Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year A

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Liturgy of the Palms: Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2,19-29

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the climax of his public ministry. As Matthew reports the event, ancient expectations are fulfilled in very specific details.  Only Matthew's narrative says that these details fulfill exactly the words of "the prophet"--(Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9).

This is a thanksgiving psalm sung at the beginning of a liturgy including animal sacrifice in the Temple. Bind the sacrifice to the altar.

The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Matthew 26:14-27:66 [or 27:11-54]

In a time of doubt, despair and cynicism, one stands up to speak "that I may sustain the weary with a word." Despite rejection, the speaker knows his words can renew and restore, because that has been the result in the past and can be again in the present.

The psalmist is so distraught by the treatment of his enemies, he feels it in his eyes, belly and throat.  He has become an outcast among friends and family.  His enemies have plotted to take his life.  Yet, "I trust in you, O Lord/My life is in Your hands."

Variations among the gospel writers in the passion narratives confirm themes undertaken throughout their respective versions. Matthew's variations highlight several key points: Jesus attracted friends and enemies; the friends could be fickle and the enemies ruthless; "the Jews" were more vehement enemies than the Roman occupiers; just as non-Jews played a crucial role in saving the infant Jesus when the Magi heeded a dream, so the Gentile wife of Pilate accepts the innocence of Jesus because of a dream;  although he could have avoided his fate at any point, Jesus yielded to those who were out to get him; despite all the efforts of his enemies, his memory could not be buried.  Also in Matthew's narrative, the actions of Peter and Judas as well as the disciples as a group is more poignant and tragic.  The actions of Judas shadow Ahitophel's betrayal of David , which also led to his suicide by hanging.  At precisely the same time the trial of Jesus is underway, Peter nearby is denying he even knows "the man."  In Matthew's sequence, the disciples have already acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, making their desertion even more poignant.  Only in Matthew is there an earthquake at the time of Jesus' death.  Roman soldiers are placed at the tomb of Jesus, so Matthew can promise there were no overnight ploys, as he claims "the Jews" rumored.

At various critical times in their history, a lone leader emerged who used words to recall God's past faithfulness and to inspire hope in God's future action among his Chosen People. This excerpt from Isaiah, read just before the Passion Narrative, is a powerful introduction that raises expectations that the re-telling of the rejection, suffering and death of Jesus will re-engage those who hear it once again. 

Paul Ricoeur  wrote that the scriptures tell the stories of others so that we can see ourselves in them and confront certain unavoidable decisions anew. Dan Stiver summarized some of Ricoeur's important insights in Theology after Ricoeur.  Stiver writes regarding "the testimony given by another:"  There is the side of interpreting the testimony and also the side of relating it to oneself..." (p.198)  This knowledge/self-knowledge is not just a matter of 'belief', it is "an embodied epistemology," which Stiver takes from Ricoeur to mean "our thinking is incarnate, that is a bodily action...."  "...[S]ometimes we have the best insights when we are most passionate, not least."  (p.203)  "Ricoeur sees," so writes Stiver, that we cannot avoid some outlook on life, but it is not knowledge that can be guaranteed by some method or foundation, a la the modernist ethos; rather it a risk we must take that we back with our lives." (p.205)

Cowardice, betrayal, sorrow, regret, remorse, politics, religion, violence, despair, the temptation to surrender to cynicism are all present in the haunting story. Reading/listening/participating in this story, we take a chance that we will be caught up in it.  We take the risk that we will see ourselves.  We take the risk that we will see God's love at work to woo us home.  We take the risk that we will see that it is more than the tragic story of the wrongful execution of an innocent man.  It is the testimony of One-- in words and actions-- to the love of God.  And we make a decision, not just with our heads, but with out total being.  All this is "a risk that we back with our lives."