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Jesus and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It’s Tuesday, the Tuesday of Holy Week.

I am a pretty-informed, long-term Christian. Yet for much of my life, if asked about the Tuesday before Good Friday and Easter, I would have no reply, no recollection of what happened on that day.

Because of the “doctrinal overlay” put upon the events at the close of this week, I might have thought that on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday following Palm Sunday, Jesus and his followers were just hanging out, maybe sightseeing in Jerusalem, tanning by the pool, biding their time until the heavenly director called “Action!” on Thursday night.

I’m not bashing or wanting to do away with doctrinal overlay. I actually like and appreciate it very much. But it can cause us to see the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as detached from story of Jesus’s life, to fall, sort of plop out of heaven, simply to fulfill some doctrinal and divine necessities.

Only later have I come to understand that the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week weren’t spent chillaxin’, preparing the costumes and memorizing the script for Thursday and Friday. You could even say that what happened on Monday and Tuesday put the ball in motion, lit the fuse, necessitated the events later in the week—with a necessity felt on ground-level and in the city, not the necessity of catechisms and St. Paul.

jesus cleanses templeTrying to harmonize and build chronologies from the four Gospels is a dangerous and inexact science. Nonetheless, let us say sometime after Palm Sunday, Jesus cleared the temple. Many have said this is the real nub of the events that unfolded over the next few days. Jesus could perform all the miracles he wanted and spout all the nonsense he wished in Galilee. But when he meddled with the temple, he touched the economic engine and the source of power and stability for all of Judea. It could not be tolerated.

Somewhere in here, Jesus curses of the fig tree. This always bugged me. Jesus seems so petulant. I’m not the only one to think, “Leave that poor fig tree alone. What did it ever do to you?” Of course, there are some helpful interpretations, along with many, many unhelpful attempts to “explain away” Jesus’s hostility toward that tree.

Then comes—and let’s guestimate it was on Tuesday—a very long day of teaching, debating, prodding, and provoking in the temple. Questions—most loaded—about authority, taxes, marriage in the hereafter. Parables about the terrible tenants of the vineyard, the invited guests who wouldn’t come to the wedding feast, the ten maidens trying to keep their lamps burning, the foolish investor of his talents. I had heard these parables often, but either I wasn’t listening well, or no one ever placed them in the framework of the high-drama buzz of Jesus’s final public words.

Some of the conversations and questions on that Tuesday seem sincere. Others are more like a fiendish fencing match—“gotcha” being the main goal. Jesus goes after the religious leaders with gusto.

Perhaps most unsettling are Jesus’s words about the end of the age—the love of many will grow coldwoe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in wintertwo will be in the field, one will be taken and one will be left.

Jesus seems to have something to say—usually gloomy and negative—about everything. Unlike later in the week, no one here is going to say of him, “as a sheep silent before its shearers, so he opened not his mouth.”

If we could expunge one day
from the life of Jesus as we know it,
I half-expect it would be this day.
He sounds exasperated and antagonistic,
discouraged, dark, and defiant.

If we could expunge one day from the life of Jesus as we know it, I half-expect it would be this day. He sounds exasperated and antagonistic, discouraged, dark, and defiant. He seems to be looking for trouble, ratcheting up the tension, with a chip on his shoulder, even a bit deranged. (The odd but wonderful 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal, has Jesus saying much of this after accidentally receiving a blow to the head, concussed and mumbling in the subway! I haven’t seen the movie in 25 years and can’t tell you how well it holds up over time. Searching it out and watching it could be your Holy Week homework or penance.)Jesus of Montreal

People offer all sorts of explanations for Jesus’s disturbing day. Some are enlightening. Others sound like spin to maintain Jesus’s sunny image. Maybe we shouldn’t try to make peace with everything Jesus said or did. Still, the writers of the Gospels were evangelists not journalists. They didn’t feel an obligation to include everything simply because it happened. They included those things that give a fuller portrait of Jesus, compelling things, things that cause us to trust he is the Christ.

I haven’t fully wrapped my head around Tuesday’s Jesus. But becoming more familiar with the Jesus of Tuesday—as well as Monday and Wednesday—helps me to understand that the events of Thursday and Friday don’t fall out of the blue simply so Jesus can accomplish a cosmic purpose.

Believer or nonbeliever, skeptic or saint, whichever atonement theory you favor, the events of Thursday and Friday make a lot more sense when you realize what Jesus was up to on Tuesday.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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