Wasted narrative exegesis: Making room for the 'blind and the lame' in our temple courts (aka church)
We will take a look at the “Triumphal Entry” story in Matthew 21 on Sunday morning.
The population of Jerusalem, normally, was about 30,000, yet with the passover and all its events and activities, the city's population had grown far beyond its capacity to about 180,000. Inns were full. Family homes packed to overflowing with relatives. Camps of make-shift tents filled almost every space around the city and its outer hills and valleys.
And, then, Jesus arrives.
The crowd cheering him on as he rode that colt of a donkey was not (necessarily only) the regular travel guests and residents of Jerusalem that day, but the throngs, that is, the crowds that had been following him from Galilee--many were Galileans for sure (very much outsiders), but certainly many of those whom Matthew has already described to us elsewhere:
We know this crowd was following him down to Jerusalem: “And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him” (19:29). The sheep-without-a-shepherd crowd that Jesus had compassion for (cf. 9:36), these followed him to the city and are, most likely included, if not those, cheering the arrival of Messiah, of the King, who had come to save them all. In fact, we know this by Matthew's own accounting, for after the table-turning event that cleared the temple court of illegal and irreverent merchandizers preying off the weary travels coming to Jersualem for the Passover, he writes:
This happened in the cleared court of the temple. Matthew tells us, as the events that day in the temple unfolded, that the Jerusalem crowd had asked "Who is this?" for the "whole city was stirred up” (v. 10). Of course it was, this Preacher from Galilee had arrived, acting all king-like, and the throngs of outsiders, many considered unclean, that had been following him were now occupying the temple courts and disturbing the social and religious festivities. The unclean (blind and lame) and those outsiders in the temple!
Outsiders. Lame. Disabled. Demon-posessed (many whom Matthew's story thus far has told us were freed). The sick. Infirmmed. Those with seizures. And, their families. Did I mention outsiders? Galileans. And, even those perhaps from as far as Syria (Matthew 4:24). Throwing down palm branches. Shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (21:9b). All proclaiming Jesus as king of Israel. And, then, Jesus makes space in the temple for them. All this was not received well by Jerusalemites (i.e., the probably crowd shouting condemnation before Herod later in the story), and, especially the temple-leadership (v. 15).
When Jesus tells the two parable of the one son who rejected the Father's work and how the first disrespectful son repents and does the will of the Father, and the fake, greedy servants killed the Father's son . . . it is no wonder the temple-leadership felt this all was about them.
Now, to do away with this king, this messiah . . .
How can we, today, as church, run away from the inspired narrative that clearly shows that Jesus accepted the blind and the lame (surely a summary of all those sick, oppressed, and poor) into the temple, upsetting the status quo, deconstructing the religious institutional bias toward the powers and powerful, the wealthy and affluent?
What do we make of this? Church, we need to do better. O, Christian, we need to rethink church.
Dangerous Sunday Morning Devotions: Overturning tables so the bottom-demographics have access to the sacred space of table fellowship (Matthew 21)
One of my heroes of the faith is A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (1843-1919). Called to a rather prestigious NYCity church (a Presbyterian church!), he began to have a burden for ministry among the poor and street people. He'd preach on the street; street people converted; and, he brought them to church . . . was summarily disciplined and removed from the pulpit (on record, it was over his changed position regarding baptism, but there is no doubt as to the real reason was bringing those people into the paid-pews of our church).
Having those street people (i.e., the bottom demographics of NYCity) enter Simpson's church was like the time Jesus took to turning-tables and whipping merchants who filled the temple court (probably Court of the Gentiles) and, then, the crowds of the poor, marginalized, sick, disabled came into the temple (assuming there was a place for them now that the merchants were chased out) . . . Jesus overturned the status quo and mis-use of the temple sacred space and the very crowd that was disallowed, then, came in . . . We often read past quick verses that give some context to the narrative. Matthew's account tells us immediately what happened after the table-turning: “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (21:14). Matthew then tells us the temple leaders “were indignant” (v. 15).
The Matthew 21 OT quote used to prophetically justify Jesus’ table-turning action was to remind Israel’s temple-leadership that God's temple was to be a house for ALL people (Matthew 21:13; cf. Isaiah 56:7). When we turn to that Isaiah 56 quote, we read in the very next verse: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered’” (v. 8). And, this is exactly what happened in the over-turning-tables story in Matthew–in the very next verse: “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14).
If one pulls out the other likely OT reference to a “house of prayer for all people,” namely Jeremiah 7:11, there, too, we find in the context the marginal and bottom-demographics that have been left out, for we read in Jeremiah 7:5: “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow . . .” (v. 5).
Let's get this right: the over-turning-tables scene is about God’s people (more so, the visible ones that makes up both the truly elected and those who claim Christ but are not necessarily truly God’s people), the very temple (i.e., the place of God's dwelling and manifest presence--which was the temple in the OT and now the visible church, i.e., churches scattered throughout the earth) has barred the marginalized and placed barriers to the bottom-demographics from the temple/church sacred space. Like Jesus as he makes room for them in the temple, the significance of this Matthew 21 text is to apply to church (not in a general, universal church way--whatever that is--but, to the local church, my church, your church) by the intentional creating of room, restoring sacred space (i.e., literally NT table fellowship, however it looks today) for the bottom-demographics to be among us (or us among them, better, still). Or, we, too, may face Jesus’ over-turning-tables judgment.
patterns of church) and execute justice one with another (i.e., our neighbors) and not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow . . . among church. This is not a State funded plan or program. This does not need to come from the Supreme Court or any federal law. This is church.
Is it no wonder we hear a few lines later, in Matthew 21, Jesus would tell the temple-leadership who had a problem with the incoming bottom-demographics: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” This is an ecclesiological (aka a church) issue, the neglect of our poor and marginalized neighbors, and the giving of access to our fellowship so that they may have full access to the Father.
We need to rethink church.
Deconstructing the privileged platform(s) of social justice advocacy: reconstructing our "scum of the world" platform (the only power for advocacy)
Many Christian advocates for social justice cry out for deconstructing privilege and the privileged from a platform of privilege themselves, a place of power, celebrity, notoriety, and/or money (not to exclude address, i.e., where they live and the resources at their disposal). Over and over, their advocacy seems to contradict their status and lifestyle. These same advocates for social justice use the Bible (and for the most part I align and, even, agree with much of their message; not so much their means, which are, for the most part, not biblical, but mostly cultural, political, and status resourced).
Here’s what strikes me: The original advocacy (i.e., the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah) and how it changed things, how it deconstructed, and, then, reconstructed habits and lives and attitudes did not occur from the place of power, but from the place of powerlessness. We learn this, first, from the humanizing (i.e., incarnation) of the One who was in the form of God from all eternity taking on the form of a slave (Phil 2); and, second, from the small gatherings of believers in homes (living rooms), we now call churches, made up mostly of the poor and powerless in the early decades of the church. Of course, there were some wealthy among them and some who provided homes for churches to gather; yet, here, too, as Christians and people that used their homes for believers to gather would have lost their status and social standing (at least in part), leaving them to be classed among the powerless and the bottom-demographics of the Roman Empire and Greek world.
It would be nearly three centuries before the wealthy, educated, and powerful had control over the affairs of the church. No longer in homes. State (i.e., Empire) sanctioned and often constructed buildings became the addressed-venues of churches. Highly trained and Empire sanctioned clergy had authority over the church. No longer food for a supper, but tokens of bread and wine were used and guarded and distributed by this now elite, often cosmopolitan, clergy. Now, the State (or Empire) controlled the advocacy, that is the results of the gospel. The poor and the powerless among the Christians were separated from their more wealthy, educated, and affluent Christian brothers and sisters, by design and by default. Yet, it was not so in the beginning and for about 300 years of church history. Obviously the shift crept in, but was not fully established until the Emperor “converted” (but was not baptized) and the Empire started creating a space of power for the leaders of the church.
My concern here is not to dwell on how the church came to know power and has been able to produce power and the powerful, but to highlight that our present social justice advocates do so from a platform of power that the very gods of empire (call it as you will, colonialism, Christendom, American upward mobility—no matter, it is the powers that) has given (such power) to them. Few seem to divest themselves of power and privilege (as did Jesus, whom they say they follow) and take on the form of a slave and being obedient to the point of death, even death (i.e., dying to self) on a cross (again, cf. Phil 2) on which they are called to carry; but, yet, offer, still, their justice rhetoric and (really what is often simply) political vision from a place of culturally designed privilege and power. Until this is recognized (and deconstructed I might add), such advocacy will rely on the power of the State to enforce their vision (no matter how clothed in biblical language it might be).
It is my humble opinion that we need to rethink church, especially as the place where systemic change happens, even though it is a place (and the space) of the poor and powerless. (Well, it should be.) Of course, plenty of “churches” need repentance, an attitude of lament, and a call back to the gospel (liberal, progressive, and conservative churches), but, nonetheless, it is, still, the church (local churches) where the alternative of God’s kingdom is to be lived (by believers) and observed (by outsiders). (Not “look how we vote” or “look how we protest”; but “look how we live and fellowship as strangers and unequals, as brothers and sisters in Christ, a wholly new family in Christ.”)
The church, a church, local churches scatter from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood, places where strangers and unequals meet over a meal (break bread) and celebrate (raise a cup) that they have no other Lord than the risen Messiah, who sits at the Father’s right hand (their only source of power, which is lived by denying themselves and taking up a cross). Such advocacy should not rest in individuals who have forms of cultural power at their disposal, but an advocacy that stems from a gathered-household of faith. Social justice advocacy should be a lived-church thing (and for that matter, the place of no power, no culturally derived and given power). Social justice is a lived-church advocacy.
Our advocacy for social justice, like any of our boasting (our culturally, socially, and economically derived desires, vision, or means of power), needs solely to be first and foremost “in the Lord” and made from a willing place of foolishness. Our social justice advocacy platform, the place where we are “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things,” this is the place, Jesus’ church, local churches, find themselves and where authentic social justice advocacy has its gospel platform.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.