Palm Sunday, Year C
The Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
Anyone who's played enough with children of a certain age knows that human beings are deeply inculcated with a sense of how "it's supposed (usually pronounced 'spozed') to be." Fair is fair. Actions have consequences. We figure out how it's 'spozed to be' and, I think, mostly try to run our lives by it -- sometimes even when it's to our disadvantage to do so. We try to get what we feel we deserve (and feeling remarkable liberty to bend rules or disregard others' feelings or welfare when these things are in the way); we also engage in self-sabotage when we don't feel deserving of something that might otherwise come our way. The latter in particular is a puzzling phenomenon, but my hunch is that what's often responsible for it is fear of the unknown. If things are the way they're 'spozed to be,' at least they're predictable. When things and manners in which we are different -- even if they're better in some pretty clear ways -- they often provoke vehement resistance. We may not like the way things are, but in any case we don't like being disoriented.
This Sunday, we enter Holy Week, which I think could rightly be called the most disorienting time of the year. We start with at least several sets of strongly held belief as to how things are 'spozed to be.'
Crowds of pilgrims celebrating the Passover -- the feast of God's liberating God's people from foreign masters -- are convinced that God is supposed to liberate Israel from the oppressive rule of Rome. By conventional reckonings, Rome would be difficult to overthrow, but God's people have always found their victory in their god's might, not in the might of armies.
The Roman rulers have their own ideas of how it's supposed to be. If they rule, then their gods must be mightier than the gods of the conquered -- or perhaps the gods of the conquered have actually switched their allegiance to Rome (no doubt part of the emperor's agenda in having a bull sacrificed daily on his behalf at the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel). And once it's been established who's in charge, how it's supposed to be is that the conquered render taxes and tribute and support the social order as it is -- the peace of Rome made sure by the rule of Rome.
Some of Jesus' disciples were developing ideas of how it was supposed to be too. Jesus spoke often enough of God bringing a decisive change, of God's kingdom breaking through the way things are. Jesus' actions said the same thing, perhaps even more insistently -- "if by the finger of God that I cast out demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 11:20). Jesus' words and behavior also must have suggested to his followers that he anticipated a decisive moment in Jerusalem. Would this be when Jesus would finally stop the ambiguous parables, the invitations to dinner, and the talk about cheek-turning and praying for persecutors, and would he finally take charge in the way some expected from a person as powerful as he? Would this be when Jesus stepped up to lead Israel such that the nation would no longer be the suffering servant described in Isaiah 50, hoping for vindication but subjected to humiliation, and would instead confront and humiliate Israel's adversaries?
Jesus does act decisively on what we call Palm Sunday, but not in the way expected. Indeed, if anything, Jesus' behavior satirizes expectations for a conquering general or lord. He rides into Jerusalem not on an impressively outfitted white charger, but on a hastily borrowed colt. He wears no gleaming armor -- just traveling robes. He leads no great army, no defeated captives, no chests with spoils of war; he leads only his motley assortment of followers -- women and beggars and slaves as well as Pharisees and respected citizens. It's a grand send-up of an imperial parade, and despite the warnings of some Pharisees who know that Pontius Pilate is not known for his enjoyment of political humor at his expense, the crowd joins in.
He'll be breaking more rules as this decisive week progresses. Luke has Jesus' send-up of a Roman triumphal procession go directly to the Temple, where he engages in an all-too-serious demonstration against the elite Temple hierarchy, calling them "robbers." Small wonder that Jesus loses a lot of supporters from the crowd after that; most have come to Jerusalem to participate in the very sacrifices that Jesus would prevent by driving the money-changers and the dove-sellers out of the Temple (and if you haven't read any of my prior explanations of this, please see this one -- it is NOT true that these merchants were doing business in an inappropriate part of the Temple where they would disrupt anyone's worship, and there is no evidence at all in the text of any of the canonical gospels' telling of this story to suggest that the rates charged were exorbitant or even unreasonable).
But if we know Jesus at all, we know that he did not come to reassure people for whom the status quo worked perfectly well that they had nothing to fear as long as they continued to follow the rules.
Jesus' way involves something that religious people looking on an individual level call 'conversion,' and that rulers looking at their subjects call 'revolution.' Jesus' way calls on women and slaves and sons -- people whose will would normally, according to the rules, be subject to that of the family patriarch -- to make decisions for themselves: Should I marry, and if so, whom should I marry? No mention is made in any New Testament text that women or men need consider binding -- or consider at all -- the arranged betrothals that would have already been made customarily by family patriarchs. Should I remain to care for my parents and see that they get an honorable burial, or should I leave the village to follow Jesus? Just asking the question would be shocking in the first-century Mediterranean world (not to mention much of the world today!), and remembering that Jesus called upon people to ask it offers a ready explanation as to how Jesus might receive the opposition, persecution, and death he got.
That is especially true because Jesus' way asks even harder things of those in power, the family patriarchs and the social elite. It asks not just to be wiling to laugh at our society's ways of displaying wealth, status, and power, as Jesus did in his spoof of a triumphal parade; it asks them -- it asks us who are among the privileged -- to emulate his example as laid out in the early Christian hymn Paul quoted in Philippians 2. It exhorts us to use power not just to our own advantage or to their own family's, but to empower others. If all of us who call ourselves Jesus followers took this seriously, the Millennium Development Goals would be a warm-up act -- much as Jesus' overturning expectations as he entered Jerusalem and literally turning the tables on the Temple elites was a foretaste of an even more decisive display of God's power later in the week. Stay alert. What happens this week changes the world, and the most surprising reversal of all is on its way.
Thanks be to God!
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