The following is an excerpt from a beautiful poem by Maya Angelou called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The free bird thinks of another breeze And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own. But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream His wings are clipped, and his feet are tied So he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom.[i]
I spent a fair amount of time thinking about Jesus, and lent, and our text for today, juxtaposed to Maya Angelou’s words. I mean, who was the “caged bird” in John’s narrative? Jesus? The religious leaders? The disciples? Someone else entirely? You know, there’s something intriguing; something haunting but strangely familiar about the second to last line of this poem, “…and his tune is heard on the distant hill.” I don’t know. Let’s see where this takes us.
You’re all familiar with the story, right? Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover but was upset by what he witnessed. He saw moneychangers and merchants buying and selling in the Temple. Why? Well, people, devout Jews, were coming from all over as an observance of their religion. Passover was a time of pilgrimage. And one of the requirements of this pilgrimage was to bring an unblemished animal to the temple to be used as a sacrifice to God. But over the course of time, people began to realize that is was easier to buy an animal once they got to Jerusalem rather than haul one with them. Hence, the business opportunists set up shop. To buy these animals, however, the law required these sojourners to change their money into Roman currency. That was the job of the “moneychangers” we see in this text.
So, what’s the problem here? Well, there were a couple of things that got Jesus’ dander up. First, and most obviously, this commerce was taking place in the temple itself. But when we think about the scene, what we envision may not necessarily be accurate. What do I mean? Well, let’s compare it to our church building. The moneychangers and merchants weren’t in the sanctuary rather the area they occupied was more akin to our fellowship hall. But this is where the comparison breaks down a bit. It breaks down because unlike our church, not all areas were open everyone. You see, the temple was set up in an exclusionary manner.
In the center was the “holy of holies.” This was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where God stayed. The temple theology that the Jews adhered to in that period held that God was exclusively in the Temple, and specifically, in the holy of holies! So, as you might imagine, that area was off limits to everyone. With one exception. Once a year, one Rabbi, selected by lot, went in to the holy of holies to perform a ritual prayer.
Now, back to our church comparison. The area just outside the holy of holies might be closest to what we call the sanctuary, but it was limited to select Jewish men only. The fellowship hall, or perhaps even the entry way outside the fellowship hall was for everyone else. And this is where the merchants had set up shop and where Jesus cracked his whip and turned over tables. Why? Because not only did everyone except privileged Jewish men find themselves unable to worship in the sanctuary, the area they were given, was more like a marketplace than a church.
But, we must be careful here. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan emphasizes that Jesus was “not against the Temple as such, and not against the high priesthood as such. It was [instead] a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.”[ii] In other words, Jesus got his dander up not only because of the disparity he witnessed within the temple, but because of the injustice he saw in society. Jesus was passionate about social justice and equality and liberation! Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for freedom.
So, what does all this mean for us? Well, freedom has long been the song of caged birds since Jesus walked the earth. I mean, think about those held captive in the holds of slave ships coming from Africa, or the trail of tears, or the internment camps of the second World War, or the holocaust. Whenever religions or government bodies or everyday citizens give themselves over to and cooperate with the greed of imperial control, free birds get caged. Whenever good people let the hate-filled words of racism or the fear-mongering of nationalism dominate their culture, free birds get caged. This was the injustice Jesus opposed and that opposition was the passion that Jesus lived. And this is the passion that he calls us, as individuals and as the church, to demonstrate in our context as well. As a matter of fact, Jesus was so passionate about social justice, that he gave up his own life, his own freedom, to be executed on a cross.
How do we know this? Well, it comes down to the translation of a single word from Hebrew to Greek to English. When the disciples witnessed Jesus get angry, the text says they recalled a line from Psalm 69 “passion for your house consumes me.” However, the word meaning “zeal” or “passion” as it moved from Hebrew to Greek to English, carried with it a definite article. So, a wooden or exact transliteration would be “the passion.”
Now, why is this important? It’s important because the most natural rendering of this passage, because of that definite article, would then be “passion of your house consumes me,” not “for your house,” as we see in this text. So, if this is correct, then the passion of the temple consumed Jesus, which is exactly what happened.
Moreover, this view is more consistent with the over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is not that Jesus was passionate on behalf of the temple, but that the temple representatives, the religious leaders who passionately opposed Jesus would ultimately facilitate his execution.[iii]
So, where does this leave us as we continue our Lenten journey? Well, perhaps, we are challenged by this text to be a more passionate about the things that matter in our society? In other words, what “caged birds” do we encounter every day and how might we participate in acts that lead to liberation rather than captivity? It may not be easy. Like Jesus, when we challenge the status quo, when we make waves, the anger, the passion of those in charge of the house may be kindled against us. But, also like Jesus, we are called to be undeterred in our quest for peace and justice, for equality and freedom, for all people and for all nations.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom
May freedom, finally, become a reality for all.
[i] Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (100bestpoems.net)