back to Nazareth? He could open a little carpentry business, maybe settle down with a wife and a few children. It seems that he chose to be martyred. Why?
It is a third passage of scripture that leads to my conviction that Jesus envisioned himself as the Savior at the time of his passion, and that reading comes from the Book of Isaiah. Jesus was familiar with the Book of Isaiah, and would have been quite familiar with the passage I cite.
I should be very clear at this point. Writing some 500 years before the time of Jesus, the author of these words, according to scholars, was talking about the nation of Israel, which had suffered through the Babylonian exile and would soon rise up to be a light to all nations. My belief is that Jesus read more into these words, as Christians have for the past 2000 years. I leave you with Isaiah 52 and 53, and respect your right to determine whether or not Jesus envisioned himself as the Christ through the course of his passion.
…He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Perhaps, perhaps, that is what Jesus was thinking the last week of his life in Jerusalem.