Tag Archives: Passion Narrative

Sunday, April 9th

SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14—27:66

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.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

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 42:1–9Isaiah 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.

Psalm 31:9-16

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:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. 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.

Philippians 2:5-11

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.

Matthew 26:14—27:66

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 10:4Matthew 26:25Matthew 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 11:12-13Jeremiah 18:1-3Jeremiah 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?

 

Sunday, March 20th

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50:4–9a
Psalm 31:9–16
Philippians 2:5–11
Luke 22:14–23:56

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.

The Lynching

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.

Luke 19:28-40

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 31:43-50Joshua 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.

Isaiah 50:4–9a

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 42:1–9Isaiah 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.

Psalm 31:9–16

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.

Philippians 2:5–11

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.

Luke 22:14–23:56

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.

 

Sunday, March 29th

SUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY

Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1—15:47

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 11:1-11

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.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

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.

Psalm 31:9-16

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:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. 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.

Philippians 2:5-11

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.

Mark 14:1—15:47

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.

Sunday, April 13th

SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14—27:66

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 can the crowds that cheered Jesus and acclaimed him their Messiah on Palm Sunday be crying out for his death by the end of the week? That is the Holy Week question that has always haunted me. Biblical scholars resorting to historical critical methods have sought in various ways to explain this difficulty away. One such explanation is that there were two crowds, each made up of altogether different groups. The crowd agitating for Jesus death was a discrete and much smaller group brought together by the temple authorities to influence Pilate. The general public, “the people,” were always on the side of Jesus. That might all be plausible, but we don’t send people to prison on the basis of plausible evidence and we shouldn’t re-write the scriptures on such flimsy speculation either. However sensible and appealing this speculative version of events might be, it is not how the gospels tell the story. Faithfulness requires that we struggle with the imponderables rather than attempting to explain them away.

In Matthew’s gospel, the “crowds” (Greek “oxoloi”) are a distinct character along with the disciples, the Pharisees, the Chief Priests and Pilate. They are present at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew 4:25. They are astonished at his teaching, recognizing in him the voice of authority. Matthew 7:28-29. The crowds follow Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry. Matthew 8:1; Matthew 8:18; Matthew 9:33; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 13:2; Matthew 14:13; Matthew 15:10; Matthew 17:14; Matthew 19:1-2; and Matthew 20:29. The crowds are present as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cheering him as the “Son of David” and spreading their clothing in his path. Matthew 21:6-11. Throughout his teaching in the temple of Jerusalem, the crowds form a kind of “human shield” about Jesus preventing the authorities from arresting him. Matthew 22:45-46. They continue to be astonished at his teaching. Matthew 22:33. Jesus’ last address to the crowds in the gospel of Matthew is a vitriolic denunciation of the oppressive religious leadership and a challenge for his disciples to live out their faith in service and humility.

When next the crowds appear, it is with the officers of the Chief Priests who come to arrest Jesus. Matthew 26:47. Jesus confronts both the officers and the crowds concerning their perceived need to employ violence against him. They have been listening to him teach them in the temple for days, but took no action. Why here? Why now? Matthew 26:55. The crowds are absent throughout Jesus’ trial before the religious authorities, but reappear again after Jesus’ hearing with Pilate. Pilate, hoping that Jesus will prove more popular than the notorious Barabbas, offers him to the crowds as a candidate for amnesty. Matthew 27:15-18. But the Chief Priests have been busy lobbying for Barabbas who ultimately becomes “the people’s choice.” Matthew 27:21. The crowds will have Jesus crucified and his blood upon them and their descendants. Matthew 27:24-25.

We must be mindful about the danger of anti-Semitism here. We cannot use the term “crowds” interchangeably with “Jews.” Though the crowds in Matthew’s gospel were obviously made up of Jews, so also were the twelve disciples, to say nothing of Jesus himself. The crowds are no different from any other character in the gospel. They are amazed and overawed by Jesus. They are puzzled and confused by Jesus. Ultimately, they are disappointed with Jesus and, like his disciples, abandon him to his death. The crowds, as I said, constitute a unique character and actor in the gospel. Their hopes, their expectations, their faith and fickleness have much to teach us.

We know from our own experience that crowds have short memories. They sweep new leaders into power hoping for a better life. But if these new leaders cannot deliver bread and butter results in a timely fashion, the horrors of the old regime are fast forgotten and the crowds are back out in the street, perhaps even calling for the return of their former leaders. Crowds are not very good at thinking things through, particularly when they are angry. An angry mob believes somebody is to blame for its discontent and that somebody has to pay. Mob anger needs a scapegoat, and just about any target will do, whether it be Jews, immigrants, racial minorities or sexual minorities. Crowds are capable of unspeakable crimes that their individual members probably would not commit on their own. Lynching, looting, rioting and gang violence all occur when crowds are whipped up into a frenzy of anger and given a target for that anger.

There was plenty of anger and a lot of fear around in 1st Century Palestine. Jesus’ enemies knew how to exploit it and they did. We don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly what the Chief Priests said to turn the crowds against Jesus. But I am guessing they used the same time honored tactics that demagogues always use. “Jesus is undermining public morals and ‘family values.’ Jesus is spreading false doctrine and undermining our traditional faith. Jesus is corrupting the young and impressionable. Jesus is associated with a known domestic terrorist (Simon the Zealot). Jesus keeps company with people of questionable morals (“sinful” woman). Jesus is an affront to God’s moral order and that is why we have bloody clashes with Rome; that is why towers fall on people and why we have blindness and sickness among us. God is punishing us for tolerating the likes of Jesus and his degenerate teachings!”

There is nothing mysterious in the crowd’s change of mood between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It’s what crowds do. Paul reminds us in our second lesson for Sunday that followers of Jesus are not a crowd. We are members of a Body guided by the “mind of Christ.” One of the “ways of sin that draw us from God” denounced in our baptismal vows is the pull of the crowd. We dare not let the voices of nationalistic fervor; the righteous indignation of public opinion or the mob instinct for scapegoating shout down the voice of Jesus. So the next time you hear public outcries against anyone, whether s/he be a defendant in a high profile criminal case; an illegal immigrant; or a member of a racial, sexual or religious minority; remember that we worship a messiah who was the victim of mob violence. Remember that the more we are shaped by the rage of the crowd, the more we are drawn away from the transforming power of Jesus.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

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.

Psalm 31:9-16

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:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. 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.

Philippians 2:5-11

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.

Matthew 26:14—27:66

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?