Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

After the Palms
distributed 3/27/15 - ©2015

Palm Sunday is that occasion in the church year when we try and get ourselves into a really joyous mood, so that we can experience the full roller coaster effect of Holy Week.

In many churches this weekend, the Sunday School kids will be drafted to form a palm-waving procession through the sanctuary. Some lucky child may even get to play the part of Jesus, and ride the wooden donkey, the same one used by Mary in the Christmas pageant. Meanwhile, in the pews, well-dressed adults will sing All Glory, Laud and Honor and look very self-conscious about waving their fronds.

Through it all, we make a noble attempt to capture the genuine spirit of celebration that is part and parcel of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We try to claim the hope and excitement of the Messiah's arrival in the capitol city. And we set aside the awareness of what comes later in this Holy Week -- the agonizing times of betrayal and death, and the astounding joy of resurrection.

The Christian liturgical tradition packs a lot into Holy Week. We observe Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter itself.

And yet, as I re-read the Palm Sunday account in the gospels, I'm struck by what our liturgies skip over. The tradition of the triumphal entry is truncated. Scene 2 is skipped.

Picture this in your church's observation of the day: The bathrobe-clad Jesus rides the wheeled donkey down the aisle, while the congregation sings familiar hymns of praise and waves their palm branches. Then, as the music comes to a close, Jesus strides to the chancel, sweeps the silver communion ware onto the floor, and shouts, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer', but you are making it a den of robbers."

Would that uppity high schooler who broke church tradition, and who actually followed the biblical script, make it out of the sanctuary before the deacons got hold of him?

Isn't it interesting that the cleansing of the temple, intimately connected with Palm Sunday in all three synoptic gospels, isn't part of our Holy Week rituals? The part of the Holy Week story with the most potential to challenge our own spirituality and worship life is conveniently left out of our liturgical calendar.

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For years, I didn't understand the story about cleansing the temple, and I didn't understand how it applies to us. We don't have currency conversion stands and booths selling sacrificial animals -- only volunteers selling grocery coupons and fair trade coffee! It takes a fresh look at the text to see how the life of our Christian churches is engaged by that dramatic episode in the temple.

Jesus, quoting Jeremiah, speaks of a den of robbers. The story becomes relevant when we realize that the "den" is where the robbers go after they have committed their crimes.

In the popular 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, the pirates sail far and wide, doing their nasty acts of thievery and violence. Then they return to their treasure cave, their "robbers den", to rejoice in the loot, celebrate their victory, and to plan their next escapades.

The problem in the temple is not with the money changers and the merchants. Jesus objects to the multitudes of sinners who come to the temple for cheap grace. He echoes Jeremiah's words: "Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal ... and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe!' -- only to go on doing these abominations?"

Jesus raged because the crowds coming to the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, coming to make sacrificial offerings, did not come with repentance. They came, along with their fellow sinners, to perform an empty ritual. They came to barter for a forgiveness that they didn't really feel that they needed, and to go home to their unchanged lives.

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Let me be explicit in bringing a contemporary eco-justice slant to Jesus' temple tirade.

God calls us to lives of faith, justice and compassion for all of creation. In these days, that calling requires us to seek sustainable ways of living in the world, ways that do not exploit and exhaust the earth and its life. In this limited world, justice and sustainability also call us to seek sufficiency -- ensuring that there is enough for all to survive, and setting limits so that none have too much.

Now, open your eyes as you come to the various worship services this Holy Week. Here in the United States -- in the most over-consumptive, unsustainable society that has ever existed -- do you see the den of robbers?

Do you see the crowds coming for the year's great religious festival, with no inclination toward repentance and change? Do you see the folk in their holiday finery, complacent in their privilege, and secure in their entitlement of astonishing affluence? Do you see the Holy Week congregations filled with those who firmly believe that this excessive, unsustainable way of life is their God-given right?

The crowds rejoiced when Jesus entered Jerusalem. The trouble started in the temple, when he called them on their shallow and self-serving piety. And Jesus got into trouble when he challenged the Temple authorities on their participation in the Roman systems of wealth and exploitation. His highly symbolic outburst is an absolutely essential part of the Holy Week story, and -- more so even than the agony of Good Friday -- it is the challenging part of the story that we'd rather not have to confront.

But maybe we'd understand the great drama of this week, maybe we'd be transformed into deeper faith and right living, if the Palm Sunday Jesus got off his donkey and cleansed our congregations.

NOTE: Since 2011, a church in Seattle, Valley & Mountain Fellowship, has engaged in public witness on "Table Turning Monday". Their prophetic actions give fresh life and meaning to this part of the Holy Week story, and lift up social justice activism as a crucial part of the Jesus story in general. What similar witness could your congregation have next year?
Similar versions of "After the Palms" were circulated as Eco-Justice Notes just before Holy Week in 2004, 2006 and 2008. It has been revised and expanded for 2015.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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