Palm Sunday’s rebuke of ‘Big Religion’

Palm Sunday kicks off the biggest week of the Christian calendar. Yet I find it ironic that, central to Palm Sunday, is Jesus’ most dramatic attack against “Big Religion.”

In the Gospel of Luke our Lord weeps over Jerusalem and the destruction which is coming. Then, Jesus’ only recorded act of violence is directed against the stewards of the temple calling them “lesten.” This is the same term used of those condemned as threats to the Roman occupation… people like Barabbas and the condemned men who were crucified near Jesus. His cursing of the fig tree joined with the image of “this mountain” (the temple mount) being cast into the sea, reiterating the pronounced judgment on the temple.

The passages that follow contain some of Jesus’ most caustic words, mostly directed against the religious authorities. One might imagine that if Jesus wished to loudly condemn, he’d direct his anger against the abuse of the weak and the poor — which was most dramatically perpetrated in his day by the Romans and the Herods, but this is not the case. The picture gets more complex when we realize that both the temple and its stewards were attempting to at least formally comply with God’s revealed will.

Shouldn’t they at least have gotten some points for worshiping the right God and trying to do right by Him?

But “Big Religion” is not about the size of the church. It isn’t about how often you pray, read the Bible, go to church or the money you give. It’s about a deadly disorder of the heart, where a self-deceiving manipulative bloating of the religious aspect begins to work against the intended whole life participation in shalom.

Justice is lost from law. Culture-making is lost from work. Gratitude is lost from worship. Stewardship is lost from our relationship with the earth and its creatures. Nurture is lost from parenting. Love is lost from community, and all of this loss is attributable to explicitly pronounced worship of God.

You don’t have to talk to many current atheists/former Christians to hear the pain of the formerly religious. It has practically become an industry in post-Christendom America. “Big Religion” is love of God so seriously out of whack that men, women and children would rather profess a cold, fragile, temporary, dark, godless existence rather than go anywhere near anything that smells like church.

I watch a lot of nature programs with my kids. I recently saw a show on the disappearance of frogs and one on skunks. Both shows had numerous cases of men and women pouring out their lives sacrificially to rescue, preserve and love creatures that may seem more like nuisance.

Watching these shows, I saw the Adamic mission of loving “gardening” embodied in their passion for these creatures. I reflected on the likelihood many of these people would imagine Christianity to be disconnected or hostile to their vocational callings — rather than seeing sacrificial wonder and “love of frogs” as worshiping the creator of the frogs and their worlds.

I imagine how much more joyful their rescue work could be if it were done before the joyful backdrop of participation in a promised renewal of creation where even extinct species of amphibians are not forgotten by their amazing creator. When seen this way, I can better understand Jesus’ anger.

There is always a mysterious broadness to Jesus’ appeal. Children spontaneously shout his praises, and if they had not the great cut stones of the temple would have sung it themselves. C.S. Lewis says praise is inner health made audible.

But “Big Religion” often turns worship into a sneer, wonder into cynicism, and becomes an obstacle to the song of thanksgiving from all things now living. The world we’re living in changing before our very eyes. While our message of love and hope is as timeless as its Author, we must learn to speak truth with grace and peace to today’s listeners.

In many ways our institutions are being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Our influence waning with each passing season, and our seasoning losing its savor in a increasingly “salty” culture.

As we reflect on Palm Sunday, on the jubilant throngs of eager worshipers who, only a few days later, would scream out His death sentence — let us remember our own frailty and infidelity. That the coming resurrection must be daily in our lives, and manifest before others in all that we say and (perhaps more importantly) what we do.

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