“With what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus had just ridden into the holy city of Jerusalem with a massive crowd of his followers cheering him on as the new king. The picture was almost comical in its satire. No fancy robes or war horse—just a poor, wandering, homeless man riding into the city on a lowly donkey. No thunderous roar of hooves approaching the city—just a one donkey parade and even the sound of its hooves were softened by the garments and clothes spread on the road. No army or powerful escort and entourage—just a bunch of unarmed poor people and formerly rich people, declaring him to be the chosen king and ruler.
Jesus’ parade led straight to the center of all power and wealth in the region—the temple. This was the place where the Hebrew people believed the living god dwelled, the place where all true forgiveness took place, only the sacrifices offered here could release people from their sins. This was the most sacred and holy place in the entire world. Jesus led his entourage into the temple-complex and certainly everyone was wondering what was going to happen. Would he announce that he was the awaited king from David’s line? Would he begin the revolt against the Roman Empire? No matter what he did, certainly this temple would be the stronghold and headquarters from which he would bring his revolution.
But as Jesus walked into the temple-complex he did what no one expected. He began throwing out everyone who was doing business. The significance of this and how offensive it was, is almost beyond description. Jesus was refusing to let anyone sell a lamb or dove or any animal or crops for sacrifice. By throwing out those doing business in the temple, Jesus was bringing the whole sacrificial system and economic system to a screeching halt. If animals and goods could not be exchanged, then there were no sacrifices offered. If there were no sacrifices offered, then the people believed there was no forgiveness or relationship with god, because this is what the priests had wanted them to believe.
Jesus then began saying to everyone there, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer!’ but you have made it a ‘cave of terrorists!’” Jesus knew that god had never wanted a temple or building to dwell in, but had reluctantly let kings David and Solomon build one. Jesus also knew that if god was going to have a house then he wanted his house to be a place of prayer, a place where people could commune with the living god, a place where they would listen to his voice and beg to him for mercy and provision. A place that, as the prophet declared, brought mercy and justice, not sacrifice.
But instead the authorities had made this “house of god” into a cave and hideout for “terrorists.” A λῃστὴς was someone who bullied and terrorized people in order to rob them or control them. In Jesus’ parable of the “good Samaritan” the man who needed help had fallen among “terrorists” or λῃστὴς and had been robbed and left on the brink of death. Jesus saw that these rulers and leaders who controlled the temple were nothing but terrorists to their own people, dominating and taking advantage of the poor and lowly masses. The temple and its leaders had grown wealthy beyond description through their collection of tithes for the priests, collection of taxes for structural maintenance and improvement, and the collection of fees for sacrificial animals. The temple had become a vast business and storehouse of goods and wealth, the economics of the entire region flowed through its gates. The temple was the very opposite of mercy and justice, it was a place that supported oppression, injustice, and tyranny, all in the name of god.
After doing this unthinkable thing Jesus set up shop in the temple-complex and effectively took it over by daily teaching everyone about his way of life and the rule of god that was coming into the world. The powerful and wealthy rulers of the people were absolutely furious and they started trying to figure out how to kill Jesus, but the crowds of Jesus’ followers that he had brought with him into Jerusalem were too large. Even those who weren’t his followers were fascinated by his remarkable actions and the claims that he was their long awaited king. The crowds of support that Jesus had built up over the second half of his ministry were keeping him temporarily alive and protected.
Unable to kill him in this moment, the authorities then went to Jesus and asked him, “Say to us, with what authority are you doing these things or who is it that gave you this authority?” These men wanted to know how on earth Jesus thought he could get away with shutting down the sacrificial and economic system in the temple by refusing to let anyone buy or sell animals or goods. Whose authority was he acting on? Who did he think he was?
Jesus responded with a question and refused to answer them unless they would openly declare what they thought of John the Baptist. These leaders realized they were trapped by this question because they didn’t want to upset the crowds of poor people who all believed John was a true prophet from god, and so, they confessed ignorance. As such, Jesus also refused to answer their question, but then he launched into a parable.
“A person planted an orchard, lent it out to some farmers, and went on a journey for an adequate time.” This picture of an orchard with tenant farmers was a common image for two reasons. The first was that these rulers and leaders in Jerusalem, who were attacking Jesus, were all wealthy landowners who had farmers working their own fields and lands that were sometimes miles and miles away. The second reason this was familiar was that the prophet Isaiah had spoken of god’s relationship to his people through the picture of an owner and his orchard or vineyard.
Jesus went on in his parable to tell them that when the time for harvest came this owner sent a slave to gather the fruit from the orchard. These farmers wanted nothing to do with this slave’s demand that they give away their produce and wealth, and so they whipped him and sent him back empty-handed. The owner sent a second and third slave and they were both mistreated and injured and then sent back empty-handed. Hoping to get through to these farmers the owner sent his loved child, thinking they would respect his very own son. But it was quite the opposite, the farmers saw this as an opportunity to rid themselves of their main competition, the son, who was to inherit this orchard that they wanted for themselves. So they killed the son so that the wealth of the orchard could be theirs.
Jesus then asked these rulers to consider what would happen to such rebellious farmers, “What then will the lord of the orchard do to them? Will he come and destroy these farmers and give the orchard to others?” These leaders weren’t stupid—they knew that Jesus was telling this parable against them, they knew that he was suggesting that they were the rebellious farmers who were stealing god’s creation and wealth and keeping it for themselves, they knew that Jesus was claiming to be the son who was coming to tell them to hand over their wealth. They responded, “Never,” because they could never conceive of god taking away the inheritance they believed was their right as the children of Israel. But Jesus then reminded them of what had been written in the scriptures, “The stone that the builders rejected became the head of the corner,” and then he told them, “Everyone who falls upon that stone will be shattered and whoever it falls upon will be crushed.” God was going to do a new thing in the world, he was going to rebuild his people and rebuild his world with a new cornerstone and foundation. Those who rejected this new cornerstone would destroy themselves in the process and would lose out on the inheritance, cutting themselves off from god.
At this, we are again told that these rulers were furious and wanted to kill Jesus for what he was doing and saying. They couldn’t stand the idea of the true king and ruler from god, the new cornerstone of god’s people, looking anything like Jesus—someone who was demanding that they hand over their accumulated wealth to god. And as such, they played right into the parable, stubbornly wanting to kill Jesus whether he was the true son of god or not, whether he was the true king or not. If he was this kind of king, they wanted nothing to do with him.
Every previous king of Israel had fallen into the ways of David and Solomon, who had brought the whole temple system into existence. Every king and ruler had been selfish, wealthy, powerful, violent, womanizing, and oppressive of the poor. The people had been terrorized by their own rulers, rulers who wanted to take god’s creation and use it for their own benefit and gain. Rulers who wanted to build wealth and power for themselves and fight to be in control and on top.
But Jesus rode into Jerusalem to be a king radically different than every king and ruler who has ever existed. A king who lowers himself, a king who refuses wealth and makes himself poor, a king who treats women with genuine respect, a king who takes care of the poor, a king who refuses to pick up a weapon of any kind, a king who refuses to control others. But a king who in the process challenges every value that we hold dear in our world, a king who throws a wrench into our everyday lives of doing business, a king who disrupts our world and makes us deeply uncomfortable.
Is Jesus the rightful king of the world? He boldly tells us how to live and what to do with our possessions. We can’t help but ask, “With what authority are you doing these things?” What authority gives Jesus the right to mess with our lives? Is Jesus’ voice and authority from god, or is he just another man? Even if he is from god, do we really want a king like Jesus? Do we really want justice and mercy and what it demands of us? Or are we content with the injustice of our world because it allows us to hold on to god’s orchard and live comfortable lives? If we got rid of Jesus, we could keep everything for ourselves and go on living however we want. Are we really willing to accept a king who comes into our sacred economic places, into our very lives, and starts throwing things around and challenging how we live? Amen.