We had been in Jerusalem only a matter of days and already so much had happened. There inside the Temple House of God Jesus called us, his disciples, to himself. He had been sitting opposite the temple treasury watching the crowds of people as they made offerings. He said, “Do you see this one here? She hasn’t penny to her name…” As he spoke, he had a woman close to him I had not noticed before. “Yet,” Jesus went on, “ this widow has made a true offering before God today. Indeed she has placed something of more value before God than all of the others put together.”
I was taken aback by this statement, but something rang true about it. I looked at the woman and saw her for the first time. Jesus explained that he had seen her stand at the place of offering, look at her hand and watch two copper coins slip into the treasury. The sound of her offering had been drowned out by the clinking of many other coins and the puffed-up prayers of those that made a show of what they gave. And yes, her offering was easily overlooked. But Jesus pressed the point by saying, “Don’t let this slip by you: the others gave what they had to spare, but this dear one – she has given with her heart in her mouth. Do you see that what she gave was all she had to live on? Now does that make it so weightless and insignificant? Let me tell you, an offering of this kind carries so much weight and significance with God.
The sight of Jesus shepherding that widow and the dignity he gave her in that moment will stay with me always. The woman had come to the temple that day with all she possessed and had decided to give it all. What would have become of her had Jesus not stopped her as she turned away to leave? If the community and its temple neglected her, then who or what could replace them?
As I pondered these things I remembered the moment Jerusalem had come into view. I did not have long to savour it in the way I expected. Upon reaching Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives Jesus had stopped. He sent me and my brother, saying to us, “Go to the next village along and as you enter it you will find a colt tied up. Its owner assures me it has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. Someone may ask you: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ tell him, “The Lord needs it and will send it back straight after he’s done.’”
And that is how it went. We walked to that town and found a colt in the street tied at a doorway. As I loosened the knot some people standing there asked, as if on cue: ‘What business do you have untying that colt?’ We answered as Jesus had instructed and were greeted with knowing approval. We walked the colt back to where Jesus was waiting. We threw our cloaks over it and helped Jesus into the makeshift saddle.
Well I must confess, what happened next took me off guard. Somehow the scene did not meet any of my fixed expectations of God’s Saviour-Messiah. But then again, Jesus rarely ever does. What unfolded was something of a royal procession. The people threw down their cloaks on the road and others added to its spontaneous formation with branches cut from the fields. Whether behind or before us the people burst into praise. At first, one who went ahead shouted and it was answered by another behind, and then another and soon the whole crowd joined in. We were surrounded by jubilant people who exclaimed:
“Make way! Praise God!
He is what I’m talking about!
He’s blessed! Look out!
Here he comes in God’s name!
He’s blessed! Vacate!
He’ll take David’s throne again!
Get up! Make way!
Get up off-a-that-seat-of-power!
He’s blessed! Look out!…”
And on went the lively procession all the way through the gates of Jerusalem right up to the very Temple steps. The whole event evoked the declaration of kingship. It was palpable. By the time he had reached the temple it was getting late. Jesus took everything in; surveying the temple and all the people. Then he took the twelve of us and went back out to the village of Bethany.
Well if the first day was about declaring kingship, the second was about declaring the king’s right to reform the temple. Upon leaving Bethany Jesus appeared hungry. I followed him along with the other disciples to a fig tree he had spotted some distance away. I wondered why he looked there for fruit. When he came to the tree he found it just as it was: a tree flush with green leaf but bearing no fruit. It was all appearance but lacked the beauty and goodness of ripe fruit in season. I wondered again at his words as he railed against the tree, saying “May your fruitless life end. Then no one has to endure your barrenness any longer.” We all heard him say it.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area. Suddenly he began to expel those who were buying and selling there. He upended tables leaving the money changers scrambling for their coins as they scattered on the ground. He heaved over benches so those who sold doves could only reach helplessly for their cages as they crashed. On he went in his righteous fury, sparing not even those moving goods for sale through the temple courts. He got in their face and turned them back and caught them with hot words: “Isn’t it written:
“My sanctuary will be revered as a house of prayer for all nations”?
But you have kept it all for yourselves and duped any and every coin out of honest folk, hoarding plunder like common thieves! This place and its people are meant to show the way but here you are fumbling in a dark den! Now no one has to endure your barrenness any longer.”
Well the whole crowd that witnessed this were energised by his clear and decisive teaching. It would have been difficult for the chief priests and teachers of the rules to have missed Jesus’ statement and the crowd’s response. To have the sway of the people is what they held most dearly and they feared losing their grip. I think this is the point where their fear gave way to murderous intent and they would look for a way to kill him. Put it this way: just to be safe we didn’t leave the city until evening came.
The next morning as we made our way to the temple we saw the same fig tree as before. I was surprised to find it completely withered. It looked as though it had dried up from within. I remembered its lush leaf and said to Jesus, “Teacher, look! The fig tree you reproached has shrivelled up.”
“I think you know that’s where Divine faith comes in.” Jesus answered. “It asks, ‘What does prayer look like in this new community?’ Well you can be sure of this: if anyone says to this holy hill, ‘Cast yourself down so the waters may again wash over you,’ and lets belief flourish instead of doubt, that person will see it done for them. I’ll give it to you plainly: pray as though you have received; whatever it may be, make the request – and you’ll find you have what you need. And when it comes to praying, let forgiveness never be far from your lips. If you find yourself standing before God thinking the worst of your neighbour, forgive that person, or anyone else that has hurt you. Your sin is before the Father in Heaven too don’t forget, so be people of forgiveness.
I wondered to myself at the time who he meant when he said ‘anyone’. I mean, could this temple and its priests really service the known world? I wondered if the temple would hold the kingdom Jesus spoke of or would it really be like an old wineskin and not be able to contain this new wine?
Jesus had entered the city as its new king, reformed the temple like only a king could, and now held court to settle disputes for his people.
Soon enough the power brokers came at Jesus with their questions and their malice. When we arrived in Jerusalem again the chief priests, the teachers of the rules and the elders were waiting. While Jesus was walking along they confronted him, “By what authority are you turning the tables?” and “Show us the name on the stamp sealed in wax that gives you permission to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I’ll ask you one question. Answer me, and I’ll tell you whose seal allows me to do these things. The baptism John gave to set the people straight – was heaven in on it or was John claiming authority he didn’t really have? You tell me!”
Well, they formed a quick huddle and when they answered their reasoning was as clear as their conundrum: “If we say ‘Heaven was in on it,’ he will ask, ‘Then why weren’t you in on it?’ But if we say, ‘John was claiming authority he didn’t really have…’” I could sense their fear of the people because of the widespread belief that John was indeed a prophet of God. Their answer did not surprise me, for even I could see the source of John’s words and deeds were so closely bound with those of Jesus. With a wrong word they would either discredit John or validate Jesus – neither of which suited their ends. So they answered Jesus’ question with, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I breathe a word about the authority that allows me to do these things.”
He then launched into a parable saying,
“A man planted a vineyard. He built all that was necessary to establish it; a wall, a winepress and a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and set out to do business away from home. He knew when the harvest was due and sent his servant at just the right time. Surely the tenant would have fruit for him to collect from his vineyard. But what did they do instead? They seized him and roughed him up and kicked him like a beggar’s backside. Then he sent another servant to them and what did they do? They blindsided him with a king hit and dragged him through the streets to humiliate him. He sent yet another one and this time they chose murder. There would be a long line of servants that the man sent for ripe fruit. But the story became all too familiar: whether by brute force or a shallow grave, all would be silenced.
And so it came to this: one remained to be sent. It was his son – his most beloved – he would send at last, saying ‘Surely they will receive my son and give him the respect they would surely grant me?’
But the tenants said among themselves, ‘This one is the heir and wants the vineyard for himself. Let’s kill him before he steals our honour and all we’ve worked hard for. Then it will all be ours for good!’ So that is what they did – they grabbed him and killed him and threw his body over the back wall of the vineyard.
And so it has come to this: What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to outsiders. Haven’t you read this scripture:
‘The stone the builders threw away in the corner
has become what everything else rests on – its very integrity
This has ‘The Lord’s Work’ written all over it
And behold, it is a thing of great beauty’?”
I could tell the temple leaders who had asked the question were seething with anger because they knew Jesus had directed the parable at them. They probably wanted to arrest him then and there, but they were afraid of the crowd so they backed down and slipped away.
But they would not give up so easily. Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to sift Jesus’ words for anything that could show him up for who he really was. Now normally these two crowds wouldn’t be caught dead together, but here they were ready to plot the ruin of Jesus.
They came to him with flattering words, “Teacher, we know you are a man whose life is like a plumb line. You aren’t swayed by the measurements of other people, and seem not to care what office they hold – but you are concerned with leading others in the way of God so as to build a house with what is true. The question then is this: is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay our dues or should we ‘stick it to the man’?”
But Jesus knew they were two-faced. He replied, “When your trap shuts on me will you then be free?” he asked. “Bring me a coin of the empire and let me look at it.” They handed him a denarius coin, and he asked them, “Whose head adorns this? And whose name makes a claim of sovereignty around its edge?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give to this sovereign Caesar what he makes claim on and give to God what God has sovereign claim over.”
His answer was followed by a stunned silence.
The line of questioners however was unrelenting. Next the Sadducees, who were a faction who did not believe in final resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses laid the foundation for us to build on. The writing’s teach us about the care of widows. Say a man dies and leaves a wife but no children. That man’s brother is responsible for that widow. To honour his dead brother he must marry her and save her from the shame of barrenness. Consider this: A man has six brothers. He marries, but just as he sets out to live his life, he dies leaving the woman childless and alone. The next oldest seeks to honour his brother and marries his widow. But just as he sets out to live his life, he too dies leaving the woman childless and alone. It is the same with the next oldest. In truth, none of the seven brothers leave any children. Last of all, in her shame and embarrassment the widow’s fruitless life ends too. Now the question is: At the last so called ‘resurrection’, where everyone rises from the dead together, who will she give herself to since all the brothers can claim her as their wife?”
Jesus replied, “Could you consider for a moment that you might be wrong? Maybe then the scriptures and the power of God would open up to you? When the dead brothers and sisters and mothers rise, there will be no talk of marriage; for all will give themselves fully to God as the angels in heaven already do. Now about the dead rising – have you not noticed what’s hidden in the history of God’s people in the account of Moses? As he approached the strange sight in the desert – a bush on fire but not burning up – he heard the voice of God. God was right there saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. You see, though you think the patriarchs are long dead, God comes in the name of the living. And he comes to wake the people up. So wake up! Your house is about to cave in! It’s on the same shaky ground as your thinking!”
One of the teachers of the rules, who had come to listen to all that was being discussed, voiced a good question. I think that he had noticed Jesus had given a good answer, so he came forward and asked, “Of all the commandments of this temple and its community which one bears the most weight of the house?”
“The most crucial one,” Jesus answered, “is this: ‘Hear this, all of you, the beating heart of Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Let our love be the brick and mortar and stone of God’s house. Let this whole-of-life love be the scaffold by which God builds himself a people.’ The second is this: ‘Regard the one who sits opposite. And as though looking in a mirror love them accordingly.’ No other command bears as much weight as these.”
“Bravo teacher,” the man replied. “It does my heart good to hear you affirm that God is sovereign and without peer. When all the outward sacrifices are ash what remains? The real offering must be a heart that gives without reward, an understanding that has reached its limit, a strength that has all but dried up and an attitude that wills the good of another.”
Jesus waited for the man’s own wise answer to sink in. Then he said to him, “If the kingdom of God were a flowing river I’d say you are about to be swept into its current!” After that nobody dared challenge him with any more questions.
Jesus then held the centre of the temple courts with his teaching. He asked, “Have you ever wondered why the teachers of the rules hold to the teaching that the Messiah is in the line of King David? Consider David’s very words in the coronation song inspired by the Holy Spirit:
“ ‘God said to my Lord:
“Take your rightful place at my side
Until I make those who oppose you
Powerless and humbled before you.”’
Notice how David calls this Messiah ‘Lord and King’. How then can this Messiah follow in the royal line as a son of David? He is very clearly divine, not merely divinely sent.” At this the crowd was large with delight.
As the widow who had made her humble offering stood with Jesus, what had happened in the previous days made more sense to me. It could be summed up in Jesus’ own words just prior to her unadorned gift. He had said, “Watch out for the teachers of the rules for they are little parodies of true kingship. See how they are led around in flowing robes, hailed in the street, hold court in the synagogues and take places of honour at special feasts. Don’t be fooled, they take widow’s life savings for their loose change and then turn around and make a toast in front of everyone starting with ‘In the name of our Merciful Father…’ Such people will receive what they need from the Father – a strike to quicken the dead!”