Text: Matthew 21:23-32 (“by what authority?”)
In the summer of 1969, I dreamt about becoming a rock star. My friends Jimmy, Rodney, and Michael had formed a band with electric guitar, bass and drums.
At 12 years old, I was a pretty good piano player, so I hoped I could be their keyboard player. Except I didn’t own a portable keyboard, and the cost of one was too high for me or my family. My dreams of stardom were nipped in the bud.
Despite not being able to join their band, Jimmy, Rodney, Michael and I remained friends. The next year in Grade Eight, the four of us were together in one of the discussion groups in History class. The teacher labelled us “The Hate Group” because we were against everything.
I can’t remember the specific things we opposed. We just felt angry about the absurdity of the world. We had been infected by the rebellious mood of 1969, a time when protest movements against the War in Vietnam and for civil rights for racial minorities, women, and French Quebec filled the news.
Our defiance spread to school assignments. In Geography, one assignment was on the mountains of South America. In my report, I argued that it was silly to teach 13-year olds in Cornwall Ontario about mountain ranges in South America. This earned me a failing grade and a meeting with the Vice Principal, who insisted that I rewrite the report as assigned. So, if you are curious about the name of the main mountain range in South America, I can tell you with great confidence that it’s the Andes.
By 1969, my friends and I hated a lot of things about school and other sources of authority. Unfortunately, our anger was mostly unfocussed . . .
In today’s Gospel reading, the leaders of the Temple question Jesus. It is the day after Jesus has entered Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple. The chief priests are scared. They ask what gives Jesus the right to rebel against their authority and that of the Romans with whom they collaborate.
Jesus doesn’t give them an answer, but we know what the sources of his authority are. Jesus is the Christ, the new King of the Jews. He is also the Son of God. Indeed, he is the very power of God in human form. The Temple priests and the Romans have earthly power, but God’s power trumps that.
Except that Jesus does not overthrow the Temple or Rome. A few days later, the Romans arrest Jesus and execute him on a cross.
Jesus carries the authority of God and king, but in a way that is unexpected. After his death and resurrection, Jesus is revealed to be a king not just of the Jews but of all people. He doesn’t rule from afar, but within each person.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus is revealed to be the god not of just one nation. He represents a Love that is universal.
And yet, Jesus’ death and resurrection do not overthrow the Temple or Rome.
The Temple is destroyed 40 years later when they Romans crush a rebellion of Jewish nationalists. In turn, the Roman Empire is destroyed 400 years later by invaders from central Europe. But these defeats don’t end the power of empire or of religious misleaders.
European empires succeed the Roman Empire. The Church succeeds the Temple, and the two spheres support one another for centuries.
Death and resurrection are not onetime events. They form the underlying pattern of life. In our struggles as individuals and communities, we continually embrace false kings and gods who, with Grace, die and rise to a new life that is closer to Love.
Jesus’ willingness to die means that he lives in the freedom of resurrection even before his death. He calls us to live in this same freedom and the crowds on Palm Sunday join him.
Jesus’ lack of fear isn’t recklessness. It is a freedom to resist injustice without attachment as to whether resistance will be effective.
As an angry 12-year old in 1969, I understood neither the power of death and resurrection nor why I hated school. But the next summer, I stumbled upon ideas that focused my anger. In the summer of 1970, my family travelled to The Pas Manitoba, where my father worked as summer supply in the United Church. There in the manse library, I found two books that changed my life – “How Children Fail” and “How Children Learn” by the radical educator John Holt.
Holt’s books argued that schools damaged children’s innate ability to learn and grow. He suggested that if infants were taught to speak the same way that school-age kids were taught to read, few of us would ever learn to talk.
His ideas struck me like a thunderbolt. Holt argued that children would learn what they needed if they were given a rich environment and freedom to explore it. They would emerge into adulthood with their curiosity and passion intact.
My chief complaint with school was boredom, and Holt argued that boredom and fear were the two biggest problems with schooling. He argued that we should rebel against schools if they dulled our spirits or forced us to conform to an unjust world.
Reading Holt’s books reminded me of an exchange in Grade 3 between a teacher and a student who often got in trouble for arriving late. One day, this boy asked our teacher why it was so important for us to get to school on time. She said that most of us would grow up to work in a factory like the pulp and paper mill that dominated Cornwall. Workers had to be at the factory when the whistle blew, and being punctual in Grade 3 would teach us this habit.
Today the pulp and paper mill has closed. But I appreciate our teacher’s honesty in telling us that school was more like a factory than a lush garden in which our childhood spirits could bloom.
Schools have changed a lot in the years since, I believe, and churches like ours have been freed from slavish collaboration with political power. We have more freedom today to pursue our desires in both school and church.
This doesn’t mean we will always get what we want. Even if my Grade 8 school had been transformed into Jack Black’s “The School of Rock” and I had been able to jam with my friends Jimmy, Rodney and Michael on an electronic keyboard, we would still have graduated into a world warped by competition and all the destructive social conditions that flow from this competition.
Jesus shows us how to stay awake to solidarity and love in the face of injustice. Fighting for our freedom won’t always defeat Empire or the religious leaders who collaborate with it, but it will help us stay on a path of faith, hope and love.
Jesus is a rebel who humbly leads us to confront injustice in Jerusalem. He also accompanies us beyond it to a new life within the heart of the God who is Love.
Jesus might not be the king and god we expect. But he is definitely the God and King we need.
Thanks be to God.