Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.
Luke 19:28-40; Luke 22:14-23:56; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11 (Readings from Year C)
Palm Sunday is also known as “Passion Sunday.” The minister has the choice of concentrating on Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, hailed as a conquering hero by the fickle crowds (the “Liturgy of the Palms”), or telling the entire “passion” story. The Abingdon Press edition of The Revised Common Lectionary of 1992 (RCL) admonishes worship planners that “whenever possible, the whole passion narrative should be read.” As a result, the liturgy on Palm Sunday can run the dizzying gamut from adulatory parade to Pilate’s death sentence in an hour.
In Year C, the RCL offers for consideration Luke’s descriptions of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and Pilate’s decision to grant the demand of the crowd and sentence Jesus to death, along with a portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The traditional view of both the Jerusalem procession and Philippians 2:9-11 is that this is the imperial Christ triumphant. “Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (NRSV).
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Jesus’s “entrance into Jerusalem” on a donkey during the festival of Passover is a parody of Pilate’s procession into the city at the same time. Jesus’s “peasant procession” came from the east, down the Mount of Olives. Pilate’s “military procession” came from the west, in a show of force for law and order. (See The Last Week, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006). While they base their study on the Gospel of Mark, Luke’s Gospel uses Mark, but adds details. A very telling detail – never read if the RCL is followed – is Jesus weeping over the consequences that will arise because of the inability of the people to recognize their visitation from God and the “things that make for peace” (Luke 19:41-44). The Palm Sunday parade is a political protest. If Borg and Crossan are also correct in their theory that Luke’s birth story was meant as a counter to the birth stories told about Cesar Augustus (see The First Christmas, Harper SanFrancisco, 2007), then Luke’s gospel appears to be threaded (albeit subtly) by subversive imagery.
In addition, as these commentaries have suggested, based on Jesus Seminar scholarship, Paul’s theology is not one of domination, but of transformation; not of violence and political victory, but of non-violent justice-compassion. Despite the use to which these verses in Philippians 2:9-11 have been put throughout Christian history, the Apostle Paul was not establishing Jesus as the new commander-in-chief of the military might of the known and unknown universe. The hymn was probably not written by Paul. Instead it is probably one of the earliest used by followers of Jesus’s Way, and quoted by Paul.
The portion of the hymn to the Christ that Paul quotes may be seen to fulfill Isaiah’s expectation of deliverance from injustice. It is an ecstatic, mystical declaration that the Emperors of Rome, living and dead, who declared themselves and their ancestors to be “god” and “son of god” and even “very god of very gods” would have to acknowledge that Jesus’ name was above even theirs. Jesus was the one chosen by God to be the one to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, in place of the Emperor’s retributive justice. In place of law, the Christ establishes radical fairness. The servant of God gives up the power associated with the usual systems of imperial civilization (See Luke 4:1-13) The servant of God is not interested in pay-back or retribution, nor in reward and glorification. The servant of God works with God to establish God’s distributive justice-compassion. The servant does the work for the glory of God, and is vindicated, delivered from injustice and death.
Luke’s scene where Pilate condemns Jesus to torture and death, along with Philippians 2:7-8 (Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” – NRSV) has been interpreted to mean that Jesus agreed to submit to the orders of a violently vengeful god and to accept the death penalty on behalf of sinful humanity. Without that payment, humanity cannot be saved from hell. This is the “ransom theory of the atonement.” It is the earliest of the atonement theories, probably beginning with the writer of Mark’s gospel in the 60s to 70s C.E. Since the 12th Century, St. Anselm’s substitutionary atonement has defined the death of Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, is perhaps the penultimate illustration of that theology. God required that Jesus not only die in our place, but should suffer in order to pay for the sin humanity inherited from Adam and Eve. The greater the sin, the greater the vicarious suffering, the greater Jesus’s love for us.
But the first part of the hymn to the Christ is about neither ransom nor substitution. It is about personal kenosis – the act of disregarding petty human desires, and defeating the temptation to revel in being the equal of God. “[A]lthough he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot” (Scholar’s Version, forthcoming October 2010. For more information contact the Westar Institute).
Because Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the words of that hymn might be seen as a kind of midrash – a retelling or reframing of that portion of sacred story. As the hymn restates the nature of the ultimate servant of God, the suffering servant described by Isaiah becomes the suffering messiah, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (NRSV). The servant is obedient to God’s law of justice-compassion to the point of death on a cross – the ultimate symbol of imperial law and order. “That is why God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others . . .” (Scholars Version).
Isaiah 50 is not some kind of foretelling of the fate of the future Jesus. It is a model for those who would teach the nature of God. “Morning by morning [God] wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” sings Isaiah. When we let go of self-interest – ego survival – we “think in the same way that the Anointed, Jesus, did . . .” (SV). We think and act kenotically in a constant, evolving struggle of spirit for justice-compassion against the normalcy of civilization. The “suffering servant” trusts God’s vindication, that God will prove the servant to be right in the end: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word . . . God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious. . . . I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . . Who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment.”
The cherry–picking of Paul’s writings, which are scattered throughout all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, means that the Palm Sunday verses from Philippians are separated from the context in which Paul wrote them. When that happens, Christians can easily ignore or dismiss the action that is called for in 2:1-5, just before the hymn to the Christ. Paul urges the community in Philippi to have this same kenotic mind that Jesus had: “regard others as better than yourselves. . . . look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (NRSV) With those words, Paul invites the 1st Century Philippians (and anyone in the 21st Century) to a radical abandonment of self-interest. Paul is talking about creating the realm of God on earth. In such a realm, greed has no place, and debt has no power. Creating such a realm requires the kind of obedience that comes from total commitment to distributive justice-compassion, which can (and often does) lead to death at the hands of imperial systems.
Later in the letter (3:8-9) Paul writes “Indeed, I now regard everything as worthless in light of the incomparable value of realizing that the Anointed, Jesus, is my lord. Because of him I wrote off all of those assets and now regard them as worth no more than rubbish so that I can gain the incomparable asset of the Anointed and be found in solidarity with him, no longer having an integrity of my own making based on performing the requirements of religious law, but now having the integrity endorsed by God, the integrity of an absolute confidence in and reliance upon God like that of the Anointed, Jesus. This integrity is endorsed by God and is based on such unconditional trust in God” (SV). Here is the basis for kenosis at all levels:
• a kenotic foreign policy – in which crushing debt carried by nations such as Haiti is summarily dismissed;
• kenotic business practice – in which profits are secondary to safety, reliability, and sustainability; where debt is not leveraged in order to amass fortunes that seduce others into debt they cannot afford;
• kenotic management – in which suggestions for improvement, or whistle-blowing corruption are valued;
• kenotic relationships – in which the well-being of the other is foremost.
In the 21st Century CE, some are calling for punishment of the speculators and managers who seem to be responsible for the global financial melt-down of 2008-10. Others are holding individual people responsible for making poor choices, or for not having the good sense to avoid the deal that seemed too good to be true. But this is pious revenge. If justice is distributive, there is no need for punishment beyond the consequences already befalling all of us who are caught in the system.
Luke’s Jesus weeps over the inability of the people to recognize the coming of the kingdom, and the consequences that will result from that inability. Christians today are too busy getting ready for the Easter Bunny. We don’t want to hear how our failure to keep the promises we made during Lent to give up chocolate or stop smoking somehow make us personally responsible for the death of the Son of God two thousand years ago. Somewhere deep in our post–modern brains, we know that just isn’t true. But what is true is that as soon as we abandon justice-compassion, or ignore the consequences of our actions that lead to unjust systems, we are caught in the powerful currents that propel civilizations into empires. This is not an indictment of human nature, as John Dominic Crossan is careful to make clear. Empire can happen when people begin to organize themselves into societies, but the good news is that Empire is not necessarily inevitable. If we truly turn from our destructive, unjust habits, the old patterns will not be repeated. Sign onto the Covenant. Pick up your Blackberry and start making sustainable deals that ensure that no part of the interdependent web of life on this Planet is compromised. That is the promise and the hope of Palm Sunday. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.