Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, Christians will commemorate the beginning of the final week of Jesus’ life on earth. In the Christian tradition, this final week is called the holiest of weeks because in these seven days we see the summation of the very essence of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
The gospel accounts of Jesus’ final seven days on earth are full of profound lessons for the church. We see see Jesus crying over Jerusalem, we see his confrontation with the religious powers who were in cahoots with imperial Rome, the cleansing of the Temple, the Last Supper and the disciples competition for superiority among themselves, the lonely agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter, the humiliation before Pilate and Herod, the shouts of the crowd for his death. Palms were waved as you recall and placed on the road by the cheering crowds when he entered Jerusalem. But for the most part, the same crowd who cheered him on this Sunday would shout “crucify him!” on Good Friday. The culmination of Lent, in the final week of Jesus, is most telling in its portrayal of the very essence of Jesus’ mission. That final week began with a king’s welcome and ended with a prisoner’s execution. Two themes, stark in their incongruence to worldly norms, emerge for me from the paradox of Holy Week.
These days we know that “royalty” does not only refer to folks of the monarchy. They can also be the celebrities of our day, people who are given the “royal treatment” because of their stature and perceived social importance. And celebrities these days also come in all sorts. We have secular celebrities in entertainment and society, but we also have “celebrities” in religion. In whatever stripe they come, the usual ways of power in the world accompany them – pomp and pageantry, proximity to power, wealth, fame, luxury, the adulation of many. And for the most part, those who arrive at this height of power only tend to want and get more of what they already have.
And then there is the power that we commonly see exercised through might, wielded by tyrants upon the weak. The usual way of this kind of power is the way of greed, oppression and even of violence. As a young man growing up in the Philippines during the almost 20-year reign of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, I have experienced what tyranny of power really looks like, and feels like, when one person holds absolute, and unquestioned political power over a whole nation.
And so, power, defined in familiar terms, is the ability to cause change by way of one’s influence, might, and control. During the time of Jesus, Israel’s hope for a messianic deliverer was at its height. There was already a well-formed understanding of the role of the messiah in the tradition of Israel. The long history of oppression of the people of Israel has created the dominant expectation of its messiah as one who was going to be a military and political deliverer, one who was to liberate them from the empire and reestablish the state of David. Jesus, as a Jew, was so very familiar with this messianic image in the culture.
But the power that Jesus embodied was a scandalous assault to this understanding of power and of messiahship. The gospel narrative of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, beginning in Luke 19: 28, is set within the larger context of the closing chapters of the evangelist Luke’s book.
The gospel accounts indicate that there was a prescience on the part of Jesus as he prepared to enter Jerusalem, drawing the reader to the specificity of his instructions to two of his disciples on how to secure a heretofore unknown and unseen colt on which he was to ride to enter the city. The foreknowledge of his instructions were so detailed, that any exegete can only conclude that the gospel writer was conveying the message that Jesus was intentionally orchestrating a peculiar way of entering Jerusalem. Closer study of the text, and its context, will easily tell us that the symbols surrounding Jesus entry into the city was loaded with powerful political and religious significance for those who were there. It was very apparent that Jesus was intentionally mixing contradicting cultural and theological images to deconstruct the prevailing concept of messiahship within the culture of the time.
On the one hand, the image of Jesus processing into the city to the revolutionary chants and cries of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” brought back the memory of Simon Maccabaeus, the great guerilla general who liberated Palestine from Greek rule some two centuries before. Every year, about 45 minutes north of where I live in New Jersey, across the Delaware River in New Hope, PA., General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is reenacted. We all know that this crossing symbolized the decisive victory against the British during the American Revolution. Witnessing that would bring back a similar memory that came to the people about Simon Maccabaeus as they watched Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. The act undoubtedly was associated to an indelible historical memory. According to I Maccabees 13:51, Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.”
But on the other hand, by entering riding on a donkey, Jesus also stirred up an ugly stereotype hidden beneath the minds of people in that culture. The 1st century Jewish historian named Josephus, wrote of a Jewish rebel in Babylon who captured the king’s son-in-law and then paraded him naked on a donkey, which the people of that time considered the worst kind of humiliation one can experience. Yet at the same time, a proclaimed messiah riding on a donkey, brought back to mind the words of the prophet Zechariah who in chapter 9:9 said, “Look, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious…humble and riding on a donkey…” It must have been a bewildering experience to the observers during that time, to be so bombarded by mixed messages and symbols about messianic power.
It was a scandal – this surrendering, self-emptying, going meekly kind of messiah. They wanted a rebel leader to lead them in an insurrection, one who could call on God to do a miracle to free them from the Romans in the same tradition of Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites.
Neighborliness and Radical Compassion
This scandalously new understanding of power comes from an unspeakably strange kind of love. One of the dictionary definitions of the word strange is, “Something outside of one’s previous experience.” The central message of the gospel is about the reign of God that has come to us through Jesus Christ, an only son given by God out of undeserved love so that, through faith in him, we may find eternal life. By following his way, his new way, the way of Jesus, we find life in God.
It is a love that willingly suffers for and on behalf of the other. In the eyes of the world, a strange love indeed that issues forth from a scandalous kind of power.
False pride and hubris, the desire to be better than the other, is the most ancient of sins. It is what alienated us from fellowship with God in the beginning of time, when humanity wanted to be like God. Even at the Last Supper, an argument still arose among the disciples – people closest to Jesus – as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. It is still easy to overlook the reality that in the life of discipleship to Jesus, to lead means to serve, to live means to be willing to take risks – even unto death – for his sake.
Thomas à Kempis, a contemplative who spent most of his life at the Augustinian monastery of Mt. St. Agnes in the Netherlands, wrote the classic devotional book in the early 15th century entitled, “The Imitation of Christ.” It was one of the most widely read writings in the Middle Ages. The devotional book counsels Christians to imitate Christ as their model by turning away from world matters and truly seeking to live spiritually and inwardly. This means humility, the disciplined contemplation of things invisible, rooting out one’s faults, resisting temptations, enduring hardships. It means surrender to and dependence on God. It calls Christians to cultivate the inner life, converse with Christ, commune devoutly and to place hope and trust in God.
But the journey of the inner life is not completed if that life is not lived out in the world and with others.
Bill Leonard once said, “Lent forces us to confront the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible, ancient insights into the way God apparently sees things, promotes virtue and demands obedience of those who dare to claim the Spirit…Lent drags us into a moral and spiritual wilderness that we’d just as soon avoid. It points us toward an inward and spiritual grace that is itself comforting and disturbing. At its best, Lent is dangerous territory of spirituality and action.”
And so what is the way for the disciple of Jesus for today? When Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper upon breaking the bread, “this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”, Jesus disclosed that if we are to be his disciples we must hear him in the cries of the ones who are suffering, and to see his suffering as the suffering of others. Jesus transformed a Jewish devotional meal into the Eucharist, a continuing expression of association with himself in death and in victory. Scandalous power, strange love!
Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic peace activist and poet, wrote an essay entitled, “Striving to be Number Zero.” In that essay she tells of an interesting story about Serena Williams, the great tennis player, and about Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual leader of the non-violent struggle of India for independence against the British. She recalls an interview that Serena Williams had when she won the Wimbledon championship in 2002. She was asked how it felt to be number one in the world. “When I was little”, she said, “I always wanted to be ‘number zero.’ I thought that was the best you could be, thinking perhaps that if 0 came before 1, then it must be better than 1. I guess I wasn’t very bright.” But Berger then cites an interview with Mohandas Gandhi when he was asked if he was free from ambition. Gandhi responded by saying, “Oh no! I’m the most ambitious man in the world. I want to make myself zero.” Gandhi recognized that the true spiritual goal of life is to love, and this goal is achieved through the long road of emptying one’s self for others.
God’s way is the way of love, peace and reconciliation. And when God’s love insists itself in a world full of violence, hate, alienation and fear, the necessary consequence of this collision is one of suffering love. This love delights in protecting the weak, the cast out, and the powerless. This love laments prophetically where there is injustice because love is incompatible with oppression and cruelty. This love pursues the lost and the separated, and longs for its return. Jesus told his disciples, “As the father has sent me, so send I you.” And so if the church is the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus was the embodiment of God, then the way of Jesus must be the way of his faithful follower and church.
A modern day parable is playing itself out right now on the meadows of Central Park in Manhattan, New York. During the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the globe right now, and currently finding its epicenter in New York City, the health care system and the frontline first responders of the city have been overrun beyond its capacity. Many organizations, volunteers, and groups have come to the city to lend its help. One of those organizations is Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist, Billy Graham. They have set up a 60-bed emergency field hospital which will function as a respiratory unit servicing overflow patients from Mount Sinai Hospital. Franklin Graham, known for his many controversial, ultra conservative views and writings against Islam, and the LGBTQ community – and by extension, his organization the Samaritan’s Purse – has raised some deep concerns within the Muslim and LGBTQ communities of New York City. Everybody can agree that anyone, regardless of creed, race, or philosophy, should be able to help who anyone right now who needs help during a time of horrible pandemic that has overrun our health care system, and decimated the capacity of our health workers. But the concern of New Yorkers has deepened when it was reported that the organization is requiring that all personnel and volunteers serving in its pop-up tent hospital be Christians (only), and who agree to Samaritan Purse’s 11-point statement of faith.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (an interesting pun) in Luke 10: 25 ff., Jesus introduces a radical redefinition of neighborliness. An upright lawyer familiar with the law puts Jesus to the test by asking him how he, the lawyer, might inherit eternal life. Jesus, in turn, asked him, “What does the law say? How do you read it?” The lawyer dutifully responds, invoking the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5, and the call to a life of holiness in Leviticus 19: 18, commanding the devout to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Jesus affirms him by saying, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But seeking further to justify his sense of entitlement, the lawyer tries to prescribe the limits of his own duty to the law by asking Jesus further, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the famous parable. A Jewish man going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is mugged by robbers who stripped him of his clothing and valuables, and beat him up to a pulp, leaving him for dead. A priest, who represented the highest religious leadership among Jews, came down the same road a little alter and saw the wounded man. In seeing him, the priest goes across the road to pass him by and avoid him. The purity laws prohibited him from being near an unclean body. Then a Levite, a lay assistant to the priest bound by the same purity laws, did the same thing, crossing to the other side of the street to pass him by. Then Jesus continues to say that a Samaritan, a foreigner considered in Judaism as an outcast, and not expected to show sympathy to Jews, had compassion upon the fallen man. He went to him, cleaned and bound up his wounds. He then put the wounded man on his beast of burden and took him to a shelter where he took care of him, and offered the innkeeper money to continue taking care of him until he gets well.
After telling the parable, Jesus then turns to the lawyer and asks him, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man, who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer, faced with what is known in semiotics as an aporia, a logical contradiction, had to submit to the inevitable response, “The one who showed mercy on him.”
Jesus redefined neighborliness away from prescribed limits determined by man-made laws and restrictions. In God’s reign of love, neighborliness is founded on compassion. That’s radical!
Palm Sunday is full of rich liturgical meanings for the follower of Jesus. But everytime we reenact and commemorate the final entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, there is no pivoting away, through fancy midrash or eisegesis, from coming to terms with the Great Reversal that God’s reign of love has unleashed into the world through the life of Jesus Christ.
We live in a time full of antagonisms, and those in power and who desire to stay in power are driving these divisions deeper by making us fear each other more and more. As disciples of Jesus we are called to resist any form of hate. We are called to be “farmers of reconciliation” – those who cultivate and sow a land of forgiveness, forgiveness that transforms the other closer into the image of Christ. We are to bring those who are in the margins into the fold of community, to walk alongside those who are burdened by the weight of oppression so that through our companionship they might find hope and renewal. We are to lift up the weak among us, helping them to stand until they can stand on their own.
Jesus brought God’s reign into the world. It is here, it cannot be denied. If we don’t acknowledge it and remain silent, even the stones will cry out.