In the year 70 C.E., 10 to 20 years before many scholars think the gospel of Matthew was written, the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Roman army in the first Jewish-Roman war. Although not mentioned by name in any of the gospel readings, the city of Jerusalem—and particularly the temple, which was the center of Jewish life, power, and sacrifice-based worship—is present in the parables of judgment and the controversy stories that we read this month. Jerusalem is background, foreshadowing, main character, and hermeneutical key.
Not 20 verses before the first gospel reading for this month are the dramatic events that we remember during Lent. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the political and religious center of Jewish life, “humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). The next day, “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” (Matthew 21:12). It is against these conflicts with the Jerusalem leadership that we read the parables, controversies, and aphorisms that follow.
After the tables have been turned, an event that politically oriented commentators call the “temple action,” the gospel of Matthew contains a unique image. The center of worship is symbolically destroyed, but amid the scattered tables, coins, and livestock an alternative center is offered with the most marginal at its heart. The blind and lame, and children crying “hosanna” pour into the temple in a celebration of healing and praise for a very different kind of kingdom (Matthew 21:14-15). As we struggle to understand the destruction and violence, it is the little ones at the center who we must remember.