Palm Sunday: The Human Story
If you have not read the title of this sermon, I’d like to say it with the emphasis I want: “Palm Sunday: The HUMAN Story.” It’s not a conventional Palm Sunday sermon so I need to have you follow it very closely to see where it may be mistaken and where it may make sense. I’ll try to avoid using a single unnecessary sentence, so please start listening from the first and stay with me to the end — and since I realizxe this could be construed as cruel and unusual punishment I have decided to bribe you with a good story I heard years ago from a colleague when I was in St. Louis. I’ve never told it before, and the bargain is: Give me 20 thoughtful minutes in return, and I’ll share it.
The minister was doing his annual live Easter pageant one year and decided to use some people who showed up for casting but weren’t the usual church crowd. One was a huge, burly, barroom-type man from the East St. Louis ghetto who volunteered to play the role of Jesus — certainly rougher-looking than anyone who’d ever done the part before, and at 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds obviously caplable of carrying TWO crosses if he had to. During the procession, one little man who had never done anything like this before got carried away with all the excitement, and in his exuberance stepped up right into the Jesus-actor’s face and screamed, “Crucify him!” He was so wrought up that he unintentionally sprayed the big man’s face with spit….at which point the giant Jesus stopped, scowled, rubbed his free hand over his face, glared at the little guy and said, “I’ll be back to take care of you after the resurrection!” It was not quite what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.” Now….your part of the bargain is to listen to what comes next, so — in the words of Star Trek — “Engage!”
When we look back at our childhood, in which going to church and hearing ser-mons played so large a part, perhaps the most curious thing about it is that the perso-nality we were supposed to worship was never quite real to us. We grew up with a kind of artificial Jesus, a God masquerading as one of us, a pseudo-human whose life started and ended in miracles. The pretty face on the Sunday School card resembled no uncle or cousin we knew, and although the stories of his walking on water and passing through solid walls and raising the dead were exciting, they made him even more remote from the lives lived all around us. We sang “Jesus loves me” in the toddlers class, and by and by we joined the adults in singing “O, how I love Jesus,” but we weren’t quite sure what we meant by the word “love,” because he remained somebody sent down from a distant place called heaven to live out a pre-programmed life, and it was hard — if not impossible — for us to think of him as a bona fide human being. The people we actually loved — our families and friends — were real people whose minds and emotions worked like ours, so that they were surprised or disappointed, afraid or mistaken, but the preacher kept telling us that this Jesus whom we were to love couldn’t make mistakes because he was perfect, couldn’t be surprised because he already knew everything.
It took many years before I broke through the make-believe Jesus to the anguish and beauty of a genuine human life, but it was worth the wait. With help, it finally dawned on me that his temptation in the desert was not a temptation at all unless he could actually yield to it, unless there was a true and exciting possibility that he might make the wrong choice. Obedience has no meaning unless there is a genuine chance that one may be disobedient. But when you talk with some of your friends about this, it’s clear they do not believe that Jesus could have made a wrong choice. He could not do anything but what he did. And in that case there can be no real drama or suspense in the story and he was simply a strange guest on our planet, a divine robot who went through the motions of real life and pretended to be surprised or afraid or ignorant, but was actually none of those human things. To change the metaphor, I would say that as the church fathers wrote about Jesus in the generations after his death, they more and more presented him as one wrapped in a plastic bubble which protected him from any real chance of infection with our failings of flesh and spirit.
We were taught in Sunday School — unfortunately, I think — that he was omniscient, that he knew everything, and we go right on believing this even when he himself denied it. Isn’t it strange that we will not even let him tell the truth about himself? “Why do you call me good – perfect?” he asked one day. “There is only one like that…..God.” And they asked about something one day, something quite important, and he said, “I don’t know. That information belongs to God, not to me.” He was not shamming. He really didn’t know. And there were other things he didn’t know, which made it possible for him to be surprised and disappointed. Disappointment and surprise happen to people who expect one thing and get another….and that points to a lack of perfect knowledge.
We see all these things in the life of Jesus, especially near the end of it. Luke describes a man whose emotions seemed strained to the breaking point as he goes up to Jerusalem for what he guesses may be the last time. I think if we read carefully we see this man pass through a crisis of spirit in which he acts in ways he would not normally have chosen, and then — in one of the most touching episodes of any story in the world — we see him discover a peace of mind so deep that we have never ceased to wonder at it. But first there was emotional crisis — genuine, not counterfeit – and we feel that start to build despite a welcome at the edge of town which the children of the church act out once a year on what we call “Palm Sunday.”
There isn’t much correspondence between what the kids do and what that entry into Jerusalem 2000 years ago was like, but it must be alright to take some liberties with the story because the men who wrote the Gospels did exactly that. Their stories are not all alike. Matthew and Mark tell of great crowds who throw their clothes down in front of the man on the donkey (we call it rolling out the red carpet), and they tell of others who perhaps not having an extra garment — or prudently wishing to keep it clean — cut some branches and use them to make the royal highway. How big were the crowds? Matthew and Mark do not tell us, and in a way typical of many Biblical narratives, they are probably using hyperbole. Because Luke, who claims to have researched the whole business carefully, and who promises to write an accurate account, speaks only of how his discioples spread their garments on the road and shouted for the city to take notice and sang their desperate little song about how the man on the donkey was coming as a king in the name of God.
Frankly, I would guess that version to be nearer the truth. It was probably not much of a crowd at all. Some of the Pharisees, in fact, said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” It doesn’t sound as if they are talking about a wild, cheering multitude of thousands — more like a little band of Galileans, hill-country people, of whom the sophisticated Pharisees can speak contemptuously: “Tell your people to calm down!” So if we follow Luke there may have been only a few pathetic branches and a few ragged coats thrown into the dusty street, and perhaps even that was a form of bravado. How much chance of a new world order could they really expect from a man who rode into town with his legs dangling awkwardly to the ground from the back of a rather foolish-looking little donkey? As for the man himself, we have some evidence of how he felt. He knew he might be riding to his death, and no healthy young man is eager to die, so he admits he is under tremendous strain. Not only because of what might lie ahead for him, but because of what he thought would happen to his people unless he could change them. “You are going to die tragically unless your whole outlook is changed,” he told them (Lk 12), but by this time he sees there is little hope for change. So as he looked at the great white marble temple, transformed into a snow-white miracle of purity by the sunlight, he broke down and wept.
It was not play-acting. It was not the sorrow of a man who in some strange way was unlike us. It was the genuine heartbreak of a man whose kinship with us was as real as the doomed city he looked at. Before they could yet hear him, he spoke of their stubborness. “You did not recognize the moment of God” — those were his words, but the meaning was: “I came with the message that you should stop trying to start a war with the Romans and discover, instead, that you can build in your hearts an inner kingdom of peace and love, a kingdom which offers the only hope you have.” It was anotehr moment, in the long history of such moments, when the way of peace and of non-violence tried to win — and once again it lost. He knew what the loss would mean: that people buying and selling in the markets that very moment, or sleeping in the shade at noon, or fixing supper in their dark little huts — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters — would all be wiped out in one of the most terrible massacres of history. It wasn’t even hard to know that, except for those who were too much in the center of it to read the signs. So he wept — for them, and for their sacred city.
And then, carried along on the high tide of his emotion, he walked into the temple precincts and saw business as usual — business booming, in fact — in the very place where people ought to be changing their priorities, and suddenly it was too much for him. We don’t have a description by the men he frightened, but they would have told their wives that night, “You should have seen this lunatic who came into the temple grounds this morning! He blew up, for some reason, and started flipping our tables upside down, and waving a whip, and yelling: ‘Our Scripture says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”’ Yes, Sarah, he called us thieves! And the money clinked and rattled on the stones, and some of the kids grabbed a few of the coins before this guy wandered off and we got back into business.”
What are we to make of this strange and uncharacteristic behavior? Is this the way of patience and non-violence he has always counselled? Will it work — the anger and the whip and the use of force? Jesus must have known almost before it was over that it wouldn’t, that the money-changing tables would be set back up the moment he turned his back. After all, it was a big religious holiday — like our Christmas or Easter — and the merchants had waited all year for this economic windfall. No hill-country prophet was going to stop them.
Can you accept the idea that by this time Jesus may have been so incredibly on edge that something had to give, that in our language he simply “blew up”? He had already spoken of how nervous he was (Lk. 12) until whatever was in store for him took place , and in that mood the mix of worship and commerce was suddenly more than he could take. Whether or not we think it was smart to buck the System like that, it was at least an intensely human reaction and we understand it. He was unusually touchy just then when his enemies tried to trap him into a fatal mistake. They wanted to know by what authority he taught as he did, and he fired back a question they could not answer without getting themselves into trouble. “We can’t tell,” they mumbled, and he said sharply, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I act!” He sounds reckless, like a man who knows what’s coming and wants to get it over with.
Soon after this he went looking for a quiet place to wrestle in prayer with his feelings. In a little grove of olive trees, he asked a few of his friends to pray while he walked away to be by himself. He was as reluctant to suffer and die as any of us, and Luke says that in his anguish he prayed more and more intensely so that his sweat was like great drops of blood falling to the ground. “If it’s your will, let this not happen to me” — so he begged — but he surrendered by and by to whatever that will would be and came back to where his exhausted friends had fallen asleep. They were barely awake before a midnight posse, led by Judas, came to make the arrest. Jesus chided them a little: “Am I a bandit that you come with swords and clubs? After all, I was with you day after day in the temple, and no one bothered me. But (and you can almost hear the sigh) this is your moment – the hour when darkness reigns.” After the prayers, he is resigned. When a disciple tries to use force, he rebukes him . At the end of it, after the whippings and the game with the crown made of thorns and the bad jokes, he says: “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they are doing.:”
And those words, I submit, sealed the future. We could have forgotten the man who threw over the tables and slashed the air with a whip, because any one of us could have done that, would in fact have felt much relieved to have done it. What we remember, with pride in this our kinsman, is that at the very last he chose love and rejected hate. If he hadn’t — and the choice was his — the great adventure would have ended that week and been forgotten within a single generation. And in that case, next Sunday would be only another day in the week.
Thank you, gracious God, for the life lived like ours that showed how
much nobler our own might be. Amen.