"Jesus Cleanses the Temple"
12 And Jesus entered the temple[a] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”
17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
- Matthew 21:12-17
This is Holy Week. The commemoration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the narrative events leading up to his crucifixion and death by Friday. Jesus rides into town, straightway to the Temple, on a donkey.
If you've ever scratched your head, like me, pondering "why a donkey?" let me offer you a reflection from the early church. One of the gifts the early church hands over to us is to read the scriptures with a "Christ-centered" lens. The words on the page don't change, but when we read them through the lens of Jesus Christ, a new depth of meaning emerges. As Jesus himself notes in the Gospel according to John.
"9 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life."
- John 5:39-40
Jesus declares we can have the scriptures plain in black and white before us and still miss their revelatory grace.
Back to the donkey question...
In iconography of Our Lord's Nativity, you will often find Mary lying next to the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling bands of cloth in a manger, with two guests peering into his crib. An Ox and an Ass. There is depth of layered meaning present. An ox is representative of a ritually "clean" animal, whereas a donkey is "unclean". Both of these animals are work animals, connoting service and sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah gives us some clue as to why they are present at Christ's earthly incarnation.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children[a] have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
- Isaiah 1:2-3
The prophet is announcing the wickedness of God's own covenant people. An ox knows its owner and a donkey knows where it's fed. Crib here is not the bassinet of babies, but where you keep the food for the farm. I live in Virginia and the landscape is still dotted with falling down Tobacco drying sheds and leaning corn cribs made from cedar trees. In fact, my eldest daughter had a pet corn snake for many years. Their namesake comes to us this way- mice would go to the corn crib to feed on the kernels, and the snake would go to the crib to feed on the mice, hence cornsnake.
God is speaking to his own people through the prophet, "You don't know me".
Jesus reiterates this in his cleansing of the temple.
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
- Matthew 21:13
My house is supposed to be the mission central, where God's people seek life, find healing, and offer their praise. Instead, you have made it the place where criminals hide out to count their riches. "You don't know me."
Jesus' crib is the place where the unclean and clean become one in celebration, hovering at his side in anticipation and gratitude. The money changers have become an obstacle to that. Once they are parted, like the red sea, guess who shows up?
14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. - Matt 24:14
God is judging his people, you don't know me, there are times when you have been the very obstacle to the good I long to share with creation. And yet, God's judgment is both revelatory, shocking, it's a truth that hurts but it never harms. If Jesus turning over a few tables is all the violence spoken of in the gospels, thanks be to God. He gets our attention but he doesn't zap anybody. He doesn't imprison the guilty party, and nothing will prevent God from bringing his good news to fruition. God doesn't give one fig for the obstacles that stand in God's way. He gives himself...completely.
You'll notice Jesus' crib, looks more like a sarcophagus. His swaddling, like Lazarus' grave clothes. Mary was told a sword would pierce her own heart at the birth of her son. The ox and the ass know their master, where they get fed, and the One who serves creation with his very own death, that we might recognize our Maker and the place where true life is found.
"you don't know me" declares God "....but you will".
We may be stubborn as a mule, but that is no obstacle to God's own fidelity.
Thanks be to God.