IN THE CITY OF KING DAVID
It was very early in the morning when we set out on our journey. Behind us the sun began to caress the circular blue lake of Galilee, showing signs of its first light of dawn. Alongside was Capernaum, lazily shaking off her drowsiness. We did not even turn our backs to bid our city goodbye. But only set our eyes for Jerusalem. The joy of the Paschal feast filled our hearts and there was really no time to look back...
Peter: Hey guys, be sure you have your sandals well tied and your canes in order, ’cuz we have three days ahead of us on the road!
On our first night we camped out in Ginae. Then we took the road toward the mountains up to Gilgal... We then passed through the arid and yellow lands of Judea... Our eyes were fixed on any sign of the holy city as we climbed from hill to hill.... Suddenly, everyone gave out a loud cry...
John: Run everybody... we can see the city!!
On one of the roads, on top of Anathoth, the city seemed resplendent to us. The walls of Jerusalem shone above Mount Zion. Their white palaces, their strong gates and their massive towers sparkled... At the center was the holy temple of the God of Israel, its most precious gem.
Peter: Long live Jerusalem and all her pilgrims!
Jerusalem, the city of peace, was the treasure of all Israelites: the capital of our country, conquered by the astute arm of Joab a thousand years ago, where King David entered dancing, as he carried the ark of the covenant and where King Solomon con¬structed the temple made of cedar, gold and marble, admired all over the world... For the last leg of our journey, we joined the caravans of pilgrims from the north, from Perea and Decapolis, to partake of the Paschal lamb in Jerusalem. We entered through the Gate of the Fish. Beside this was the Antonia Fortress, the building most hated by all of us: it was the headquarters of the Roman garrison and the palace of Pontius Pilate whenever he stayed in the city.
Peter: Spit on it and let’s get away from here! The mere sight of the eagle of Rome upsets my stomach!
John: Swine! If only I could kill you by squeezing your necks!
Jesus: Don’t kill anyone now, John. Right now we gotta look for a place for ouselves. With so many people, I’m afraid we’ll all end up sleeping in the open air!
Peter: Follow me guys! I’ve got a friend who lives near the Gate of the Valley. He’s like a brother, you see. His name is Mark.
Peter: Dammit, Mark, we meet at long last! Friend, my dear friend, gimme five, man!
Mark: Peter?!... Peter, the stone-thrower, the biggest rascal in the whole of Galilee! But what are you doing here, bad man? Herod’s men must be after your head, ha, ha, ha!
Peter: We’ve come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, like faithful followers of the law of Moses, ha, ha, ha!
Mark: Tell that to the marines, Peter. You must have smuggled something from Capernaum!
Peter: Well, yes, I have smuggled a dozen friends. Hey guys, this is Mark. I love him more than Cleotilde, my boat! Mark, you can trust all of them! We’ve formed a group. We’re planning to do something. This Moreno here is Jesus, the noisiest of the group and this freckled fellow is Simon...
Mark: Well, well, let’s have the introductions later. Now let’s go inside. I’ve got a half barrel of wine, earmarked especially for a dozen Galileans to drink!
Peter: Now? Are you out of your mind? We just came!
Matthew: So what? We’re all tired from the journey... We can... we can have a little toast, since those thieves from Samaria made it difficult for us!
John: To hell with you, Matthew. You only think of drinking!
Peter: You’d better tell us where we can spend the night.
Mark: Well, let’s go to Shiloh’s inn! You can stay there for a couple of days! The place is big enough, and the smell will suit you Galileans. C’mon, let’s go there! But always stick with your group! With so many people around, it’s so easy to get lost in the crowd.
On the days of the Passover, Jerusalem seemed like a huge cauldron teeming with 40,000 inhabitants from the city, 400,000 pilgrims from all over the country, plus herds and herds of lambs filling up in the atrium of the temple, waiting to be sacrificed on the altar stone....
Thomas: One moment, one moment! Before we look for an i..i..inn, why don’t we all go the temple of God. First things f..f..first. He who doesn’t visit the temple when he comes to Jerusalem, gets his r..r..right hand paralyzed and becomes m..m..mu..mute.
John: Thomas is talking from experience...
Peter: That’s right, fellas, let’s all go to the temple and say hello to the angels!
John: Let’s give thanks for having gotten here safe and sound!
Jesus: That’s it. That the Lord of Israel may bless all of us who have come to celebrate the Passover!
Thousands of pilgrims shoved each other just to pass through the arches of the famous Temple of Solomon. There was shouting in the air, prayers and promises, merging with the pervading smell of burned fat from the sacrificed animals. A number of money changers stood by the walls as several junk dealers shouted out their merchandise... It was like the tower of Babel all over again.
Mark: Damn these vendors! Their screamings could bust your eardrums...! Let’s all go to the atrium of the Jews! They must be going up the steps now.
John: Who’re they, Mark?
Mark: The penitents. They’re here to fulfill their vows during the year... Look, there they are now!
A group of men in sackcloth, and pouring handfuls of ashes on their heads, were climbing the steps of the atrium. Thick rosaries of amulets were hanging around their arms and necks. Their knees had become rough from having knelt on stones...
Peter: Why’re they doing this, Mark?
Mark: They fast for seven days before the feast and now, they present themselves before the priests.
Jesus: And these priests haven’t told them that God prefers love to sacrifices?
Mark: That’s exactly my point. So they want to fast? Well, why don’t they hide it so that nobody gets to know what they’re doing, isn’t that right, Jesus... C’mon, let’s go up...
We climbed the steps. There, in one corner, in front of the priests’ atrium, was a group of men, whose faces were covered with the blank veil of prayers. They were praying ceaselessly, the psalms of the congregation of the pious. They were the best Pharisees of Jerusalem...
Peter: Well, look at them.... They’re like parrots, repeating the same thing all over. I wonder if their tongues don’t get twisted by this...
Mark: They claim to be praying to God, but through the corners of their eyes, they’re spying on everyone...
Jesus: That’s what they want: for people to look at them. If they wanted to seek the Lord, they would pray in private.
Mark: Hey, look who’s coming...!
When we were about to cross the Beautiful Gate, the sound of trumpets was heard and the crowd moved to one side... All of a sudden there was a long line of beggars by the Gate’s ark. Then four Levites carrying a sedan chair appeared. They stopped beside the beggars and put the chair down on the ground... They opened the curtains and Joseph Caiphas, the high priest of that year, dressed in white tunic, descended slowly... With the eyes of an owl he looked nervously on all sides. He wanted to flaunt his almsgiving to the people, yet he did not want to take any chances. During the feast last year, a fanatic had thrown a dagger at him...
Matthew: What a first-class scoundrel we have run into!
Thomas: Don’t say that, Ma-Ma-Matthew. He’s God’s h..h..high priest.
Matthew: What a priest! His kind is only interested in making people adulate him...! Look what he’s doing...
Caiphas went toward the beggars and gave them denarii like he was distributing candies to children... He gave the alms with one hand, while the other hand displayed a golden cord, a symbol of his authority, which the beggars were kissing as a gesture of gratitude....
Jesus: If I were God’s high priest, I wouldn’t allow my left hand to know what my right hand is doing. He’s no more than a hypocrite.
Peter: Nathanael, Jesus, Andrew... Let’s go! It’s gettin’ late and we haven’t a place to sleep yet!
Mark: Don’t worry too much about the inn. If there’s no place in Shiloh, you may go to Bethany. The Galileans have an encampment there. Meantime, you gotta finish the half barrel that I’m offering you, otherwise, I’m gonna report you to the police!
Mark: I toast to the thirteen countrymen who came all the way from Galilee to visit the house of this humble merchant of olives!
Peter: Wait a minute, Mark. We didn’t come here to visit you, rascal. We came for Jerusalem... I toast the holy city of Jerusalem!...
Mark: Don’t believe that, Peter. This city’s no longer as holy as you think it is. “The temple of Jerusalem, the temple of Jerusalem...!” Do you know why? Because anyone who visits the temple loses his faith and leaves it there! If it were only the temple....! Look, do you see those lights?... They’re from the palaces of the rich barrio... Then go and look at the huts from the Ophel and the shanties beside the Gate of Trash... Then the swarm of farmers coming to the city to look for a job... And what do they find... nothing but misery and black fever. This city stinks, I tell you, I know this city through and through.
Jesus: You’re right, Mark. It’s built on sand, so it’ll collapse.
Thomas: They say that Jerusalem’s foundations are of p..p..pure rock.
Jesus: The only solid rock is justice, Thomas. And this city is built on ambition and inequalities...
Mark: Well, guys, we’d better head for Bethany now. Let’s go!
The streets were jammed with people and animals. The smell of baked unleavened bread pervaded the air, competing with the perfumes of the most popular prostitutes of Jerusalem. Early during the day they could be seen displaying themselves and their well-painted faces... In every corner of the squatters area, there were bets on dice and other games. All pubs were full of drunk men as the children snuck away with the left-overs from the tables... We passed through the walls of the Orient. We crossed the stream of Kidron, which in spring was overflowing... We ascended the Mount of Olives, until we reached Bethany, where the Galileans always found shelter to spend the days of the Passover... Behind us was Jerusalem, full of din and lights. Hunger, injustice and hypocrisy sleepily, yet happily guarded the walled gates of King David’s city.
The trip to Jerusalem, during great pilgrimages of the Passover, was done on foot. Capernaum is separated from Jerusalem by about 200 kilometers. Jesus and his fellow pilgrims in caravans probably took this route in four or five stages on the road. When they were close to the holy city, the pilgrims would sing the so-called “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 120 to 134). Among the most popular was the one that is still being sung today: “I rejoiced with those who told me: “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”... And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem...” (Psalm 121)
Jerusalem (which means “city of peace”; peace = “shalom”) is one of the most ancient cities in the world. It is built on a rocky plateau, flanked by two deep valleys: the Kidron and the Gihon. A thousand years before Jesus’ birth, Jerusalem was conquered by King David from the Jebusites and eventually became the capital of the kingdom. In the course of history, Jerusalem was either totally or partially devastated on more than twenty occasions. One of the most terrible destructions occurred five hundred eighty six years before Christ, when the Babylonians razed even its foundations to the ground. Still another took place seventy years after the death of Jesus, this time, at the hands of the Roman troops in their desire to suppress the insurrection of the zealots. Jerusalem was – and still is – a city surrounded by walls, which were opened by a dozen doors. The numerous wars and destructions experienced by the city explain why in the present Jerusalem there are recent establishments superimposed on old constructions. Nevertheless we can count on innumerable authentic memories of happenings during Jesus’ time. Since the time of the prophets up to the writings of the New Testament, Jerusalem was the symbol of the messianic city, of God’s abode, the city where at the end of time, all people would congregate for the feast of the Messiah (Is 60:1-22; 1-12; Mic 4:1-5; Rev 21:1-27). Jerusalem is also known as Zion, for having been built on top of a mount bearing this name.
Jerusalem was the country’s capital and the center of political and religious life of Israel. It is estimated that in Jesus’ time, approximately 20,000 persons lived within the walls of the city, and a total of about 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants dwelt outside the city. (The total population of Palestine was from 500,000 to 600,000 inhabitants.) A total of about 125,000 pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem during the feasts of the Passover, overflowing the city with people. The multitude of visitors – national and foreign – was a boon for trade and profit, encouraged disorders and trouble, making the city a real sea of humanity, where people from the small towns and countryside converged, stunned and confused.
Within the walls, among the great establishments of the city, the temple stood out. It was a magnificent and elegant building whose area was equivalent to one fifth of the area of the entire walled city. This would give us an idea of the impressive construction which was the center of religious activity in the country and the seat of economic power of the first order. Along the northern part of the temple was the tower of Antonio, a walled fortress that served as a garrison during Roman domination. From this fortress, the soldiers religiously watched over the temple’s vast expanse to which the Tower was joined by two staircases. This vigilance was intensified during the Passover, when there were more people than usual. Mark is mentioned for the first time in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (12:25) accompanying Paul on his trip from Jerusalem to Antioch. He was Barnabbas’ cousin, another companion of Paul on his trips. On different occasions, Mark – his complete name was John Mark – is seen together with Paul and also with Peter, who was very fond of him to the degree that he called him “his son” in one of his letters, (1 P 2:13). Through some details of the New Testament, we learn that he was from Jerusalem, where his mother lived, that Peter became a family friend, and that the first Christians regularly met at his house (Acts 12:12). From the Second Century, he was considered to have written the second gospel. On the basis of this, Mark appears in the episode as a resident of Jerusalem and Peter’s friend. He is frank, happy and practical. Around the temple of Jerusalem, one could always see, particularly during the days of the Passover, men and women fulfilling their religious vows, beggars, and a multitude praying or doing penitential acts. What Jesus taught about almsgiving, fasting and praying in this episode could be summarized in a simple manner: A rebuff of exhibitionism, at scandalous words, at the desire to flaunt one’s religiosity. It was the practice for example, to announce the time of afternoon praying by the sound of trumpets. Some Pharisees saw to it that they were in the middle of the street, by chance, when this happened so that they could pray before the eyes of everybody. In this manner, people would see their religiosity. In his criticism of hypocrisy of this type, Jesus talks of praying in the secrecy of one’s room, of subtle fasting, and almsgiving without the knowledge of anyone.
Jerusalem was a big, beautiful city, whose elegant buildings were known in the ancient world. But in the midst of all this luxury, and side by side with the houses of the powerful traders and rich families, were the poor peoples’ huts, the houses of the low salaried whose jobs were looked down upon, and who therefore lived miserably. Let us not even discuss the beggars who filled up the streets and the periphery of the city. Jesus, in this episode, compares this Jerusalem of the very rich and of the very poor to a city that is built on sand (Mt 7:24, 27). God cannot tolerate inequality. If there is no justice, there can never be a firm foundation; and a corrupt society will have its downfall from below. Jesus rejects the important people responsible for this situation: The chiefs, the priests, the religious who alienate people with their false idea of God just to maintain their situation and privilege.