Two Cleansings

By Jane Williams

Palm Sunday

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 21:12-17 

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 14The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.


We start this holiest of weeks, in which Jesus will be violently seized and done to death, with the only occasion in the gospels on which we see Jesus himself acting violently. He enters Jerusalem on a wave of popular support, with the acclamation of the crowds in his ears, and instantly performs the most polarizing of acts.

The passage in Matthew is peppered with references to the Hebrew scriptures. Isaiah 56:7 speaks of the “house of prayer,” where all who worship God will be welcome, while Jeremiah 7:11 warns that the temple offers no protection to those whose lives fit them only for a “den of robbers.” These references to two great exilic prophets show us the setting of these actions – the crowd are right to see Jesus as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord,” returning to God’s temple, but wrong to assume that their faithlessness and complacency is any more acceptable to God now than it was at the time of the Exile. The conflict between human judgment and divine judgment that is to play out through Holy Week and Easter starts here, in this act of reclamation, as Jesus cleanses the temple.

Jesus’ healing of the “blind and lame” (v. 14) is the other side of the same coin. The people who come in need to Jesus have no fear that he will judge them harshly. He compares them to the “babes” of Psalm 8:2, who offer God innocent and spontaneous praise, knowing that they are beloved and welcome. Here, too, Jesus is reclaiming God’s rightful property by casting out the diseases that diminish humanity. On Good Friday, he will go to still greater lengths to “cleanse” God’s world and bring it home.

Dr. Jane Williams is McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College. She is also an editor, a sought-after public speaker, and is involved in promoting theological education in the Anglican Communion. She is the author of a number of books, including The Art of Advent (SPCK, 2018).

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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

Grace Church, New York, N.Y.
Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (Hong Kong Anglican Church)


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