“One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts Luke 20:1
Many of us may have gone through experiences in life where someone who was the best of our friends becomes the worst of our enemies, or where a place that been our favourite becomes a place we dread to go. When we look at Jesus’ visits to the Temple, we see such a change, but while we might avoid friends who have become enemies, while we might avoid favoured places that now cause us pain, Jesus is prepared to go to the very place where his enemies gather, go to the heart of the opposition.
The Temple was a place of happiness in Jesus’ childhood days. Saint Luke Chapter 2 tells us of the presentation in the Temple of Jesus when he was forty days old, ‘When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord’. It is a wonderful moment not just for Mary and Joseph, but also for the ageing Simeon, who declares that he can now die in peace, having seen how the Lord would save his people; and for Anna, who has been a widow for most of her life and has spent that time in the Temple, waiting for the Lord’s presence.
Perhaps our memories are coloured by the passing years, but when we look at photographs from childhood days, there is so often a joy about them, a sense of peace that is lost as we grow older. As Jesus grew up, would Mary have told him of the wonderful moment spent in the Temple when he was a baby? The Temple would always have been a special place for someone growing up in the Jewish faith, but even in those early years, would Jesus have had a sense that it was a personally special place?
When Jesus was twelve years old, Saint Luke tells of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem with then. On their return journey, they find Jesus is missing from the group and they frantically return to the city in search of him. ‘After three days’, writes Saint Luke, ’they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. It had been a confusing moment, one filled with fear and wonder, one which Mary would have pondered through the years. If he hadn’t had a sense of the Temple being special to him in earlier years, certainly by the time Jesus is twelve, he regards the Temple as a personal place. ‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’
Temptations (serious temptations, not things like whether or not one has a chocolate biscuit), concern important things in our lives: major decisions we have to make; choices regarding things close to our heart. The devil is aware that the Temple must have been at the very heart of the thinking of Jesus when he began his ministry, for it is the place of one of the temptations that Jesus has to withstand. Saint Luke writes in Chapter 4, ‘The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’, he said, ‘throw yourself down from here’. This is the place where Jesus has been recognized by Simeon and Anna, recognized by the teachers when he was twelve. This is the place which Jesus regards as his Father’s house. This is the place where the temptation would have been greatest for Jesus to show who was the true master. When he returned to Jerusalem, would he have pondered that temptation?
Jesus rides into Jerusalem and he heads straight for the Temple. Would he have recalled all the special moments as he approached the building? Would there have been years of thinking that the day would come when he would recall the Temple to its intended holiness? Saint Luke Chapter 19, Verses 45-46 tells us, ‘When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ’My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ Jesus is prepared to go to the very heart of a place controlled by his enemies and to confront them where they were.
Look at Jesus: there is no-one to protect him; there are no friends in high places; he has no influence among the rulers; there is no-one upon whom he can call for favours. Jesus is powerless and in that powerlessness he goes to face the powerful, the people who want to destroy him.
Having driven the traders out of the Temple, Jesus might have felt that his point had been made and retreated from the city until the day of the Passover. He might have spent the days at Bethany, teaching to teach his disciples the significance of what he had done. It had taken extraordinary bravery to ride into the city as he had done, recalling the words of the prophet Zechariah, and it had taken even greater courage to go right into the Temple courts and drive out the money changers and the tradesmen. No-one would have thought the less of Jesus if had spent the following days in quiet retreat. But, instead of retreating, Jesus spent the days that followed right in the very middle of things, right in the Temple. Saint Luke tells us in Chapter 19 Verse 47-48, ‘Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words’.
Jesus remained at the heart of the city and in the hearts of the people through the power of the words he spoke. Does the church today have the courage to go to the places of power, to the temple courts, of our own time with nothing more than the power of Jesus’ words? And, if we have not confidence in the power of Jesus’ words, what have we?
In Ireland, the old way of doing things, where the church assumed a right to dictate to people what they should believe, and how they should behave, has been swept away forever. The social and economic revolution in the last generation; the extraordinary changes in communications technology; the corrosive effect of the foul evils documented in the reports on child abuse; these have torn to shreds the last vestiges of ecclesiastical authority. It endured here much longer than in many places. No longer can we presume to tell people anything; they will no longer believe things because we tell them it is so; they will no longer obey rules because we tell them they should do so.
We are the first generation in centuries where the church has been brought to a Christlike powerlessness; where we have nothing with which to confront the world except the words of Jesus. We can no longer compel, we should never have been able to do so; all we can do is to try to persuade. Like Jesus in the temple courts, all we can offer are his words.
People will look at the church and ask, ‘why should I believe what you say?’ And all we have to offer in response is the story of Jesus and if we do not live out that story, if they do not look at us and see us living as Jesus lived, if they do not see us as servants, they will say to us, ‘No, thank you. If you cannot live by the standards you preach, then why should we listen to you?’
Look at Jesus in the temple courts, surrounded by his enemies, but with the people hanging on his words. It is the power of powerlessness, the truth of God against the might of worldly authority. Perhaps we haven’t the courage to go into such situations, mercifully, we are unlikely to be asked to do so. But what Jesus does ask of us, whether in the places of power, like the temple courts, or in our rural community, like Bethany, is to hear his words and to live them.