Turning the Tables – April 17, 2011

Zechariah 9:9-10, Mark11:1-10, 15-19

April 17, 2011

How many here like to play Backgammon? (How many have ever played Backgammon?) I used to play it a lot! And Backgammon is actually a game that originated a long time ago – no one’s exactly sure how long. But, games like Backgammon have been known traditionally as “table games.” (Although we here in Bensalem now know of another meaning for the term “table games!”)

Well, this phrase I’m using today, “turning the tables,” is one that probably derives from these “table games.” And it comes from the practice of reversing the board so that players play from their opponent’s previous position. It also came to mean the turning of a game back to ones advantage, and putting one’s opponent at a disadvantage. So then, over the years, “Turning the tables” has become a figure of speech which means “to reverse the advantage” of someone. To “turn the tables” on someone means to take something that comes at you, and turn it back on the other person.

According to Wikipedia, (I love Wikipedia!) the first known example of that phrase in print is in Robert Sanderson’s XII sermons, in the year 1634. There he wrote this. “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables. Imagine thy neighbor were now playing thy game, and thou his.” (People actually used to talk that way, doest thou know!)

I wonder, though, if that’s really the earliest example! I think possibly the earliest record of that expression might have come sixteen hundred years before that. I think the earliest example might be found in the Gospels. Because Jesus “turned the tables” that day in Jerusalem, didn’t he? He came riding into Jerusalem, he went into the Temple, and, among other things, he “turned the tables” of those who bought and sold. And as I think about that, it seems to me that he did more than just knock over a bunch of furniture. I believe he actually “reversed the advantage” of his adversaries! And in that sense, he challenged the people to think differently about a lot of things!

Think about that. Think about how he “turned the tables” on the people’s expectations. This is a very “surreal” scene we commemorate today. The people saw Jesus as coming into the city in triumph. He was a conquering king, or so they thought – or so they wished! They were hailing him as king, the same way they hailed Judas Maccabees, when he rode into the city in triumph several hundred years earlier. He was the one who led the revolt against the Assyrian occupation. And all these years later, we have even called this story in the Gospels “The Triumphal Entry” in Jerusalem. That’s what my Bible says at the top of the page!

However, Jesus “turned the tables” on that understanding. For him, this was not the parade of a conquering king. It was not a procession to a “coronation.” This was an embassy of peace. Because a king would ride a donkey into a city, but the symbolism of that was much different. A king – like Judas – would ride a horse in conquest. A king would ride a donkey when he was coming to make peace. And that’s the symbolism Jesus was using that day. And there was a great dichotomy in the people’s actions and Jesus’ actions! And each of the Gospel writers tells us very clearly that Jesus made intentional arrangements to ride this donkey! He was “turning the tables” on their understanding of this event.

Well that’s not all! Jesus was turning the tables on their whole understanding of the realm of the Messiah! Something the angels said some thirty years earlier would come back at this point. At his birth they said, “Behold I bring you good tidings of a great joy which shall come to all people!” And in this story, Mark gives us the most complete wording of Jesus’ statement. And I want you to see how this really turned the tables on their understanding! Look at verse 17. Jesus says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations!’” There’s the angel’s words again. “For all the nations!” Do you see the difference?

As Jesus often did, even when we aren’t aware of it, he was quoting scripture. In this case the quote comes from Isaiah 57. And I want you to listen to this. And I want you to think of how exclusive their religious system had become! Isaiah writes, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant, [all] these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

That’s amazing, isn’t it? And once again, I’m sure the people to whom he quoted that passage knew it! And I’m sure it was tough for them to hear – especially the religious leaders! I’m sure they did not like the idea that their religion was to include such foreigners – even though their scriptures pointed to that! I’ll bet they didn’t read that chapter of Isaiah all that often! And I’m sure they didn’t like this upstart rabbi reminding them of it!

Of course Jesus actually did end up “turning tables.” He did upset the furniture. And there’s no doubt that that was disturbing, too – especially to those same religious leaders who had set up the whole system of buying and selling and money changing. As he quoted Isaiah, calling into question their exclusionary faith, he also used the same scripture to condemn their “Temple commerce.” And I’m sure that made even more ominous the words, “but you – you the ‘Chosen People’ – have made it a den of thieves!”

Remember that the religious leaders had quite a system going! They were in a position to “judge” the sacrifices people brought in, and if the sacrifice wasn’t good enough, they of course could sell the person one that was! And they were quite wealthy because of all that. And throughout the Bible, some of the harshest judgments were leveled on those who used their positions of religious authority for personal gain! And I’m sure that was not lost on these men!

Well, let me take this a step further. This “turning of the tables” took on deeper meaning when you think about how these leaders were always trying to catch Jesus in a “violation of the law.” “Your disciples don’t bathe correctly!” “You and your people don’t fast the right way!” “You healed a man – on the Sabbath! Don’t you know that’s against the law?!” Jesus turned the tables on them, too! Their whole religious “system” was the worst violation of the law, and Jesus called them on it – in a big way!! And again, I’m sure they knew it! And it was not just a challenge to their income – which it was! It was a major embarrassment to them! It was a challenge to their authority, and therefore to the stability of their whole society!! And it could not be tolerated! They were barely keeping things together as it was, under the Romans. And so they sought to destroy him. That’s the Palm Sunday story!

So, what about us? I know this is a lot of biblical history. And that’s good! But Patty says I always need to be sure to bring us into it. And she’s right! What about us? Does Jesus ever “turn the tables” on us? Does he challenge us in our understanding of the faith, or even our understanding of ourselves? Do we ever have the wrong idea about things? Do we blame God for some things, when we should be blaming ourselves? Are we like those people that first Palm Sunday?

You know, it’s always easiest to be saved from something or someone else! “Free us from the Romans!” “They’re the stinkers!” It’s hardest when the “tables are turned” and the thing we need to be saved from is ourselves – our own shortcomings, our own failures, our own rebellion. Maybe that’s the biggest table Jesus turned that day! “If only now,” he lamented over the city, “If only now you knew the things that make for peace! But you would not.” If only now you realized this is about you! Not the Romans – you!

Do we recognize our own weaknesses, our own shortcomings, our own failures? Supposedly, we’ve taken 40 days to try to do that. That’s part of preparing our hearts for this time. Are we humble enough – are we brave enough – to say to God, “I know what you’re saying to me.” “I know you want to be in relationship with me, but I’ve been too busy, or too ashamed, or too proud, or too afraid, to be in that relationship with you.” Are we able to say, “I know I’ve missed what you were trying to say to me, God.” “I’ve missed you calling to me.” “But I’ve been afraid of what you might call me to do.” Do we take the step to humble ourselves before the Lord” so that, as the psalmist said, “we will be lifted up?”

Palm Sunday is not all joy and “Hosannas!” Palm Sunday and Holy Week are about some really tough stuff. This parade would be replaced, in only four days, by the road to the cross. I’ll bet very few of those people that day would even have begun to imagine that!

We need to be sure we understand it – understand it as best we can. It is too deep a mystery ever to fathom completely! The love and sacrifice of God in Jesus, was about saving us, not from someone else, but from ourselves – from sin and death! You can think of this scene and spin that thought around in your head until this time next year, and you won’t be able to understand it fully! “What wondrous love is this?” asks the hymn. We cannot know! But we can embrace it! We can know that the price for our soul has been paid! We can know the amazing Grace God has given us. So, let us seek him. Let us seek to know him – on his terms, not ours. Let us know the Jesus that Holy Week would reveal!


Eternal God, we cannot ever understand your love and grace. We can read the stories from long ago, and they seem so far removed from us. We ask that you would place them in our hearts, that we may grow in our understanding of that which we cannot fathom. Help us to rest in the joy and peace of your love and grace. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.