Saturday, March 23, 2013

Whose Side Are We On Anyway?

24 March 2013 - Palm Sunday – The Sunday of the Passion : Luke 19-23

Palm Sunday – The Sunday of the Passion. My first thought is that we would be better off reading and hearing chapters 19-23 of Luke as if we were hearing them for the first time so as not to be influenced by earlier impressions and years of interpretation and reinterpretation.

It would probably help to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John side by side. That, of course, would take the better part of a day! But at least we might readily see how each evangelist tells a very different story. This in turn suggests that there is no single, objective telling of this tale, but many tellings and retellings yielding new insights and new meanings for all who take the time to spend time with these sacred texts. If we could go back somehow to hearing Saint Luke’s telling as if for the first time we might notice a few things.

We might notice, for instance, that Jesus’ actual crucifixion takes up only four words in the midst of a longer descriptive sentence (“..there they crucified him…” Lk 23:33), whereas the motif of the mocking of Jesus by Herod and his soldiers, Pilate’s soldiers, by the ever present “crowd,” and even by one of the criminals hanging beside him runs throughout virtually the entire narrative. Suggesting that Luke and other first century believers want us to reflect on the fact that those who held political and religious authority (which in reality was one and the same thing in Jerusalem since the High Priests at the time were political appointments made by Rome), those who represented the God-King Emperor Caesar, those who are mocking are made fools of by their own words and actions since the reader and hearer of these texts knows that the only real King that matters is in fact the very one they are mocking: Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of God (to use Luke’s own favorite name for Jesus).

That is, this confrontation in Jerusalem is not really about an internal religious dispute at all, but rather is a showdown with Caesar’s empire. And the active participants in this showdown really boil down to two: God vs. Caesar who would be god. And the question begged by all the mocking behavior throughout this story is this: Who do you believe is really in charge of things? God or Caesar? (Lk 20:20-26)

Caesar, like Pharaoh before him, represents the powers of domination built into human institutions. What Paul calls the “principalities and powers,” those people and institutions that hold the world in bondage, and whose functionaries have names like Pharaoh, Herod, Pilate Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, Amin … the list is nearly endless. The list might also include institutions such as slavery, colonialism, corporate raiding of resources, industrial pollution, armament industries, banking and mortgage systems, apartheid, and all institutions and systems that deprive the common good of liberty and resources with the necessary armed backing of a militarized government. On Palm Sunday, Jesus begins to challenge the empire so understood.

One way of reading all the mockery in this story would be, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

Another thing we might notice if we were hearing this for the first time is no mention at all of any notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. This comes as a surprise to those of us living in a culture where the loudest Christian voices would assert that this is the Good News. As if Jesus had to die. As if the powers that be could not possibly be moved to change and begin to look out for and care for the whole world and all the people and creatures therein. Jesus’ life and teachings would seem to indicate that his Good News for the poor, the persecuted, the broken and brokenhearted is a vision of God’s love, God’s Shalom, God’s healing and forgiveness made available to all. As if the most basic message of the Gospel is not: “You are created by God, You are a child of God, You are beloved by God, You are accepted by God,”  but rather “You are a sinner and someone had to die and pay for your sins before God could love you and accept you.

As if there is some limit on God’s power to forgive; namely, God can forgive only if adequate contrition and sacrifice is made. As if Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary – not just the consequence of what he was doing – which was renouncing the splitting of the world into warring camps, holy and unholy, clean and unclean, tax payer and tax collector, men and women, Jew and Samaritan, Christians and non-Christians, all the while renouncing the way of armed might to change the world, and advocating a way, God’s way, of unity, the way God intends the world to be.

As if we have already forgotten the lesson of the Prodigal Son, a story in which Jesus himself asserts that no special machinery is necessary for forgiveness. The father is pictured as already heading out to greet and forgive his returning Son before the son can say or do anything.

As if another act of violence is the only way to get God’s attention. As if God’s plan for salvation, the making whole of humankind, requires a death. Jesus did not incarnate God by dying. Jesus was executed by Rome for carrying out God’s will, not because his being crucified was God’s will.

Jesus’ commitment to a vision of God’s world, God’s kingdom, God’s reign, committed him to a struggle for justice, right relationships, and non-violent resistance to the principalities and powers. Jesus shows us how to do justice, how to love kindness and how to walk humbly with our God. Jesus was passionate for God and God’s way. When his disciples attempt to protect him by the sword, actually cutting of the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus shouts out, “No more of this!” No more of this. Do we hear this? Do we want to hear this? His passion is for “No more of this” kind of armed struggle. This is his understanding of God’s will. This passion for God is Jesus’ Passion. Jesus calls us to join him in his passion.

Perhaps we can be helped in this by noting that among the dictionary definitions of the word “passion,” in addition to the traditional understanding of “Christ’s sufferings in Jerusalem,” is this: “Boundless enthusiasm.” And surely we are those people who remember that the word enthusiasm comes from the roots en, meaning “in,” and theos, meaning “God,” literally meaning “inspired by God.

This narrative in Luke asserts that Jesus is boundless enthusiasm incarnate. And that this boundless enthusiasm inevitably leads to a life of God’s compassion, sympathetic concern for the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support or to show mercy.
Jesus’ passion is his passion for God and God’s way, which is a life of compassion, forgiveness and mercy for others, all others.

We do well to remember that the Roman appointed Temple Priests in Jerusalem pictured as presenting Jesus to Pilate held a monopoly on the forgiveness of sin through the system of Temple sacrifice, a system that required money and goods. That is, social and economic status controlled access to God and God’s forgiveness.

Thus, to think of Jesus as a “sacrifice for sin,” as some new testament writers do, is an assertion by those writers that the monopoly in Jerusalem is over. That is the death of Jesus was not God’s will, nor was it in any sense Jesus’ vocation or mission. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, inseparable dimensions of who he is, are a proclamation of radical grace, mercy and forgiveness. Is it any wonder that those in charge of the monopoly on forgiveness wanted him dead?

Lest we feel too good about finding ourselves on his side of this story, however, we will do well to remember that in only a few hundred years after his life, death and resurrection, the church would claim for itself an institutional monopoly on grace and access to God. Leaving us to wonder, can we hear this narrative in such a new way that we can moved to make Jesus’ passion our passion?

In a world increasingly divided against itself, there are countless souls awaiting our response to this central story of our faith that we call The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke. First we must spend time with this story. We must try to hear it as if for the very first time, setting aside all that we have been taught about it, all the traditions that have come to surround it, contain it in an attempt to domesticate it. Who do we believe is really in charge? God or Caesar? Whose side are we on anyway? Amen.

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