You may have noticed over the past week that Jesus often seeks to keep his identity secret. We see this especially in the healing and exorcism stories when he tells the recipients of his ministry to “go and tell no one.” Of course, people often ignore this command, but it is nonetheless given. Scholars call this the “Messianic Secret” because Jesus seeks to conceal his messianic identity. One strain of thought, with which I agree, is that Jesus acts in such a way in order to reserve the right to define “Messiah” on his own terms. Many people are looking for the glorious warrior king. As we saw in yesterday’s reading, though, Jesus has different expectations that include suffering and service. In calling for secrecy, he resists being defined by popular expectation and reserves the right to define himself according to a very different rubric: that of the kingdom of God.
In today’s reading, Jesus casts secrecy to the wind as he enters Jerusalem riding on a colt. David Garland notes that this action calls to mind Genesis 49:10-11 and Zechariah 9:9, both of which speak of a kingly figure riding a colt and were “interpreted messianically.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 427) I’ll leave it to you to follow the links above to read the passages mentioned. Needless to say, Jesus is making a statement in entering Jerusalem in this manner. Secrecy has been thrown aside, and the Messiah is on his way!
And yet Jesus defies expectations. In light of such a “triumphal entry,” we might expect Jesus to make some kind of grand gesture when he reaches the temple. Peter Brooks Duff has shown that this scene also mirrors a Greco-Roman procession in which a king or conqueror claims a city. (Duff, Peter Brooks, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco-Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature [March, 1992]) Such processions could end in a sacrifice at the temple of the conquered city, and this sacrifice would stand as the act of appropriation. In this light, Jesus’ action in the temple is doubly puzzling. Instead of triumphantly staking his claim by offering a sacrifice, he looks around briefly and leaves the city. What must the crowd have thought at this point? They have welcomed a Messiah who fails capitalize on his big moment! What kind of King is this?
What is more, Jesus returns the next day to do something unexpected; he condemns the temple! Here we see yet another “Markan Sandwich” as the story of the cursing of the fig tree is interrupted by Jesus overturning tables at the temple. Because these two stories should be interpreted in light of one another, Jesus’ actions in the temple take on an ominous tone. Rather than a cleansing, could this be a cursing instead? Could the fig tree stand as a parable-in-action that comments on the temple? Like the fig tree, the temple has not produced the fruit that Jesus seeks (he quotes Isaiah 56:7 to say that the temple should be a house of prayer for all nations). Jesus then quotes Jeremiah 7:11 to call the temple “a den of robbers.” Garland points out, “The den is the place where robbers retreat after having committed their crimes. It is their hideout, a place of security and refuge. Calling the temple a robbers’ den is therefore not a cry of outrage against any dishonest business practices in the temple. Jesus indirectly attacks them for allowing the temple to degenerate into a safe hiding place where people think they can find forgiveness and fellowship with God no matter how they act on the outside.” (Garland, 439) This is a strong word of challenge that should catch our eyes today. When the crowd greets Jesus, they expect the warrior king and welcome him with accolades and applause. But Jesus comes as judge, and he speaks to the very heart of the religious system.
Would we, like the crowd, be surprised to meet Jesus today? Might we expect him to rally to our causes only to be surprised by a word of judgment? Are our own church communities producing the fruit God is calling for? We might read here especially justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23-24). Or might we be called a “den of robbers” for our lack of care for what stirs God’s heart? Here we see the challenge of Jesus in stark relief. What will we do with this kind of King?