Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sixth Sunday in Lent - Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

One reason I rarely watch any of the major news broadcasts is the obsession with the foibles of individuals who, because of their role in politics, entertainment, or justice, the media labeled a celebrity (1.  a famous or well known person -via dictionary.com). Regardless of the impact that a celebrity’s personal mistake will have beyond themselves, the story [given the constraints of a broadcast/publishing schedule and the ability to tell it concisely] drives what then gets presented. The story becomes much more compelling when the fall comes after a rapid rise. I can only imagine the breaking news coverage that would have followed Jesus during the final days of his earthly ministry.

Sunday: Leading Messianic Contender Barnstorms Jerusalem
Monday: Revered Religious Teacher Terrorizes Temple
Tuesday: Embattled “Savior” Goes on the Offensive
Wednesday: Missing Messiah - Where is Jesus?
Thursday: Prophet Celebrates Passover with Closest Advisors
Friday: Crowds Call for Traitor’s Execution
Saturday: Activist’s Movement in Shambles
Sunday: Where’s the Body? New Theories Point to “Supernatural” Involvement

It does not take two thousand years to realize that a celebrity’s infidelity will leave little trace on the progress of humanity. Nevertheless, we benefit from the millenia of hindsight in our consideration of the events in Holy Week and how they have shaped Christianity and the impacted the world as we know it. Even as we understand the global transformations experienced from the force of the events one insight becomes clear: our human nature remains unchanged. Today’s Scriptures begin Holy Week with the first extreme response of the week as Jerusalem welcomes this man labeled with heroic titles by some and considered villainous by others.

Jerusalem represented  the greatest challenge for Jesus’s ministry. As the religious capital of the Jewish world and was home to the Pharisees and Sadducees who almost universally opposed the ministry of Jesus and who held remarkable influence over the daily lives of the people. Entering the city provided access to an audience who had heard the stories of the great ___________. Each audience had their own title to fill in the blank and each one threatened the religious leadership. Although the ruling class opposed all that Jesus did, they feared the vast populist support he garnered from the community. The jubilation of the masses and incorporation of festival rites in the triumphal entry could only have increased those fears and the urgency to eliminate the threat.

On Palm Sunday we often focus on the jubilation of the throng, waving palm fronds, declaring, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” and shouting, “hosanna.” We have associated them for so long with celebration that their origins in Jewish worship ceremonies. Palm fronds along with branches of olive trees and myrtle bushes were used in some festival processions in keeping with the law. The phrase, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” is also used in festival chants. Hosannah is one translation of a cry of the people for the Lord to save for deliver them. No doubt the people were celebratory when Jesus came into town as they had heard of his healing and expansive teaching which contrasted the message of Temple leadership and its focus on law and enforcement that limited almost every aspect of life.

The enthusiasm of the people likely heightened the concern of the religious leadership who were constantly stymied by his wisdom and understanding. Their academic and theological concentration on interpretation of the law into a definite and inflexible set of codes which governed virtually every aspect of life probably made the appropriation of  ceremony/festival rites into Jesus’s arrival something more than they could tolerate. They could not identify the source of his education because he was not taught in their schools and their schools were the only ones, yet they could not stump him. He had power to perform miracles they never possessed. Now that his followers treated his arrival in Jerusalem like an official festival gave Jesus a degree of legitimacy, at least as the governing bodies perceived the situation, the officials had to act.

The exact same situations happen today. Voices that bring a new or deeper understanding to the faith tend to be ignored or disregarded as long as they remain in the wilderness. When they come to church, though, they are a threat to be silenced at all cost because they threaten the teaching the elders have presented as God-given, immutable, understanding of his Word. One phrase found in both passages brings to light the danger of outright rejection of a teaching/understanding of Scripture different than the one learned in church or seminary: “one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Matthew took that title as a name for the messiah. The Jews chanting the line at a festival procession would have understood it to me a highly restrictive group of individuals selected by God to be his spokesperson, namely the chief priest, prophets, and the patriarchs. The individual called by God to deliver a message is obligated to deliver that message (think Jonah - fled because he didn't want Nineveh to be saved, yet ended up delivering the message). A message delivered in the name of the Lord will not go unheard.

Likewise, those who come in the name of the Lord are not allow to deliver their own message, but only what God commands. The leaders in Jesus’s time had good reason to be skeptical of anyone making spiritual waves. Individuals appeared from time to time claiming to be messiah. False prophets delivered powerful messages - but not from God. The same thing happens with false messengers today and we must carefully consider the different teachings we receive from any source claiming to be from God.

Jesus’s actions and teachings through Holy Week carry their own meaning yet have foundations deep in the history of our religious practice. Those actions and teachings, though holy and delivered by one coming not only in the name of the Lord, but as the Lord, still inspired the same reactions in religious leaders as new teachings inspire today. This Holy Week as we learn from Jesus’s final lessons on earth, let us open our own understanding to ideas different than the ones we have heard before as we test them for the blessing of God.