OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 50: 4-9 (Passion A)
Chapters 40-55 of the book that we know as Isaiah probably address a time late in the Babylonian exile, when the prophet proclaims that God wants the people to return to Jerusalem. Keep in mind, though, that it has been years since the beginning of the exile. Most of the older generation, those who remember the way it was before, are gone. The next generation had created a new life here. They were settled, comfortable, and many had established themselves and even grown their wealth. And now they’re being asked to return to a city that is in complete desolation. There is nothing there. There was really nothing to which they could return.
This passage is known as the third of the Servant Songs, declaring what the task of the servant should be. The servant speaks straight after God has made the claims that he has the power to deliver Israel from their unfaithfulness. In contradiction to the unfaithful and unhearing Israel, the servant declares that he is obedient and listens to the Lord. The servant is totally confident that God is with him despite all those who have been actively opposed to his ministry and the consequent adversity. This supreme confidence in the presence of God allows the servant to face any future adversity. The call of the servant is to make sense of what happened so that the people will again hear and return to faithfulness. There is a lot here about both teaching and hearing. They go together.
The prophet or servant has been faithful in teaching what has been transmitted to him and that teaching will sustain the weary. In spite of the fact that many insist that this is a precursor passage to the Christ event, we have no clear answers about the identity of the servant in Isaiah 40-55 and can only wonder if his message was so unpopular that he suffered because of it. Certainly other prophets, such as Jeremiah, suffered. His suffering and response is depicted in a different way – Jeremiah gets angry with God and wants his adversaries punished. Many Biblical scholars claim that the servant is the embodiment of Israel herself, both the land and the people; in other words, the servant is indicative of any servant of God (including, then, us). I like that characterization. It compels us to enter the story. But, in entering it, the servant, the people, in fact, WE, are called to confront the evil and suffering of the world rather than dismiss it as not “of God”. It is to these parts of Creation that we are called to help bring redemption and new life. We are not promised that it will be easy, but YHWH stands with us.
As we are celebrating this Palm / Passion Sunday, there is no doubt that we can identify Jesus with the words of the Isaiah 50:4-9 in which Jesus has had to face and will face his tormentors. He sets his face towards Jerusalem, riding in with the knowledge that the crowds could easily be fickle. Jesus has relied on God to sustain him and he continues to rely on the help of God. But even in the face of adversaries, God sustains him. It is not that God “fixes” it, but rather walks with us through it.
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) What vision of the future does that give for your own life?
3) How often do we really believe this or do we assume that God will “fix” it? What is the difference for our faith?
4) If you interpret the servant as the embodiment of all servants of God, what does that mean for you?
NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 2: 5-11 (Passion A)
On the surface, being of the “same mind” as Jesus would mean to be like Jesus, or to think like Jesus. But it means more than that. It is a call, rather, to enter the very essence that is Jesus. It is a call to pattern our lives after Christ. It appears here that “being in the form of God” may be opposite from “being in the form of a slave”. Essentially, Jesus emptied himself and became dependent upon God, fully surrendered, a servant of God. He became fully human. He surrendered self-advancement and instead became fully human, fully made in God’s image.
This passage is the story of salvation in three parts—emptying and incarnation, obedience and death, exaltation and resurrection. Jesus sees his equality with God not as Lordship to be used over others, but as an offering for others. We are to have the same mind of Christ the humbled, Christ the crucified, rather than the crucifiers. We are to, once again, walk through shame and suffering knowing that the Lord is with us. And we are to do it with a rhythm that is unfamiliar to the world.
Our main problem is that surrender is really pretty foreign to us. We tend to equate it with losing and we never want to do that in our world of win-win. The notion of “surrender” is uncomfortable for us. Literally, it means to give up one’s self, to resign or yield to another. It could even mean to suffer. That is against our grain. That doesn’t fit in with our dreams of pursuing security and success. That doesn’t reconcile with a society driven by competition and power and “getting ahead”. Surrender…doesn’t that mean to lose control? What will happen then?
Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote that “what God requires of the soul is the essence of self-surrender…[and] what the soul desires to do is done as in the sight of God.” The 18th century mystic understood that one’s physical being and one’s spiritual being, indeed one’s body and one’s soul, could not be separated. The two were interminably intertwined and, then, the essence and status of one affected the other directly.
So what does that mean? We sing the old song “I Surrender All” with all of the harmonic gesture we can muster. And we truly do want to surrender to God—as long as we can hold on to the grain of our own individualism, to that which we think makes us who we are. But de Caussade is claiming that it is our soul that truly makes us who we are and that in order to be whole, our soul desires God with all of its being. So, in all truth, that must mean that most of us live our lives with a certain dissonance between our physical and spiritual being. We want to be with God. We love God. We need God. But total surrender? But that is what our soul desires and in order for there to be that harmony in our lives, our physical beings must follow suit.
Lent teaches us that. This season of emptying, of fasting, of stripping away those things that separate us from God, this season of turning around is the season that teaches us how to finally listen to our soul. It is the season that teaches us that surrendering to God is not out of weakness or last resignation, but out of desire for God and the realization that it is there that we belong. In an article entitled “Moving From Solitude to Community to Ministry”, Henri Nouwen tells the story of a river:
The little river said, “I can become a big river.” It worked hard, but there was a big rock. The river said, “I’m going to get around this rock.” The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock. Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall. Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through. The growing river said, “I can do it. I can push it. I am not going to let down for anything.” Then there was an enormous forest. The river said, “I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.” And the river did. The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down. The river said, “I’m going to go through this desert.” But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river. The river said, “Oh, no. I’m going to do it. I’m going to get myself through this desert.” But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool. Then the river heard a voice from above: “Just surrender. Let me lift you up. Let me take over.” The river said, “Here I am.” The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud. He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and made the fields far away fruitful and rich.
There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves. But there is the voice that comes, “Let go. Surrender. I will make you fruitful. Yes, trust me. Give yourself to me.”
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What, for you, does it mean to assume the mind of Jesus?
3) What does it mean to surrender to God? Why is that so difficult for us?
4) What does this passage say to you about humility?
5) What does this passage say to you about power?
GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 1-11 (Palms A)
It is interesting that over half of this story is about getting the mode of transportation—where to go to find the animal, what to do, what to say. You can imagine what the disciples were thinking. For this we left our fishing nets? Surely they imagined a grander assignment. But this seems to be an important thing in every account of this story. Perhaps it is a reminder that sometimes following Jesus means doing mundane tasks that, alone, do not seem important, but in the grand scheme of things, are paramount to the story. There is some significance, though, to the idea of him riding a colt that has never been ridden. (Similar to coming into the world through a virgin womb.) Jesus is different. It has never been done this way before.
Here, though, Jesus is in the bustling capital city. He is no longer in the villages and open country of his home. The celebratory parade is also a protest march. The disciples should have known what was happening. Jesus had already laid it out for them. But they still did not comprehend what he had said. At this moment Jesus begins the sharp descent down the Mt. of Olives, winding his way toward Jerusalem. The road is a steep decline into the Garden of Gethsemane and then begins to ascend toward Mt. Moriah and the place of the temple.
At this moment, the crowd sees him as a king, as one who will get them out of where they are. So this is a parade that befits a king. “Hosanna”, “the Coming One”, the one who restores Jerusalem. He enters. This is the moment. This is it. What they didn’t recognize is that Jesus brought them something that they had never had before—peace, truth, justice, and love. What they didn’t recognize is that Jesus had indeed come to restore them not to what was but to what should’ve been all along.
This part of the story is not JUST a celebration, though. Although Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday was victorious, it had overtones which pointed to the suffering to come. If he entered through the East gate, which is the presumption, that is the gate through which it was prophesied that the Messiah would enter, and so laid himself open to charges of blasphemy. The rumblings of what would come next were all around them. That is why in our modern-day liturgy, this day has evolved into “Palm/Passion Sunday”. It is not a mere celebration; it is the beginning of what is to come. That is a true and faithful readings of the Gospel texts. The writers knew that these “Hosanna’s” would quickly turn to accusations, a trial, and crucifixion.
Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan suggest there was not only a procession from the Mount of Olives on the east that day, but also a Roman procession entering from the west, which would have had as a focal point the Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. The juxtaposition of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast. One came as an expression of empire and military occupation whose goal was to make sure oppressed people did not find deliverance. It approached the city using horses, brandishing weapons, proclaiming the power of empire. The other procession was quite a contrast, using a donkey and laying down cloaks and branches along the road. The one who was coming in the name of the Lord quietly, but profoundly, proclaimed the peaceful reign of God. Their contention is that our whole Palm Sunday “celebration”, as we call it, was a parody of the world we know, a satirical reminder that we are different.
The miracle of the Red Sea,” the rabbis taught, “is not the parting of the waters. The miracle of the Red Sea is that with a wall of water on each side of him, the first Jew walked through.” The implications are clear: God is not in this alone. Yes, God may be all-powerful and eternally unfailing, but that’s not the point. The real key to the coming of the reign of God on earth, the rabbis imply, is not God’s fidelity. The real determinant between what ought to be and what will be in this world is the mettle of our own unflagging faith that the God who leads us to a point of holy wakefulness stays with us through it to the end. The key to what happens on earth does not lie in God’s will. All God can do is part the waters. It lies in the courage we bring to the parting of them. It lies in deciding whether or not we will walk through the parting waters of our own lives today. Just as surely as there was need for courage at the Red Sea, just as surely as there was need for courage on Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem, there is need for it here and now, as well.
The Waters part all around us, too, now. The road to Jerusalem is clear. We are surrounded by situations that have solutions without solvers with the political will to resolve them: The old cannot afford their prescriptions. The young have no food. The middle-aged work two jobs and slip silently into poverty whatever their efforts. The globe turns warmer and more vulnerable by the day. Species disappear. The unborn are unwanted. The born are uncared for. Racism, sexism and homophobia destroy families and poison relationships. The mighty buy more guns. The powerful pay fewer taxes. The national infrastructure slips into disrepair. Fundamentalist groups and governments everywhere seek to suppress opposition, to deny questions, to resist change, to block development. We are all on the road to Jerusalem again; some of us dedicated to restoring a long lost past; others committed to creating a better future.
It takes no special vision to see what is happening. We have an entirely new worldview to integrate into our spiritual lives. The cosmos is different now. The globe is different now. The unthinkable is thinkable now. What takes vision is to realize that this is the same Jerusalem over which Jesus wept. This is the great society that has forgotten the widow and the orphan, that enthrones the Pharisee and stones the prophets, that speaks of morality while it institutionalizes the immoral. We decry violence and practice it. We talk about equality and deny it. We practice religion and forget the gospel.
The honest answer, the smart answer, is “Not me.” And many people say it. They walk away and abandon the church to its incestuous self where only those remain who profit from the structures or who dabble in the structures for whatever social or personal placebo it might afford. They leave the political system and ignore the elections. They flee the tough conversations in the family and the office in the name of “nice.” They say they have “no time for politics” and “no interest in the church.” They drop out on the way to Jerusalem.
But there are those others who keep on shouting, who keep on telling the story even to those with no ears to hear. Over and over again they cry out. But is it worth it? And does it work? Did the disciples on the road to Jerusalem make any difference at all? Well, look at it this way: It got our attention, didn’t it?
So whose turn is it to cry out this time? (Sr. Joan Chittister, “The Road to Jerusalem is Clear: Meditations on Lent”, National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001, available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_22_37/ai_72960610/?tag=content;col1, accessed 24 March, 2010.)
1) What meaning does this hold for you?
2) Where would you have been in the parade?
3) What does Palm Sunday mean for you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. (Bishop Desmond Tutu)
Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.(Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C.)
Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be equally outraged by silence. (Henri-Frederic Amiel, 19th cent.)
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in. (Edward Markham)
We’re good at planning! Give us a task force and a project and we’re off and running! No trouble at all! Going to the village and finding the colt, even negotiating with the owners is right down our alley. And how we love a parade! In a frenzy of celebration we gladly focus on Jesus and generously throw our coats and palms in his path. And we can shout praise loudly enough to make the Pharisees complain. It’s all so good!
It’s between parades that we don’t do we well. From Sunday to Sunday we forget our hosannas. Between parades the stones will have to shout because we don’t. (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.), 69)
Lord, forgive. Amen.
Just a reminder that I’m posting a reflection daily during the Season of Lent on http://dancingtogod.com/. Some of the reflections are related to the Lectionary passages for the week.
Grace and Peace,