Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
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.
Last year, at the urging of one of my children, I watched the first of three movies based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games. For those of you who might not have seen the movies or read the books, the story takes place in a future dystopia ruled by a repressive dictator. What used to be North America has been divided into twelve districts. Every year, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of the districts are selected by lottery to participate in the “Hunger Games.” The children are compelled to fight to the death in a vast arena for the entertainment of the masses, who see it televised in living color. There can be only one victor, namely, the last child standing. During the contest, alliances between the contestants are formed which are, of necessity, temporary. Stealth, dishonesty and deceit are as essential to victory as brute strength. The narrative traces the fortunes of Katniss Everdeen, a Hunger Games contestant from the poorest district of the empire. To be honest, I didn’t much care for the movie. The acting was only fair and the premise seemed somewhat less than credible.
This week, however, I happened to catch an episode of Survivor that made the premise of Hunger Games a good deal more credible. For those of you who, like me, watch television only rarely, Survivor is a “reality” show in which contestants are divided into “tribes” and placed in a wilderness setting. They compete with one another in grueling athletic type contests. The losing tribe must vote one of its members off the show. As with Hunger Games, there can be only one winner. Thus, alliances between the contestants are, of necessity, temporary. Stealth, dishonesty and deceit are as essential to victory as brute strength. Like Hunger Games, the contest is broadcast on television for our entertainment.
The correlation is not perfect. Unlike Hunger Games, the contestants in Survivor are not selected randomly or against their will. I have no doubt they worked hard to land a coveted spot in this reality series that probably will reward them all in some way, even if they do not manage to win the game. Still, I am not sure that reflects any more positively on a people entertained by such sport. In this week’s episode, the tribes competed in a grueling contest under extreme heat. Three of the contestants were overtaken with sun stroke, one so severely that he had to be evacuated by helicopter and removed from the show. Is this the sort of blood sport we find entertaining? Are we really so titillated by watching people lie, deceive, betray and trick one another with falsehoods? Perhaps the difference between Collins’ dystopia and our contemporary culture is only a matter of degree. Like the Roman audiences drawn to the Colosseum where gladiators fought to the death; like crowds who just a century ago gathered in our town squares for the spectacle of public executions; or mobs cheering at a lynching, we are perversely entertained by violence, cruelty and the suffering of others. If Survivor has no other socially redeeming value, it does at least force us to acknowledge that, beneath our civilized veneer, we are a violent people. Violence excites and stimulates us.
The Passion Narrative unmasks our pretentions about ourselves. If we are honest, we can find ourselves in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, which author and theologian James H. Cone aptly characterizes a communal act of savagery akin to lynching. Cone, James H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (c. 2011 by James H. Cone, pub. by Orbis Books). For those of us firmly entrenched in the cultural structures of white privilege, viewing the cross through the lens of this peculiarly American atrocity brings its hard word into sharp focus. We are the perpetrators seeking Jesus’ death to protect our interests in the status quo. We are Jesus’ fellow countrymen orchestrating his death to keep peace with the overlords of the dominant culture. We are the executioners carrying out the death sentence using the poor excuse that we are simply following orders. We are the spectators secretly relishing the victim’s suffering, snickering cruelly at the expression on his face as, thinking he is about to receive water for his fierce thirst, he gulps down a swallow of vinegar instead. We are the people of conscience who know that a travesty of justice is occurring under our noses, yet remain silent and do nothing for fear of the consequences. To the question posed by that old spiritual, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” the answer is a resounding “Yes.” We were-we are there.
I don’t preach on the Passion Narrative anymore. What is left to say about a story in which there are no heroes and we all find our place as perpetrators, enablers, cowards and not-so-innocent bystanders? Any response on our part likely would be just a vain effort to remove ourselves from the narrative and escape its judgment on our lives. So we listen to the story, accept its verdict upon us and leave the church in silence. The next word can only be spoken by the resurrected Lord.
Here is a poem by Claude McKay for which there is likewise no worthy spoken response.
His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
Source: Harlem Shadows: Poetry of Claude McKay, (c. 1922 by Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.) Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry celebrated peasant life in Jamaica, challenged white supremacy in America and lifted up the struggles of black men and women struggling to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
According to one commentator, it was common for animals to be kept in front of inns and places of lodging near Jerusalem during festivals such as Passover. Travelers lodging therein could use them for trips back and forth from the city. J.D.M. Derret, Law in the New Testament, London, 1970, p. 241-253. Though such use would naturally be restricted to guests, it would not be unusual for an exception to be made for a well known visiting rabbi. Neither would it have been unusual to observe a rabbi riding his donkey into Jerusalem at Passover followed by his disciples. They would have blended in naturally with the other pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and rejoicing to see the outline of the Temple in the distance. It was the specific song of praise from Jesus’ disciples that appears to have attracted the attention of the Pharisees in the multitude. The Pharisees could well have been as concerned about their own safety as they were affronted by the disciples’ claims about Jesus. The Roman occupation force in Jerusalem was always beefed up and on high alert during Passover season for any sign of anti-imperial sentiment. The spectacle of a man acclaimed as king riding into Jerusalem, if only on a borrowed donkey, could easily bring down the full punitive wrath of Rome.
The phrase, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (vs. 38) was a common greeting exchanged between pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for Passover and other festivals. However, as used in the Psalm from which it appears to have been taken, the phrase is a greeting addressed by the priest to worshipers entering the temple in the Jerusalem of the Judean Davidic monarchy. Luke inserts the word “king” into the phrase giving to the song the flavor of a coronation liturgy. Of course, this begs the question: what sort of king will Jesus be? That question was posed in an oblique way to Jesus in the temptation narrative where the devil promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. The question will be brought into sharper focus when Jesus is brought before Pilate charged with claiming to be a king. Herod, after examining Jesus, sends him back to Pilate dressed in kingly apparel. Though intended as a joke, Herod unwittingly affirms what is in fact God’s verdict on Jesus. The matter of Jesus’ kingship and the nature of his reign will be illuminated further through the interchange between the criminals crucified with Jesus.
The praise of the disciples for Jesus as he enters Jerusalem echoes the angels’ song to the shepherds upon his entry into the world. Praise is always the response of the cosmos to Jesus and it is futile to try stifling it. Even if Jesus were to silence his disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” Vs. 40. Stones were frequently called upon in the Hebrew Scriptures to witness oaths, treaties and saving acts of God. See Genesis 31:43-50; Joshua 4:1-7. Here Jesus takes the image one step further and declares not merely that the stones shall witness what is happening but even testify to it.
We know from the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 that Jesus will bring about a salvation event on a scale equal to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. As we have seen since Luke 9:51, Jesus’ destiny has been sealed since he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His final conflict is at hand. Jesus will now engage Satan, whose power is inherent in the religious establishment and the empire to which it is enslaved. It is only natural that Jesus’ disciples should be rejoicing at this moment. But as we will soon see, their rejoicing is to be short lived. The salvation Jesus promises will turn out to be something entirely other than what they expect. His coronation will occur in a most unlikely manner.
This is the third of four “servant songs” found in what has come to be called “Second Isaiah.” See article by Professor Fred Gaiser at enterthebible.org. The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Who is the “servant”? What is the cause of his suffering and how does that suffering benefit the servant? Israel? The world? Is the servant the exiled remnant of Israel? The prophet? Some other individual? Old Testament scholars have debated these questions for over a century. I am not sure the answer to these questions has to be a strict either/or. The prophet’s rejection and suffering at the hands of his/her fellow Israelites could well be a reflection of Israel’s rejection and suffering among the nations of the world. The prophet’s life may be a parabolic symbol of what Israel’s life as a people was intended to be and still might be.
The verse that strikes me this time around is vs. 4: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary.” That is truly a gift! I wish I had it. I see a lot of weariness around these days. Every week I meet people weary of looking for work; people who are weary with the work they have; people weary of maintaining a home that requires more strength and energy than they can give; people weary of being the shoulder everyone cries on; people weary of being the only one who volunteers for the jobs that have to get done so that worship can happen each Sunday or the school play will come together or the July 4th celebration can take place. I see too many good people carrying too many burdens with too little thanks. How I wish I could find words to strengthen their weary limbs and lift their weary spirits! How I wish I could preach life into dead bones like the prophet Ezekiel!
The prophet of Second Isaiah does just that. If you are ever down and out and ready to give up, read Isaiah 40-55. If that doesn’t lift your spirit, I don’t know what will. You don’t have to understand the historical context or the intricacies of Hebrew poetry to be carried away by the lyrical waves of joy and hope in these ancient songs composed for a people with seemingly nothing left to hope for. Yet people can be resistant even to good news. In fact, good news sometimes meets the stiffest resistance of all. Let’s face it, self-pity feels kind of good. There is a part of us that loves to wallow in our hurt and lick our unjustly inflicted wounds. It takes an effort to stop brooding over the good times that are past and reach out for “the new thing” God is doing. Many of the Jews living in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem wanted the old days back again and, because they could not have that wish granted, they were not interested in anything new. How many churches don’t we know that take just that attitude! There is nothing quite so annoying when you are enjoying a good wallow in your sorrows as a prophet who comes around, kicks you in the pants and tells you to grow up, take some responsibility for yourself and open your eyes to the new thing God is doing right under your nose. It makes you want to slap his face and pull out his beard!
The prophetic writings in Second Isaiah provide just the right combination of carrot and stick. The prophet alternately paints vivid and compelling lyrical images of God’s faithfulness and acts of salvation on the one hand while all the time prodding us to abandon our silly wallowing in self-pity. Next to the psalms, Second Isaiah is about my favorite book in the Hebrew Scriptures.
I cannot find a better description of this psalm than the one given by Arthur Weiser:
“The psalm does not exhibit a logically constructed thought-sequence; on the contrary, the development of its thoughts is determined by the psychology and logic of the life of prayer and, in a manner that is true to life, reflects the vivid movement of the emotions, moods and thoughts of a soul which in its distress seeks and finds its support in God. Here we gain an insight into the extent of God’s love-by the fact that the worshipper in spite of all the stereotyped forms to which he is tied can plainly and frankly confess the spontaneous emotions that stir his heart in his distress, the constant change of his fluctuating feelings; by the fact that the worshipper is allowed to come into the presence of God without hiding anything from him, and, guided in his prayer by an invisible hand, may gradually proceed from fear and trembling, as reflected in his urgent petitions, to comfort and strength, which are granted him in abundance as a result of his surrender to God’s hidden goodness.”
Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962, pp 275-276.
“Stereotypical forms” might seem antithetical to spontaneity in prayer. Yet I know from experience that when “my strength fails because of my misery,” spontaneity and creativity are not close to the surface of my thinking. That is why we need to be schooled in the language of prayer. It is also why we need to accumulate an arsenal of prayer petitions in the depths of our souls so that when life hits you so hard that you cannot pray, the Holy Spirit has a good supply of prayer formulas to work with. So once again, my standard advice to people of all ages:Two psalms each day, one in the morning and one at night.
In addition to life-long suffering, the nature of which we can only guess at, the psalmist is surrounded by hostile people. Vss 11 & 13. His or her adversaries take a perverse delight in the psalmist’s pain. The psalmist’s acquaintances avoid him or her. That might not be due to malice, but merely because many people simply feel awkward and at a loss for words when confronted by someone obviously in the throes of grief and suffering. Still, avoidance adds to the psalmist’s sense of isolation.
The psalmist nevertheless finds comfort in the assurance that, though human companionship has failed him or her, God has nevertheless been faithful. Vs 14. The remarkable thing here is that there appears to be no evidence of deliverance from suffering. The psalmist is still in need of protection from enemies and healing from whatever ails him or her. Yet the psalmist is confident in placing his or her life in God’s hands.
This is a psalm for the aging who face the loss of hearing, memory and mobility. It is a psalm for people with chronic illness for which there is not yet any cure. It is a psalm for those struggling under financial burdens to which there seem to be no end. Even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is the presence of a merciful God. For the psalmist, that is enough to get through the day.
For a general outline of Paul’s letter (or letters) to the Philippians, see my post of Sunday, March 13th.
Many New Testament scholars believe that these verses constitute stanzas from an ancient Christian hymn based on the “servant song” motifs in Second Isaiah. Silvs, Moises, “Philippians,” published in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A Carson (c. 2007) p. 837. While the dependence on Isaiah is debatable, it is clear that the fragment is a hymn or liturgy of Christian origin that Paul is quoting to make his point. The passage therefore confirms that, from very early on in the life of the church (50-60 C.E.), disciples of Jesus understood their Lord to be “in the form of God” (vs.6) and that he took “the form of a servant.” Vs. 7. If not worked out in dogmatic detail, the seeds of the doctrine of incarnation are clearly present here. Paul urges the Philippian church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Vs. 5. This is more than simply having knowledge “about” Jesus. As we have seen in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, his denotation of the Church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. According to Paul, the church is literally the Body of the resurrected Christ. It is the organism through which Jesus lives and breathes and embraces the world. In order for a community to be the Body of Christ, it must be guided by the mind of Christ.
This lesson is a reminder that there is no such thing as an individual believer. Whoever says, “I am a Christian but I don’t belong to any particular church” is making about as much sense as a man who says “I’m married but I don’t have any particular wife.” If you are not a member of a worshiping community nourished by the Word of God and fed with the Body and Blood of the Lord, you might still be a swell person, but you are not a disciple of Jesus. If you find that offensive, take it up with Jesus and Paul. I am just the messenger.
The mind of Christ is formed in communities of people who must learn again and again to forgive one another, accept one another’s shortcomings and discover through trial and error where the Spirit of God is leading them. That is how you become a new creation. You can’t do it alone. You need the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God is not blowing in the wind. The Spirit of God dwells within the Body of Christ-with all its warts and imperfections. That is where you need to be if you would follow Jesus.
The passage concludes with the affirmation that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Vs. 11. Taken out of its context, one might draw the conclusion that this verse implies force or the threat of force to compel obedience to Jesus. But Paul (or the hymn he cites) makes clear that Jesus wins obedience not through a demonstration of “shock and awe,” but by emptying himself, that is, pouring out his life in winning our hearts for his kingdom. This is the “weakness of God,” to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 1:18-31 that is mightier than any human strength.
As I said in my introductory remarks, I never preach on the Passion Narrative. It preaches itself. What can you add once Jesus has breathed his last? Still, there are some fascinating things about Luke’s passion narrative that are worth noting. Luke alone relates a conversation in which Jesus warns his disciples that conditions are about to change for them. Whereas before they could travel with only the essentials and lack nothing, now the disciples must travel with purse and bag. Luke 22:35-38. Because, as the prophet Isaiah predicted, Jesus will be “reckoned with transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), the disciples must be prepared to live as criminals. Jesus goes on to say, “let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” Luke 22:36. The disciples respond by pointing out that they have two swords to which Jesus replies cryptically, “It is enough.” Luke 22:38. New Testament scholars argue about what all this means. Some scholars maintain that this interchange is a remembered conversation between Jesus and his disciples that has been repressed in the other gospels. They further suggest that Jesus believed the new age would break through at his arrest initiating the final eschatological battle. Obviously, Jesus was mistaken; hence, the absence of this conversation in the other gospels. Luke, it is argued, tries to smooth over this embarrassing remark by Jesus through turning it into a metaphor that the disciples fail to understand.
Though the passage is a difficult one, I find it hard to believe that Jesus ever counseled his disciples to take up arms. Such a statement would fly in the face of all Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, including Luke. See Luke 6:27-31. Moreover, it would be contrary to the church’s uniform teaching of pacifism that remained unchallenged for the first three centuries of its life. Furthermore, the recommendation to take up arms is sharply contrary to the passage from Isaiah 53 to which Jesus refers. There, the prophet says of the servant of the Lord that in response to persecution, “he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7. The servant went obediently to suffering and, though treated as a criminal, he clearly did not act like one. Because this passage is cited by Jesus to reflect the trajectory of his own ministry, it is unlikely that Jesus would ask his disciples to arm themselves for his or their own protection.
Only Luke relates Jesus’ interaction with the criminals who were crucified with him. The mockery of the one criminal is consistent with Mark and Matthew, but Luke alone tells us about the repentant criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus. Jesus promises that “this very day you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43. This is one of only three uses of the word “paradise” in the New Testament.
“Paradise is a Persian word, meaning park or garden, which was taken over, first into Greek, then into Hebrew. In the Septuagint it was used to translate ‘the Garden of Eden.” Then, because of the belief that the day of God would bring a restoration of primeval bliss, Paradise became the name of the future home of the righteous. Finally, this earthly Paradise was distinguished from the heavenly one, of which the Garden of Eden was only an earthly copy. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife were too multifarious to be reduced to a single consistent pattern. At first it was held that the dead waited in the sleep of death in Sheol, the universal graveyard, until the general resurrection and judgment. But later, alongside of this earlier hope, and never quite replacing it, there grew up another belief that the souls of the righteous went at death immediately to heaven.” Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 252.
The other two uses of this word are by Paul in II Corinthians 12:4 and John of Patmos in Revelation 2:7. The rare use of this term led to much speculation in the early church over whether “paradise” was a synonym for “heaven” or something altogether different. Irenaeus, a bishop of the Second Century, wrote about degrees of eternal bliss in which distinctions are made between “heaven” and earthly paradise. Against the Heresies, Book 5, Ch. 36, para. 1 The former was for those deemed worthy of higher recognition, such as martyrs. The latter was for all the other believers. Similarly, Origen, a Second Century Christian scholar and teacher of Alexandria, taught that paradise was a place for the souls of the righteous to train for entry into heaven. De Principiis (Book II), Ch.1 Most scholars today view Jesus’ remark as affirming his solidarity with the condemned man and promising that he will share in the new age Jesus has come to proclaim. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 870-873; Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 361; Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 269. Some, however, maintain that Jesus’ promise reflects the commonly held belief that the saints and martyrs entered paradise immediately upon death. Caird, supra. In either case, such a promise made to a man dying the death of a condemned criminal is remarkable.
Other material unique to Luke is Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 23:34); Jesus’ warning to the women weeping for him that they ought rather to weep for themselves (Luke 23:26-31); and Jesus’ final words: “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.” Luke 23:46.