Counter the Culture: Palm Sunday 2011

Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118; Philippians 2:1-18; 2 Corinthians 6:2b-10

The next two weeks will deviate from my linear slog through Matthew to consider the traditional readings for Palm Sunday and Easter, prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary. See also, Holy Week: An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis.

Matthew’s retelling of Mark’s story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem offers nothing new.  The story was likely developed in order to actualize the prophecies in Zecharia 9:9 and Psalm 118:26.  That fact does not detract in any way from the integrity of the legend of Jesus’ last week of life.  What does detract from its integrity – indeed the legitimacy  of Jesus’ life – is to transform Jesus into a mage who has somehow conquered death.  He didn’t really die, so we really don’t die either.  Somehow his physical body was transported into heaven, so now – somehow – even though we visit the cemetery or keep Dad’s ashes on the mantle piece (as though “Dad” was still buried in the ground or still watching us from his urn) – we will also be transported into heaven.  We too will “go to be with the Lord,” provided that we agree to believe the story.  Everyone who doesn’t “believe,” will of course “perish,” but whoever does believe will “have eternal life.”  This mistranslation has led to all manner of horror in the history of the world, and has done nothing to further the “kingdom” that Mark’s Jesus proclaimed was already here.
In “Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century April 5, 2011 (pp.22-23), Karoline Lewis suggests that “After five Sundays of Lent and with the expectations of the week ahead, we could use a little revelry, a little pomp and circumstance, on Palm Sunday.”  Her commentary reflects traditional faith – that is belief – that “he is the suffering Messiah, the one who was crucified for me, the one who died for my sins.”  The tradition claims that “[the reign of my King] will not be like the reign that is brought to light this week, and whose glory will conquer that which tries to crucify it.”  These are stirring, heart-felt words, but the focus is on personal salvation from “sin,” not collective transformation; future triumph, not present struggle.

Such “faith” has lost its purpose, its focus, its voice, and its power.  It proclaims hope for tomorrow, not transformation today; it reflects sorrowful acceptance of the way things are, not a commitment to living the promise.  This is personal salvation from hell in the next life, surrounded by an aura of smug certainty in grace for the chosen.  Where is the collective, covenantal, distributive justice-compassion for this life?  Thoughtful, educated, liberal people who care deeply about the condition of the world conclude as a friend recently wrote in an email: “I [see even in present-day progressive Christians] a preoccupation with Jesus that is (to my mind) unjustified.  I do not think Jesus was so great a teacher that he (or the myths around him) should eclipse so strongly the other 10 billion people who lived since then. . . .  The constant reference to him is, essentially, as irrelevant as are the adherents of Freud (or Jung or Einstein or Newton) who cite him or his work in similarly reverential tones as being the best, correct, or last word on a subject.”

It’s not that non-Christian secularists “don’t get it.”  Christians themselves have missed the point almost from the beginning.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan propose in The Last Week (HarperCollins, 2006) that Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives on the east side was a counter-demonstration against the parousia – the “visitation” – of the conquering Roman legions coming into the city from the west.  What is even more subversive is to imagine that the first thing the legions would have encountered was the tombs of the dead and the remains of crucified enemies.  Jesus, who sneaks in on a baby donkey through a hole in the wall, is met by ecstatic crowds of people throwing flowers and waving palm fronds.  The contrast between pompous imperial wealth and impoverished masses graphically portrays the difference between violent political death and non-violent covenantal life

In his blog post for the last Sunday in Lent (Trouble and Transformation), John Shuck writes:

When we read stories of Jesus we are not just reading about the Divine Son of God on one hand, nor an historical person who is a hero on the other. We are reading about a much larger movement for equality and justice that includes the stories of women and men, the marginalized, and the abused and the forgotten. We don’t find them in the texts, but they were there. Like specters they haunt the text. They are there now in our current struggles for equality, justice, peace, and healing. It isn’t just about Jesus, but Jesus as a pointer to a movement of human beings celebrating and transforming oppressive powers into the kingdom of God.

If the Christian church today is to have any collective relevance, the Palm Sunday counter-cultural demonstration has to start with a clear-eyed, fearless reclaiming of what scholars are telling us Jesus and his followers were really about.  In the DVD series Eclipsing Empire produced by Living the Questions, Marcus Borg has the last word; and that word is to have the courage to re-educate ourselves and our children into the non-violent covenant embodied by Jesus and the apostle Paul:

What opposes the radicality of God’s vision for the world is the violent veneer of personal and individual, local and regional, national, and international injustice with which we have steadily and successfully overlaid it.

Borg refers us to Romans 8:19-23, where Paul says that “the whole creation has been moaning with birth pangs till now; and not only creation, but we who have savored the first taste of God’s power also sigh within ourselves while we await our adoption, the release and transformation of our bodies from their earthly limitations and fate.”  Borg’s intention is to lift up the long struggle for distributive justice-compassion that still continues with little relief in sight.  But without developing an explanation of what Paul meant by that, even Borg runs the risk of traditionalists who – like Paul seems to be – are waiting for release into heaven, not acting for justice on earth.  A better selection might be Philippians 2:1-18.  Here Paul says,

I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who . . . did not regard “being like God” [as Cesar did] as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot . . . [You must] demonstrate what your deliverance means with an appropriate sense of apprehension and trepidation, because God is the one who arouses you both to will and to accomplish God’s good purpose. . . . The Authentic Letters of Paul, (Polebridge Press, 2010) p. 186-187 (SV; brackets mine).

In the The Christian Century column mentioned above, Karoline Lewis proposes that the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) gives Jesus an opportunity to explain what his own resurrection means.  She concludes: “We need to hear [Jesus’] interpretation of his resurrection.  Otherwise we may misunderstand Easter.  Easter is our promise of eternal life in the presence of Jesus and the Father; at the same time it is the daily grace of life in Jesus’ abiding presence.”  Professor Lewis eloquently bridges the chasm between the traditionalists who can’t let go of the idea of an eternal afterlife, and the call for a covenantal non-violent distributive justice-compassion (participatory eschatology) from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

There is nothing wrong with having it both ways, as Professor Lewis suggests, so long as the daily struggle for the Kingdom is joined with the same confidence in God’s power that Jesus had.

Look!  The right time is now; see, today is the day of deliverance!  We try to avoid offending anyone in any way so that no fault will be found with our work.  In every way possible we present ourselves as God’s agents – by great endurance, under heavy pressure, in anguish, and in distress . . . with a spirit of integrity and genuine love, by speaking the truth and by God’s power; armed both for offense and defense with the weapons of justice .  2 Corinthians 6:2b-10 (SV p. 129).

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