Last Sunday, my pastor preached about Jesus’s surprising behavior at the Temple in Jerusalem. I have been thinking and praying over Jesus’ surprising behavior that first day in the temple in Jerusalem described in Matthew 21:12-17. He beautifully engaged this passage, which many Christians find disturbing or confusing. In the context of that message, he spoke about typical sabbath practices – a conversation that I find curiously and disturbingly absent in many Christian communities. He also argued there is no theological reason to believe the money changers and sellers of sacrifices were intentionally cheating the people. The religious and cultural sanctions against such behavior would have likely prevented such abuses. Yet Jesus’ entrance into the temple was remarkably confrontational.
As I have continued to meditate on this, I have come to recon with my own reluctance to engage with the pain of loss that Good Friday represents. This is a different kind of sabbath; a sabbath of grief, but first… a story.
The first day of Spring Break, I mowed the yard, unintentionally demolishing a bunny warren with approximately 9 day-old baby bunnies in it. Bunnies don’t leave their nest until 10 days or so after birth, and are still nursed by their mom at night. These bunnies were unharmed, but the nest was a wreck. I stopped the mower, plucked the bunnies out of the divot, and into a box. I showed the bunnies to the kids. The kids thought they were precious. I told them they could play with the bunnies until I finished mowing and figured out what to do about them. By the time I finished with the grass, my kids had named all three, according to their observable attributes: Jumpy, Hide-y, and Fluffy. And then the requests to keep them came. This came as no surprise to me. I often asked to keep critters I found as a child, and was frequently allowed to, “until your mom comes to get you.” Only this time, I am the mom… a mom who loves nature, and finds magic in those moments when nature and people connect. We now have pet bunnies. Sigh.
For me, this story yields a deeper understanding of Jesus’ actions in Matthew 21:12-17. Jewish folks often refrained from participation in market activities as a part of Sabbath. While for some, this was surely a religious duty, it was borne out of a celebration of the Lord’s provision (think manna). Some sabbatarians take deliberate care to ensure that they experience a sabbath that does not require buying or selling, or the exchange of money. That has long been the case in Jewish culture. So – the sellers would have been disrupting this… for the sake of convenience. And the people likely tolerated, even accepted the practice out of convenience. But I suggest the practice of buying and selling sacrificial animals on the sabbath diminished the experience of sacrifice.
We recently went to White Sands National Monument, where sledding down sand dunes is a thing. We were able to purchase sleds in Alamogordo on the cheap, because it is not sledding season. So, we did. When we arrived at White Sands, sleds were being sold for $17.00 each! Blessed preparedness saved us so much money, but also allowed us to celebrate the experience of sledding down the dunes without worry or regret about wasting money!
I know a handful of Orthodox Jews. They take great delight in being prepared for even an unexpected visitor on the Sabbath, because the Lord has provided. IF the buying and selling that Jesus reacted against was not happening in the Temple, the people would have likely purchased the animal they were planning to sacrifice at least one day in advance. This means that for AT LEAST a day, the family would have had to take care of, provide for, and protect the sacrificial lamb (or cow, or goat, or bird… or bunny). After only an hour, our family was attached to our bunnies. After a day, or a pilgrimage, it may very well have become part of the family. Consider that it was not unusual for all family members to share the one-room tent with any vulnerable livestock during a pilgrimage. The family would have taken special care to ensure the critter made it safely to Temple. But after a day, it’s got a name, and a character as a member of the tribe. How much more, then would it cost to sacrifice such an animal. I propose that the people selling the doves or pigeons were allowing the Jewish people to avoid the pain of sacrificing a creature they have cared for. This has diminished the pain of sacrifice. I imagine Jesus might find it offensive to enter the Temple gate to find the people numb to the pain of sacrifice. As he is aware of his impending ultimate sacrifice, these doves and pigeons are a mock sacrifice. The people have not connected or cared for them. They are someone else’s livestock – a convenient way to appear righteous.
May we not fake righteousness. As Easter is upon us, may we be mindful of the true cost of the sacrifice before us. That God Himself, in Jesus Christ served as our sacrificial offering. May we grieve in the silence of the Sabbath of Grief (Good Friday-Easter). And celebrate with God’s thorough and miraculous provision on Easter Sunday! And may you not avoid the anxiety of Good Friday, nor the grief of that three day wait.
Blessings upon you.