by Ellen Sims
The compact Gospel of Mark tells us almost nothing about Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem and visit to the Temple, presumably the core of the Palm Sunday story. Mark does share details about preparations for Jesus’s journey to the city and about the people’s response as they threw branches before him as he approached the great city’s gate. But what happened after he entered the city? After that impressive buildup, Mark explains the climax of this pericope in just one sentence, just one verse: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11).
That’s it? After all the buildup, Jesus just “looked around at everything” and left?
Mark’s spare and anticlimactic summary of Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem and tour of the Temple reminds me, strangely enough, of the time I visited the Bahamas as a child. My family was vacationing with another family in Miami. My father, who had his private pilot’s license, had use of his company’s twin engine Cessna in which we’d flown to Miami. One Sunday afternoon Daddy impulsively invited the other family to hop over to Nassau and try out the prettier Bahamian beaches.
As always, Daddy pitched the venture enticingly. He promised we’d sample exotic fried conch for lunch, and the moms would go shopping, and the dads would take the kids to whatever tourist attractions were surely there for children, and we’d top it off by swimming in the turquoise waters before heading back late that afternoon. We threw together our swimsuits and towels as Daddy filed a flight plan for our spontaneous adventure.
But when we arrived, the city of Nassau was basically closed for the sabbath. Although I’m sure it’s not the case today, in 1964 we landed in a seemingly somnolent town where the casinos, which did not permit children, were the only establishments open. Another disappointment was the unexpectedly exorbitant cab fare from the airport that had eaten into most of the spending money Daddy brought and his good humor—-or so I surmised since he kept calling the cab driver Jesse James. Once in town we walked up and down and up and down streets looking for a restaurant open for lunch, famished and cranky in paradise.
Daddy finally persuaded someone to let him sneak us all into a casino bar for a lemonade, my Southern Baptist mother hovering over her children and looking as nervous as . . . as a Southern Baptist mother with her CHILDREN in a BAR in a CASINO on the LORD’S DAY. I think we ate something at the bar. But it was not the promised conch — although when I later learned conch was a big sea snail I felt less disappointed.
By then most of the afternoon had passed. As I remember it, we drank lemonade, dipped our toes in the turquoise waters (because there’d been no place to change into our swimsuits), took Jesse James’ cab back to the landing strip, and flew to Miami. We probably were in the Bahamas less than four hours. I’ll borrow the exact syntax from Mark 11:11 to sum up that unfortunate visit, changing a few key words: “Then [my father] entered [Nassau] and went into the [casino], and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went [to Miami] with [the 3 other adults and 5 children].”
I wonder if the disciples felt as let down by Jesus as we did by my father. What actually happened in Jerusalem? After the processional, Jesus entered the city, stepped inside the temple, “looked around,” and then left . . . as it was already late.” They poked their heads into the temple, and that was it. I don’t think they even tasted the Jerusalem version of conch.
Did Jesus lose his nerve? Was he retreating? Or was he regrouping for the final phase of his mission? In the previous chapter, Jesus had pulled “the twelve aside” and explained, “‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.’”
Jesus did persist in speaking truth to power, which indeed led to his arrest and crucifixion. So he did not recoil from his intentions. But on the day he processed into Jerusalem to protest the oppressive regime of Rome and the corrupt practices of the Temple that ignored the needs of the people, he must have realized just how late it was. And because “it was already late,” he and the twelve left the Temple, the site of the established religion, and temporarily exited Jerusalem, the seat of political power, to regroup.
Sometimes the sorry state of the world is easy to read. One glance at the capital city, one glance at the religious center of the people, one glance at the news of our day — and you know it’s late.
It was already late in the brief life of Jesus. It was already late in the brief Gospel of Mark. Maybe in the middle of Jerusalem in the middle of the Temple, Jesus realized the magnitude of the injustices. Maybe a sermon here and a healing there would do little to bring justice to a beleaguered people. Maybe “thoughts and prayers” were not enough. One day later Jesus returned to the Temple in Jerusalem to call out the authorities publicly and drive from the Temple the moneychangers, who were taking advantage of the poor. Jesus marched back to Jerusalem and there he would die.
The Church of Jesus begins Holy Week today. By Thursday Jesus will be arrested, and by Friday he will be dead, waiting to rise again in our hearts and in this world.
But for now we might look upon Jesus as those followers who walked with him. We might identify with the two disciples supporting his aims for justice when they found a colt for him to ride into the imperial city, a pitiful parody of that power.
Or we may try to glimpse Jesus’s movement through this world by imagining we’re part of the fickle crowd shouting glib words and titillated by the display of power, even when power is parodied.
Or maybe we put ourselves in Jesus’s sandals and consider that it’s already very late.
Friends, it feels these days as if it’s already late for us, too.
Maybe I’m misjudging the times because of the stage of life I’m entering. But when I look at our own capital city, our seat of power, our Jerusalem . . . it seems it is already very late. Events have been set into motion. I’m not saying it is too late to mitigate against injustices. But look around. It is late.
Our own version of the temple — that is, the religious institutions of today, specifically popular Christianity —- often seems focused on excluding certain groups and majoring on the minors and ignoring the law of love. Is it too late for the church? Many “spiritual but not religious” folks have “looked around at everything” and concluded that it is too late to find relevance and hope in the Church.
Jesus took a look “at everything” — especially the way the religious establishment colluded with a heartless government — and he left the Temple and the city disheartened but resolute. What caused him to lose hope in the institutional form of his religion?
Maybe the Temple looked more like a casino than a house of prayer.
After all that build up, he headed back to the village of Bethany. Not to give up, but to prepare for a cleansing of the Temple the next day and a proclamation in the streets that God’s peaceful realm could be a reality. In the next chapter of Mark, Jesus will teach parables that will so offend the scribes and religious leaders that they’ll begin to plot to arrest him. But before that he will sum up all that God desires from us in what will be called the Love Commandment, which does not have to be interpreted or dispensed by the Temple.
Jesus did not give up the day he rode into Jerusalem. But perhaps realized more fully that his days were numbered and his hope lay with the people, not the religious or political institutions.
We’ve had revolutions like the one that birthed our nation, and we’ve had reformations like the one that birthed denominations like the United Church of Christ, and we keep trying to revolt and reform ourselves into the kin*dom of God that Jesus announced. But it’s already late for us to keep missing Jesus’s meaning. And it’s late for the nonhuman creatures, some of which are going extinct on our watch. It’s late for our air, our water, our soil, our planet. Just look around at everything.
Until our version of Jerusalem cares about the folks on the margins, and until churches become communities of care, we’ll find that Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building/s. Because it’s already late. There’s no time for partisanship, no time to defend prejudices, no time for ignoring science and facts, no time for great disparities in wealth or in health.
There is no time to let the NRA prevent commonsense safeguards against gun violence. No time to turn a blind eye to the violence in our streets and in our schools. There’s no time for churches to care more about their buildings than the people in the surrounding neighborhood. No time to quibble over dogma when incarcerating poor and black and brown people has become big business. Lives are being lost or harmed.
And it is already late.
God, if you are looking upon this little temple called Open Table, I hope you see some folks here who are praying for and working for your reign with humility, sacrifice, courage, and hope. I hope you see flawed people who nevertheless aren’t propping up old systems just to prop up old systems but are trying to love you with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength—and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because we know it is already late. We know what might lie ahead. And we want our lives to count. As Jesus’s did. Amen