Culture At Large

Palm Sunday and Jesus' attack on Big Religion

Paul Vander Klay

Palm Sunday kicks off the biggest week of the Christian calendar. What's ironic is that central to Palm Sunday is Jesus' most dramatic attack against Big Religion.

In Luke, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and the destruction that is coming to her. Jesus' only recorded act of violence is directed against the stewards of 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?

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 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 read too many blogs or spiritual memoirs 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 some men, women and children would rather profess a cold, fragile, temporary, dark, godless existence than go anywhere near anything that smells like church.

Big Religion is not about the size of the church. It's about a deadly disorder of the heart.

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 than value. I saw the Adamic mission of loving "gardening" embodied in their passion for these creatures. I reflected on the likelihood that many of these people would imagine Christianity to be disconnected, antithetical 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 as participation in a promised renewal of creation, where even extinct species of amphibians are not forgotten by their amazing creator.

When seen in 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 noted that praise is "inner health made audible." Big Religion turns worship into a sneer, wonder into cynicism, and becomes an obstacle to the song of thanksgiving from all things now living.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith, Theology, The Church, Christmas & Easter