SUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
How did a faith espousing an executed criminal as God’s Son become the religion of an empire? How did a man who spent his life in the company of social outcasts, misfits and the disgraced wind up the champion of white middle class morality and family values? When did we cease honoring the martyrs who preferred accepting death rather than inflicting it by serving in the military and begin honoring as heroes snipers with kill numbers in the hundreds? In a sense, these are rhetorical questions. I know generally the historical currents that brought us to this place and time. But I find myself coming back to them each time we near Holy Week and begin once again to trace Jesus‘ last days from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the Sunday of the Resurrection.
We might argue whether and to what extent it was or was not a good thing for Christianity to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. We might debate the pros and cons of the church’s participation in shaping the culture and politics of Europe and America. But there is no denying that this ascendency of the church resulted in a huge gap between the New Testament and mainstream Christianity of today. The New Testament is the product of a faith community living on the margins of the margins. It was a church trying to get its head around the outrageous assertion that the only God who is God saved the world through the execution of a criminal who, it turned out, was God’s Son. The man Rome crucified is the one to whom not only Rome, but every person under heaven must ultimately bend the knee. The claim itself is audacious enough to invite ridicule. But more remarkable still, the claim is asserted by such a small and insignificant collection of riff-raff from the backwaters of the empire.
The stark contrast between this marginalized community that lived as a body made up of equally valued but differently gifted members on the one hand, and the strict dominant hierarchical structure of Roman society on the other could not have been clearer. To be baptized into Christ Jesus meant rejection of the defining parameters of Roman culture assigned to free men, women, citizens, non-citizens and slaves. One had to choose whether to believe in the pervasive power of the Roman pantheon with the emperor at its apex or trust the God who raised the crucified friend of sinners from death. For people on the margins, the good news about Jesus was good news indeed. The higher up one was on the imperial pyramid, however, the more threatening and dangerous this news began to sound.
What happens when the narrative about Jesus is appropriated by the hierarchy? What happens when the story of Jesus is told to children of the privileged and well to do? What happens when the persons gathered to hear the story are too thoroughly invested in their politics, professions and financial security grounded in the existing order to imagine an alternative way of being human? What if they identify more with the American Dream than the Kingdom of Heaven? Can the news about Jesus still be heard as “good”? Can it still be heard as “news”? Or will it be heard as mind numbingly familiar? Perhaps the gospel narrative is like an antique radio sitting on a shelf in the heart of a modern living room, eliciting pleasant memories from a simpler and happier time that never really was, but serving no true purpose.
Then, too, this might be the year that the story prevails. The Easter gospel might open for us a portal into an alternative reality where people, not profit matter most; where the economy is driven by human need rather than human greed; where border crossings are avenues of hospitality rather than scenes of hysteria; where the future is anticipated with apocalyptic hope rather than apocalyptic dread. If Christ is risen from the dead, all this stuff is not merely possible. It’s inevitable. So, then, how do people convinced that Jesus is risen live in the heart of the American empire?
Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.
The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4; II Kings 6:26. Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.
The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.
I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.
Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.
Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.
Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.
In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.