Woe to Dead Religion

Day 9

If I were doing Two months of Discovery: The Unvarnished Jesus all by myself as a personal spiritual exercise, it would be wonderful. But the idea that there are a couple of thousand of us on this journey together just blows my mind. Everybody’s talking about it and the momentum is building. Stay on board. This train is picking up speed. The Unvarnished Express. Running nonstop from Mediocreville to Revelation City.

Today it was Palm Sunday. During the course of our Two Months of Discovery we will experience Palm Sunday five times. I don’t know what it is about the Triumphal Entry, but whenever I think about it, it makes me happy. It’s one of the easiest events from the life of Jesus for me to imagine. I have walked the route of the Triumphal Entry from the top of the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem numerous times. Even though many things change over time, the topography doesn’t really change and I have a vivid picture in my mind of what Palm Sunday was like. I can hear the hosannas and I can see the waving of the palms. In some ways the Triumphal Entry may be the most joyful event in the ministry of Jesus. For just a moment it was a brief foreshadowing of what it will be like when Jesus returns as King to take up His thrown. Hosanna! Maranatha! I have an icon of the Triumphal Entry that Peri gave me for Christmas a few years ago in my study. It reminds me that the King has come and the King will return.

The Triumphal Entry is a moment of great joy, but as soon as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem He is on a collision course with the chief priests — the purveyors of dead religion. Jesus cleanses the temple and denounces them for replacing the sacred ideals of worship with the crassness of commercialism. The next morning as Jesus returns to Jerusalem to teach in the Temple He curses a barren fig tree — an apt symbol of the spiritual condition of Israel. As soon as He arrives at the Temple Jesus is challenged by the chief priests concerning His authority to do these things. Jesus then gives two parables aimed at the priests. The meaning of these parables is summed up when Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of Heaven will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”

In chapter 22, first the party of the Pharisees tries to trap Jesus in a political question about paying taxes and then the party of the Sadducees tries to trap Jesus in a theological question about the resurrection. I love the way Jesus brilliantly defeats the Pharisees and Sadducees in just a few words. They learn the lesson: Don’t debate with Jesus.

Next an expert in religious law asks Jesus a profound question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus response is the foundation for Christian morality and ethics:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

And these were precisely the two commandments the Pharisees and the Sadducees in their legal religion did not keep. With its myriad of manmade laws, religious legalism always fails to produce authentic love for God and altruistic love for people. Other than that legal religion is just great.

Then in chapter 23 Jesus launches into the most scathing rebuke of His ministry. Jesus no longer holds back, but explodes with holy fury. He rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, greed and religious pretense. He lambastes them as blind guides who strain a gnat and swallow a camel (Somebody in the crowd had to laugh at that one.) He calls them serpents, vipers and whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. He calls their proselytes sons of hell. Jesus lays woe upon woe upon these legalistic priests of dead religion.

The die was cast and men with long beards and longer faces were plotting murder.

At the close of the chapter Jesus laments the spiritual blindness of Jerusalem. But His lament is tempered with the promise that the day will come when Jerusalem again says, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Hosanna. Maranatha.