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.
Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of “Hosanna,” there had been another procession-that of Pontius Pilate with his army into that same city. Passover was known to be a volatile season in Jerusalem. After all, it was a feast celebrating God’s liberation of slaves from their imperial master. Rome was understandably uncomfortable with such narratives. Stories like these did not sit well with the emperor who considered himself solely entitled to designations like “Lord” and “King,” and whose raw military power maintained the social, economic and political stability dubbed “Pax Romana.” Keeping the peace in Palestine meant demonstrating to the Jewish population that there was just one king and one Lord. Pilate no doubt found it more than a little convenient that Jesus should arrive on the scene just in time to become an object lesson. A man hanging on a cross in full view of all pilgrims coming to the Passover feast would serve as a salutary reminder of who is really in charge. The inscription over the cross, “this is the King of the Jews,” would make it clear to everyone what happens to people who claim to be Lord and King.
As much as the Jewish people resented Roman domination, I suspect that Pilate’s military parade gave them a measure of relief as well. For all their brutality, had not the Romans maintained law and order? As onerous as their taxation system might be, is it any less onerous than living in fear of crime, lawlessness and revolution? To be sure, the occasional crucifixion of an innocent man is lamentable. But perhaps such imperial ruthless is the price we must all pay for peace and security. As Caiaphas so aptly observed in John’s gospel, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. Anything for national security.
I can recall the Armed Forces Day parades we had when I was a kid in my home town of Bremerton, Washington. Like Pilate’s parade, the endless columns of marching soldiers with freshly polished shoes and bayonets, the tanks rumbling down the street and warplanes flying overhead were all there to assure us at the height of the cold war that we were well protected. Our military was prepared for anything the Soviets might throw at us. We all clapped and cheered, though the festive mood was actually a little hollow. Deep down, we all knew that there would be no victors following a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Living as we did at “ground zero,” next door to the largest navel facility on the west coast and only fifteen miles from a critical submarine base, we were well aware that no desk under which we might hide during drills nor any shelter in which we might take cover would protect us. We knew that national security was a national delusion, that the parade was a promotional opiate and that the security promised by force of arms was a fraud. A peace imposed by the threat of annihilation is no peace at all.
Professor of biblical studies, John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might have been a parody of Pilate’s earlier parade. Crossan, John Dominik & Reed, Jonathan L., Excavating Jesus, (c. 2001 by Crossan & Reed, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 262. In short, Jesus was lampooning Pilate in much the same way as Alec Baldwin has been spoofing President Trump on Saturday Night Live. That makes some sense. After all, nothing is more threatening to tyranny than humor. For good reason women protesting the activities of anti-immigrant “watch groups” in Finland dressed up as clowns. It is hard to project a fierce and intimidating persona when you are chasing a clown. Whatever the merits of Crossan’s suggested reading, there is no question that the Jesus parade of harlots, tax collectors and outcasts along with his honor guard of singing children constituted a stark contrast to Pilate’s procession of heavily armed troops into the city days before. It is likely that Jesus’ act of impudence in the face of Rome contributed to Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify him. Such was Rome’s verdict in the Jesus affair.
Nevertheless, in the resurrection to which we look forward, God reverses Rome’s judgment. The “Peace of Rome” is unmasked for the fraud it really is and Jesus is revealed as the one who truly is Lord. The cross was the symbol of Rome’s power to kill. But Jesus made of it God’s instrument for breathing life into the world and a symbol of hope. The empire employed violence and threats to impose its peace. Jesus used divine power, but only to bring healing, forgiveness and life. Pilate can kill, but only God can raise the dead.
Two parades: one threatening death; the other promising life. The question you need to keep asking yourself is this: in whose parade am I marching? Am I secretly cheering the might of the principalities and powers that maintain law and order at the expense of justice, truth and freedom? Am I frightened by what might happen in their absence? Or am I marching with the one who upends the hierarchy of domination? Am I marching with the friend of those deported, discriminated against and vilified-all in the name of national security? Or am I cheering for the oppressive machinery that protects my position of privilege? Am I a disciple of the fearless clown who exposes and mocks the impotence and empty promises of raw power? Or am I a willing subject of the governor who wields it? It seems to me the importance of these questions intensifies with each passing day.
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about where the imperial parade invariably leads.
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Source: Red Bird, Oliver, Mary (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
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 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity, created for them by Persia’s conquest of Babylon, to return home to Palestine. 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 Matthew’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 fulfils 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.
There is far more material in Matthew’s passion narrative than I can hope to consider in this post. Furthermore, I am not sure scrutinizing the text is at all helpful here. I do not believe I have ever attempted to preach on the passion itself. After hearing it read, silence seems to be the only natural and appropriate response. Instead of reading commentaries, I believe the best preparation for the Sunday of the Passion is to set aside a few hours and listen to J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. That said, a few things about Matthew’s passion narrative are noteworthy. Of particular interest are those episodes unique to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Matthew alone tells us that Judas, after realizing that his betrayal of Jesus will end in Jesus’ crucifixion, regrets his treachery. Matthew alone tells us that Judas returned his ill-gotten silver and subsequently committed suicide. Matthew 27:3-10. Mark and John tell us nothing of Judas after his act of betrayal. Luke refers to Judas’ death only in an obscure passage from Acts. Acts 1:18-19. Wherever Matthew obtained this information, it fits nicely into the “fulfillment of prophesy” theme running through his gospel. Matthew has referred to Judas on several occasions as a “paradidous” or “one who hands over” or “betrayer” according to the RSV. See Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:25; Matthew 26:46 and Matthew 26:48. Now Judas takes that name upon his own lips and so labels himself. “I have sinned in ‘betraying’ innocent blood.” Matthew 27:4.
The chief priests initially refuse to accept the money but obviously cannot return it to Judas once he is dead. Because the funds constitute “blood money,” they are unfit for the temple’s general treasury. Scholars debate the scriptural origin of this supposed prohibition. Some believe it to have been a rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:18 forbidding payment of a vow by any Israelite from the wages of a prostitute. This seems a stretch to me. Judas was not seeking to pay any religious obligation when he returned the thirty pieces of silver, nor were the priests who received it. Moreover, the wages of a prostitute do not involve the shedding of blood. Finally, there is no actual rabbinic interpretation of this text that comes close to a specific prohibition against the receipt of blood monies. Others have focused on I Chronicles 22:8-9 in which the Lord forbids David from constructing the temple in Jerusalem because he has “shed much blood and…waged great wars.” While a rabbinic gloss on this text extending the prohibition against David’s construction of the temple to the deposit of blood money into the treasury is logical, it likewise lacks support in any known rabbinic literature.
Whatever may be the case with respect to laws governing deposits into the temple treasury, Matthew employs this episode to demonstrate once again that what happens to Jesus fulfills the scriptures. His citation to Jeremiah appears to be a conflation of three texts: Zechariah 11:12-13; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Jeremiah 32:6-13. Perhaps the more significant of these is the third. Jeremiah relates how God instructed him to purchase a field from his uncle at the height of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. This was obviously a foolish short term investment, given that all the land would soon be under the control of Babylon and the people deported. But the prophet is not thinking short term. He looks to the day when the land will again be re-inhabited by his people and at peace. This seemingly senseless business transaction reflects the prophet’s faith in God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile and restore to her the land of promise. In reverse literary symmetry, the chief priests conduct what seems to them an imminently practical transaction that turns out to be the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic destiny.
The other episode unique to Matthew’s passion narrative occurs in Matthew 27:51-52. Immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. Vs. 51. In this much, Matthew is consistent with Mark (Mark 15:38) and Luke (Luke 23:45). But Matthew goes on to describe a great earthquake that opened up the tombs housing many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep, but were raised and entered Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:51-53. Eduard Schweizer believes that a textual corruption or inept editing is responsible for the testimony that the resurrected saints were not seen in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 516. He maintains that the narrative makes sense only if we understand the appearance of the saints to have taken place on the day of Jesus’ death.
I will admit that the text as it stands makes for an awkward sequence of events in the passion story. Moreover, if the appearance of the saints did take place after Jesus’ resurrection, it would fit more naturally into the resurrection account in Matthew 28. Still and all, I am not thoroughly convinced. Jewish belief in the resurrection (among those who did so believe) understood that resurrection to be a general one. All the dead would be raised and judged together. See Daniel 12:1-3. There was no understanding, so far as I know, of individuals being resurrected (as opposed to simply being raised like Lazarus in last week’s gospel). Consequently, Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood in Jewish thought as the first fruits of the general resurrection. That is clearly how Saint Paul understands the resurrection. (See I Corinthians 15). The appearance of the departed saints (“righteous ones” or “Zadiq” in Hebrew) at the time of Jesus’ rising therefore substantiates Jesus’ resurrection as the resurrection.
If you are hell bent on preaching the passion, these are two sections you might consider focusing on. Still, my advice remains: Don’t do it. The passion preaches itself. Let the story be told. Let the mysteries, the imponderables and the questions hang in the air. The Son of God has uttered his last words. What can we possibly add?