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Unholy Land: What Jerusalem's Merchants, Thugs, and Moneychangers Taught Me About Jesus
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace. Ephesians 2:14-15
JERUSALEM – Business brought me to Jerusalem today, but I didn't expect so much business in Jerusalem. One expects holy sites in the Holy Lands to be, well, holy. My concept of holiness somehow didn't involve commerce, but the merchants in the Old City of Jerusalem challenged my theology today, and won.
"The Stations of the Cross start here!" yells a merchant. He's wrong, but he's trying to hawk merchandise. When your product—in this case, Catholic and Orthodox crosses, oils, and icons—is a commodity, the only differentiator is location, location, location. And so he stands in the narrow cobblestone street yelling geographic misdescriptives at pilgrims.
Arriving Ignorant. I try not to read travel guides before trips. It reduces the place's ability to surprise me with its own grandeur. Usually I'll try to capture the essence of the people a bit by reading a great work about an area—say, Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon before going to Spain, or Jane Austen before heading to the English Countryside. This time, the trip was on short notice, and I figured I'd already read a certain book set in Israel many times and for many years.
So I arrived ignorant. I couldn't have told you the difference between Golgotha and its namesake, the Golgotha Fun Park (both now defunct). But I ended up with some time and so went for a long walk around Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Adventures in Old Jerusalem. Just outside the Dung Gate, boys in an open field were literally burning trash. Candy wrappers and Coke cans sat in piles, waiting to be burned. An empty soccer field with rusty goals and scorched grass lies abandoned. Just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem?
In the Old City, there were money changers. I know this because their sign said, "Money Changer." (I looked for a sign with a whip made out of cords and a big red x through it.)
Tour buses surrounded the Garden of Gethsemane, their headlights blazing like the torches that lit the way for Judas. The trees in the Garden were spaced as perfectly as a trust fund beneficiary's teeth.
Staying out too late and subjecting myself to a bit too much risk, I ended up having to pay off some local thugs—self-proclaimed!—to give me directions. To my surprise, their directions were more precise—and expensive—than those proffered by the Orthodox rabbis.
Burning trash and coercive thugs? This is the Holy City? No wonder we look ahead to a New Jerusalem!
In the Steps of Jesus. Knowing that I must have missed something, I looked for inspiration again, walking from the Damascus Gate up the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering), the path that Jesus walked on during the Passion. The stone street leads up a hill to the "Ecco Homo" arch, where Pilate said, "Behold, the man!"
It's early, so I am alone on that section of the street, except for a man handing out flyers in the courtyard where Jesus was flogged, and yelling, "Come on in!" (Would "follow me" have been too sacrilegious?)
With his linen shirt and tight jeans, he's indistinguishable from the barkers with handbills we get on street corners when a new bar or club is opening. And, again, it's just the two of us on the street.
Some shopkeepers along the way are hanging up blouses, some are selling yarmulkes, some are selling disposable trinkets commemorating eternal places.
One sees me looking over his merchandise and hands me a flyer about the Stations of the Cross, pointing out particular locations nearby. What a helpful guy! He must be another Jesus follower who wants to enhance my experience here in the footsteps of Jesus. "Five shekels, please."
Now the Old City is coming to life. I arrive at the spot where Simon of Cyrene was asked to carry Jesus' cross. (If you didn't read about it in the Gospels, you may have heard about it in the classic Ray Boltz song, "Watch the Lamb.") Soldiers with machine guns lean against the plaque commemorating either Simon or Ray (they were obscuring my view). A merchant has a boombox blasting Latin chants into the street to help him sell more oils. One shop wasn't open, but its sign make the same point with no hint of irony: "Ecco Homo Jewelry." Others were selling t-shirts: "got milk and honey?"
I shrugged off their efforts to lure me into their trinket shops, starting to wonder how these base businessmen could try to profit from my moment trying to better understand my Lord. This is the town that got Jesus all mushy? "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" (Luke 13:34).
Not the Jerusalem I Wanted. This wasn't what I wanted. I wanted Holy of some kind. And, if not holy, at least somewhat impressive. And if not impressive, at least sanitary.
I would have been cool with a pristine, Disneyfied, hold-onto-your-hats-and-glasses Jerusalem. Maybe like the Hall of Presidents with animatronic figures telling me Bible stories or a sculpture garden with bronze Bible figures and ADA-compliant ramps and water fountains. There could be merchants, but they'd be in Prince-of-Egypt-style period garb. It would probably cost something to enter, but you know we would all pay it.
Alternatively, I would have been cool with a Jerusalem that was restored: an untouched, History Channel we-tried-to-restore-this-to-what-it-would-have-looked-like Jerusalem. A Jerusalem with interpretive maps and plaques every few feet—"This is where Uriah had his front porch sleepout," "This is where the Pentecost fire reigned down," "This is where they tried to throw Jesus off the cliff, but he walked through them Matrix-style."
Jerusalem was so disappointingly normal. And then I realized that that's the point.
Separating the Sacred and the Secular. What is left in me—and probably in you—is this vestigial sense from the Old Testament that some things are holy and some are not.
Devotions = holy. Sex = not.
Serving poor = holy. Job = not.
Taking kids to church = holy. Taking kids to soccer = not.
We want places and books and conversations that transport us to holy places. We want church to "feel" different rather than making our lives feel a bit more like church, and our churches feel a bit more like life. We pray prayers aloud that sound different than our normal voices; we use different words, different sentence structure. But God just wants to have a conversation, face to face and friend to friend, without us saying "just" every sentence or repeating his name like a verbal tick.
When Jesus died, the curtain was ripped in two, from the top to the bottom. The Holy and the profane could mingle. The masses got invited to the wedding feast. The glory that had been reserved to the Holy of Holies came to live amongst the people, including people who would not handle their dollop of the divine with care. People like me.
The soldiers with machine guns, the misdescriptive merchant, the other shoppers, the now-richer thugs. Each has a chance to live life as holy and justified as a rabbi or nun. Each can have the shekinah glory—the glory that dwelt in the now-destroyed Temple—dwelling inside them as they go about their daily work. Jesus came to live and move amongst them. The High Priest isn't more important than the guy making High Life.
Jesus came to live amongst us and to die in Jerusalem—a particular place—but that particular place isn't what matters. What matters is that he came to live amongst us and die! Today, he would hang out with contractors, trophy wives, consultants, the guys on Deadliest Catch, National Guardsmen, and bureaucrats. And he would encourage you to keep bringing him glory in your everyday job at your everyday office park. He would explain to you that the time and place in which you serve are as holy as the time and place at which he died.
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- Think through your day. What parts do you think of as the least holy? What could you do to better sprinkle the holy into that part of your day?
- Bring out your prayer journal. Or listen to prayers offered at church. Make five observations about the ways in which the language and style differ from the way that we talk to regular people.
- Did the author make the right choice by paying off the thugs rather than risking his life in a dark alley thousands of miles from home?
- For more inspiration, read these related articles: "Work Is Sacred," "God Likes Your Job," and our "Video Interview with Eugene Peterson."
Photograph by Ann Voskamp used with permission.
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