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Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:
Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11
Passion Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-14, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66

The lectionary offers two sets of readings because Sunday, April 17, may be used to emphasize either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday used to be celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Lent, a week before Palm Sunday. In more recent years it has become collapsed into Palm Sunday. I’m not sure of all the reasons, although some felt that Passion Sunday had taken on a strong anti-Semitic tone.

I see a theme running through much of both sets of scriptures. I’m not sure the title “Victims?” quite catches it. Are we victims? Was Jesus a victim? Overlapping that theme is “humility,” a way of refusing to let others define one as a “victim.”

The readings from both Isaiah 50 and Psalm 31 are the cries of those who feel they are being “victimized.” It probably takes their cries too lightly to associate them with a song by The Bloodhound Gang, “Why is everybody pickin’ on me?” The lyrics get pretty gross so I won’t offer them here, but the sentiment is one probably felt by most kids at some point during their developmental years. “I’m different and everybody is picking on me.”

The Psalmist speaks of being “the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances . . . they plot to take my life.” (Psalm 31:11-13) Through it all, however, he trusts in God. (vs. 14) “My times are in your hand . . . Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” (vss. 15-16) The trust is even more evident in the reading from Isaiah. He submits to the hand that strikes him and does not hide his face from “insult and spitting,” declaring “I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50:6-8)

What do we do about bullies? They’re a menace in the schools, pressing so hard that every now and then someone breaks and strikes back so provocatively that the carnage makes national headlines. Some of the bullies go on into the business world, into sports and politics, etc., pushing, pushing, pushing, to intimidate those who stand in opposition to their efforts to force conformity. Children cry out; teens cry out; women cry out; the poor cry out. Isaiah and the Psalmist speak for all of us. I’m sick and tired and I’m not going to take it any more. How long, O Lord?

If only we could find the level of trust they express. Or does that get us into letting ourselves be defined as victims? “I’m just going to endure whatever is thrown at me.” In a sense that’s what we see in Jesus in Philippians, chapter 2. It’s true that Jesus in the Garden “threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me . . .” (Matthew 26:39) He also cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In general, though, his demeanor in the face of the threat of death was one of humility. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2:8, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Likewise, in Matthew 21, one of the Palm Sunday readings, he is described as “humble, mounted on a donkey . . .” (vs. 5)

The reading from Matthew 21 is the story of what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry.” Some have suggested that it was more “street theater” than regal procession, that there was a mocking tone in what seemed to be cheers. The Gospel writer presents the story as fulfilment of Old Testament prophesy. “The Messiah is here,” but it is obvious this Messiah is not like the conquering hero they were expecting. He is coming in humility.

In Philippians, it is the humility of the divine “being found in human form.” Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Lots of food for thought in that, especially when the instruction of the opening verse is to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 5) Do we face taunts and danger? Are we in danger of being victims? Enter into the situation humbly. It doesn’t, in my book, mean rolling over and accepting whatever comes our way, failing to speak of word against injustice. It means having the dignity that comes from knowing that nothing can define who we are other than the Cosmic Love of which we are an expression, the Love which values us beyond measure and will preserve our selfhood no matter who is picking on us. The Gospel message is that Love is stronger than any oppressive force of this world.

The power of those who would destroy Love comes to focus most clearly in the stories leading up to and including Jesus’ crucifixion. The lectionary for Passion Sunday includes most of two chapters of Matthew, starting with Judas receiving thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. It takes us through Peter’s denial that he knows Jesus, into the Garden where the disciples cannot stay awake while Jesus is praying. We read of his arrest and trials before the Jewish council and Pilate, the Roman authority. He is crucified between two bandits, dies, and is buried. The story is abundant with details that show us his humanity and that of those around him.

The lectionary allows the use of a shorter portion which goes from the trial before Pilate to the burial. My comments will be limited to that reading—Matthew 27:11-54—and even then not in its entirety.

Jesus becomes a case study in the process of designating victims, and in the process of facing one’s accusers. Each character in the story is worth examining. There is Pilate, the governor, who just wants to wash his hands of the matter, to find a compromise everyone can live with. (vs. 24) Is he a little like President Obama, a man of high vision and ideals but seemingly hesitant when faced with hard decisions? How about us? Do we prefer to avoid unpleasant situations where we might have to take a stand?

There is Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross for Jesus. (vs. 32) Thieves are crucified with Jesus. (vs. 38 & 44) Priests and military personnel are participants in the story. (vss. 20, 27, 41, & 54) It would be helpful to hear each speak of his place in the unfolding drama. Why did they do what they did? How did they feel? What was their response to Jesus?

Throughout, Jesus is mocked. (vss. 29-31, 39-43) The soldiers at the foot of the cross play games of chance to see who gets his clothes. Yet Jesus refuses to play the game. He doesn’t get into a raging debate (as opposed to what happens in the halls of Congress). He stands in dignity and humility and trust.

It is a story of rage against innocence. Pilate’s wife sees it clearly and tells her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man . . .” (vs. 19) Why do innocents so often have to pay the price?

When I think about people being picked upon, I see in this story a whole crowd who prefers Barabbas, “a notorious prisoner,” to Jesus. What is there that causes us so often to choose heroes who are less than stellar? Look at the scandalous headlines about entertainment figures. Observe the behavior and listen to the words of politicians who seem always to be seeking media attention. Are we still choosing Barabbas over Jesus? When such people rise to power it seems always to be the innocent who pay the price.

The death of innocence is not the last word. Life has a way of overcoming and bouncing back. I’d never really noticed how the Gospel writer slips a word of resurrection hope even into this dark scene. Darkness descends and the earth shakes (vss. 45 & 51), but at that very moment tombs open and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (vss. 52-53) And those standing there in the middle of the earthquake say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It’s a mystery. It may be hard to see when we’re standing in the darkness, when everybody seems to be picking on us, but there is hope. The crowd may cry out for blood, may try to take away the benefits of the poor, may try to kill the purest of motives, may try to ignore the power of love, but Love continues to make itself felt in quiet dignity and humility. Love cannot be kept down, not can the actions of those who live in humble dignity be ever lost.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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