What’s our Perception of Jesus?

What’s our Perception of Jesus?
Matthew 21: 1 – 17
What’s messing with your perception of God?
There is a famous story of Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the great explorers and travellers during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England. On one occasion he was with the queen when she was walking through London. They came to a place where rainwater had made the ground very muddy. He quickly took off his cloak and placed it on the ground so the Queen could walk over it without getting her feet muddy.
The story of Raleigh taking off his cloak has become famous, partly because it’s not the sort of thing that happens every day. It’s a very special gesture, especially if it’s the only cloak you have. (This didn’t apply to Raleigh.)  It says, quite clearly, that you are valuing this person about as highly as you can.  It implies that, if the need arose, you would give them more. We can’t say in Sir Walter’s case any more than it was a gentlemanly act for a person he valued most highly.
In the instance of the crowd accompanying Jesus as he entered Jerusalem we can say a lot more. There are precedents for what they did. This kind of thing had happened before. In the history of Judaism when one of Israel’s famous kings was proclaimed king in defiance of the existing king, his followers spread their cloaks on the road for him to walk on. It was a sign of their loyalty to the king. [2 Kings 9:13]  When Simon Maccabeus finally conquered the Seleucid army in 141 BC and took Jerusalem he entered Jerusalem to “a chorus of praise and the waving of palm branches’. [1 Macc. 13:51] Psalm 118:19-20 speaks of the righteous entering the gates of Jerusalem. But even more specific is the prophet Zechariah’s word:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  [9:9]
Jesus’ followers and any observers of the procession would have caught the significance. God’s anointed was entering Jerusalem as their ruler in peace riding on a donkey. At least that is the claim of this action. If Jesus’ followers understood this they failed to recognise its implications details exactly what kind of ruler to expect and how this king would rule.
What I find interesting are the perceptions of the characters on the stage. I am thinking of Jesus, the disciples, followers, the Jewish authorities and the onlookers. Jesus clearly perceived what he was doing. He is quite deliberate in choosing the colt of a donkey and quite accepting of the crowd welcoming him as the messianic king. The disciples and followers of Jesus that made up the bulk of the crowd, tell us what they perceived by their actions and speech. Their hosannas, the palm branches and spread cloaks speak of their joy and support of Jesus as the one to rule Jerusalem. Their cloaks were a symbol of their loyalty and commitment. But note the mood of the crowd. Outside the gate of Jerusalem they shouted hosannas, but when they entered Jerusalem and the spectators ask “who is this?’ their response was muted, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee”. [Mt 21:11]  Prophets you see are not as threatening as kings.
Our perception is an interesting thing. Let us briefly reflect on what perception means. Perception is the use of our senses to understand and interpret what is experienced. Perception is more than seeing something it is about understanding, interpreting and making sense of what is seen. Our perception is also influenced by our state of mind, beliefs and past experiences. Perception also has an intuitive factor. Sometimes we understand intuitively.
There is the tale of five blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. They said to the elephant keeper, the mahout, ‘What is an elephant?’ The elephant keeper invited them to approach the elephant and touch it in the hope that they may understand. The first man felt the leg and said it was like a pillar strong and immovable. The second felt the belly and said it felt rough and thick like a wall. He said, ‘An elephant is a wall!’ The third blind man felt the trunk, round, thin and waving like a branch. He said, ‘No, it is a branch.’  The fourth felt the tail and declared that an elephant is a rope.  The fifth felt the ear and said,’ An elephant is a big sail.’ There are different versions of this story where the blind men go away arguing about what an elephant is, while others have the story introduce the importance of collective wisdom and listening to each other.  I tell the story to highlight how our perceptions can be quite subjective and informed by our previous understanding, experiences, beliefs and state of mind. It reminds us to examine openly our perceptions.
Turning back to today’s reading we can learn a few things. Jesus certainly knows what is happening. In fact he is making it happen. On entering Jerusalem Jesus immediately goes to the Temple and cleanses the outer court where the Gentiles have space to pray. It is not a case of Jesus’ perception rather a case of him creating a new perception. This new reality people have always found hard to perceive: they have found it hard to understand, to interpret and to make sense of it.  Our hopes and fears, our beliefs and experiences interfere with our perception. And we struggle to trust our intuition.
Outside the city of Jerusalem and beyond the eyes of religious authorities Jesus’ followers perceived Jesus to be King Jesus – God’s anointed. Inside the city and in eyesight of the religious authorities and the hearing of the crowd they shift to a considered response saying; ‘this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth’. What was it in that space of a few hours that shifted their perception of Jesus? It is not unreasonable to be circumspect. It is unreasonable when our circumspection, caution and watchfulness prevent commitment and action.  There are times when what we express in our own fellowship needs to be expressed in words more understandable to those outside our context. I am all for that. My silly little use of ‘songs’ for hymns is a tiny example of that. But there is a huge difference when fear and uncertainty moderate our perception to the point that the essence is lost.  Yes, Jesus is a prophet. In fact one could say ‘the prophet’, but he is not  ‘the prophet’ that precedes the Messiah – John the Baptist is. Jesus is more than a prophet. He is more than a great teacher. He is more than a great healer. He is more than a wonderful person.  He is God with us. He reveals so much of God that we cannot look into his face and heart and not see the face and heart of God.
Look at the perception of the chief priests and scribes – the leaders and lawyers of the Jewish Faith at that time. Their perception of what was taking place had to be coloured by their fear of political instability and the loss of their power. They had secured a degree of independence, power and peace through compromise.  To them Jesus appeared as a threat to all they have achieved. Without stopping to listen to Jesus, without pausing to ponder his teaching and what he was really saying, they rejected him. Their caution and fear skewed their perception. They possibly were quite right. Jesus would undermine their authority. Jesus would install a new authority that would look more like democracy. Though Jesus’ politics cannot be reduced to either communism, democracy, social justice or liberal capitalism.
I think much of the Western World rejects Jesus because they believe the lie that religion is unreasonable and irrelevant. I think much of the Western Church – certainly in the mainline churches like ours – believes the lie that our religion is a private affair and accepts the lie that secular and spiritual matters should be separated when in fact they are inseparable. I think too, that many of us have our perception moderated by these lies.
We fear being rejected as foolish for believing in all this stuff. If you think I am extreme why is it that so much of the church fails to acknowledge the Resurrection of Jesus, the Judgement of God and to discount evangelism?
Jesus understood our weakness and our self-interested wariness. But Jesus also knew that there would be people who perceived the truth and would live and speak it. Our caution, circumspection, wariness and fears blind us to the reality of King Jesus. We are blinded by our shortsightedness and our emotions. We need to see the whole. When we do we are released to live, serve and proclaim the new.  These truths apply to the whole of our lives. At one level this reading today challenges us to question our perceptions of life and God.  At another level it challenges us to take off our coats and cast them before the feet of Jesus so that he can walk on them.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  09/04/2017
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au