Passion/Palm Sunday

April 17, 2011
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
Lenten Benedictions/Commissioning/Blessings

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter III

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 50.4-9a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2.5-11
Reading 4: 
Matthew 21.1-11, Matthew 26.14-27.66 or Matthew 27.11-54
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 31.9-16
By David J. Lull

What was Jesus’ journey toward “Holy Week” like? A traditional answer, perhaps the most popular, is that it was a journey toward the death God intended him to die “for us”: the journey of a “dead man walking,” so to speak. Some Christians find hope in that scenario. However, it does not speak to many in our churches, as well as to many who have left our churches, who cannot make sense of it, or find it offensive. For some, mostly women, this scenario lends support to those who have abused them. By valorizing suffering and death as Jesus’ divinely ordained mission, the church has made suffering the lot God portions out to all of us, but especially to the abused and to those who are subject to economic and political injustice. [See, e.g., Barbara E. Reid, Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations Through Latina and Feminist Eyes (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).]

I sympathize with those who dissent from this traditional interpretation of Jesus’ story. The Gospels also testify against it. Jesus’ journey toward “Holy Week” was his mission—his “first passion,” so to speak—to proclaim God’s justice “on earth as in heaven”! Let’s focus on that during Holy Week. Let Holy Week be a time to lament how the injustice of nations and abusers continues to wreak havoc in the world. Let Holy Week be a time to celebrate how God’s justice continues to break through the world’s systems of injustice.

Liturgy of the Palms Focal Theme:
The psalmist and the people lining the streets as Jesus entered Jerusalem did not put their confidence in “princes.” God, in God’s “steadfast love,” had delivered the people in the past. So, now they prayed to God: “Save us,” which in Hebrew is “Hosanna!”

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29
This psalm reflects back on God’s deliverance of the people of Israel at times of national crisis: the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt and the return of Judeans from exile in Babylon. The remembrance of God’s past acts of “steadfast love” gave them hope that God’s love “endures forever” in a post-exilic age, when the people of Israel lived under the continued domination of “the nations.” Their thanksgiving looked both back on the past and forward toward the future. They believed that God had shown God’s “steadfast love” during the nation’s past, and trusted that God would continue to show God’s love in the future.
This psalm envisions the coming of a future king (“messiah”) who suffers humiliation before his vindication. On his arrival, priests will open the temple’s gates—the gates of God’s “righteousness” or, better, “saving justice” (Steussy, Psalms, 183). The “righteous” or “just” king, priests, and the gathered assembly offer their thanks to God and pray for God’s continued deliverance from injustice. Their prayerful thanksgiving and requests to God for God’s help is a witness to the persistence of human need, and to the trust that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.”

wo verses of this psalm are quoted in the New Testament. Verse 22 is cited in “the parable of the wicked tenants” (Mt 21.42; Mk 12.10; Lk 20.17) and in Acts 4.11 and 1 Pet 2.7. This verse is part of the psalm where the king recounts his experience of humiliation before his vindication by God. For Jesus’ storytellers, this psalm’s pattern of humiliation and vindication offered a framework for their interpretation of Jesus death and resurrection as a sign of God’s continued “steadfast love.”

Verse 26 is cited in narratives of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21.9; Mk 11.9; Jn 12.13) and in Jesus’ “lament over Jerusalem” (Mt 23.39 and Lk 13.35). The royal overtones of Psa 118.26, placed in the narrative of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, clearly signals a critique of pinning one’s trust and hope in imperial rulers. Preceding the quotation of Psa 118.26 in Mk 11.9 and Mt 21.9, Jesus is identified with King David and his kingdom, and Mk 11.10 and Mt 21.15 repeat that identification. Immediately after Jn 12.13 quotes Psa 118.26, Jesus is identified at “the king of Israel.” Luke 19.38 also links this verse of the psalm with Jesus’ identity as a “king.”

These readings of Psa 118.26 are consistent with the messianic interpretation of this psalm at the time of Jesus and the Gospels. It is also one of the psalms sung after the Passover Meal. Its message is clearly that God’s preferential care—“steadfast love”—is for those who suffer injustice.  The psalmist and the people lining the streets as Jesus entered Jerusalem did not put their confidence in “princes” (see Psa 118.3-18). God, in God’s “steadfast love,” had delivered the people in the past. So, now they prayed to God: “Save us,” which in Hebrew is “Hosanna!” [Psa 118.25; Mt 21.9, 15; Mk 11.9-10; Jn 12.13]

For some interpreters, the use of this psalm in the New Testament means that the psalmist foretold—prophesied—the coming of Jesus. I think that gets it backwards. The New Testament writers proclaimed that God acted for the deliverance of all people in, with, and through Jesus’ faithfulness in life and death, just as God acted for the deliverance of Israel’s ancestors from slavery in Egypt and Judeans from exile in Babylon. They interpreted the story of Jesus as a decisive event in the history of God’s everlasting “steadfast love.”

Matthew 21.1-11
It is fitting that the season of Lent ends with the joy and hope of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The first day of Holy Week used to be called Palm Sunday. Recently, many churches have renamed it “Passion Sunday.” I can understand some practical reasons for this change. Since many Christians will not participate in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Passion Saturday services, churches have to front-load the story of Jesus’ “passion” on the Sunday before Easter. Otherwise, many Christians will hear only about the victory of Jesus’ resurrection without any of his suffering and death. Another reason for this change is that, as a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a Liturgy of the Palms is in danger of being cut off from his suffering and death. Nevertheless, I propose that Christians need to meet Jesus on Palm Sunday “again for the first time”! For it is there where Jesus appears as a “dead man walking,” not because God wanted him to be killed “for us,” but because his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was a parody of the Romans’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was an anti-war demonstration, a challenge to imperial injustice, a proclamation of God’s justice “on earth as in heaven”!

The Passover Festival was coming soon. Pilgrims were streaming into Jerusalem. Its message of liberation from slavery has proven to be provocative in Palestine under foreign occupation. To keep peace during Passover, Roman armies entered Jerusalem in a show of force, parading the military might of the empire. The Gospels picture Jesus entering the city with anti-military and anti-imperial symbols. Following the imagery of Zech 9.9 literally, Matthew has Jesus ride into Jerusalem, mounted rodeo-style on two steeds, a donkey and a colt. The message is clear: Jesus is the fulfillment of scripture’s promise of a humble, anti-war “king!” The imperial army proclaimed the divine right of the Caesars to rule the world. Jesus proclaimed God is ruler of the world.

The story just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem illustrates the kind of ruler of the world God is. God rules with Jesus’ healing touch, giving sight to the blind (20.29-34). Whether this story is about restoring physical eyesight or about inspiring spiritual insight and vision, its portrayal of God’s rule of the world is radically different from the imperial rule of the Caesars. For the Caesars ruled the world through economic and military domination.

In the story right after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Jesus protests the use of the temple to harbor robbers of the poor and Zealots (21.12-16). The Greek term lēstēs translated “robbers” also means “insurgents” or “Zealots.” Josephus, in his history of the Jewish revolt, written at the same time as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, blamed temple authorities for turning the temple into a hideout for Zealots/insurgents during the ill-fated Judean revolt against Roman occupation. So, let the Liturgy of the Palms focus on Jesus’ witness to God’s anti-war and anti-imperial peace and justice “on earth as in heaven.”

In this part of the story, Jesus is surrounded by “crowds” showing their support—indeed, adulation—for Jesus’ witness to God’s anti-war and anti-imperial peace and justice. Churches need to be reminded that at this critical moment, “crowds” of Jews from Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora welcomed and praised Jesus for his message and witness. It has taken the Roman Catholic Church 2000 years, in a recent statement by the current Pope, to denounce the casting of Jews as “killers of Christ.” The Liturgy of the Palms can be an occasion for churches to ask forgiveness for the unfaithful and tragic history of Christian antipathy toward Jews.

In Matthew’s “Passion Narrative,” Jesus’ religious opponents are temple authorities (21.15-16). Their freedom to maintain law and order in Jerusalem depended on the benevolence of the Roman imperial authorities. As was their practice in every province within the empire, the Roman imperial authorities depended on these local temple officers to maintain law and order. If they failed, Roman imperial armies would step in with brutal force, as they did in response to the Judean revolt of 66-70 c.e. So, it’s not enough to point out that Jesus’ Jewish opponents were a small minority in Jerusalem, though that helps. We also need to point out that they were doing what they needed to do to maintain law and order and to keep Roman imperial armies from stepping in to nip a potential insurgency in the bud. Failure to do so might well have meant a blood-bath. We could speculate that temple authorities might have overlooked alternative courses of action, and that they might have misjudged the threat Jesus posed to social order and stability, but faults of that kind do not make even the officers of the Jewish temple “Christ killers.” Instead of continuing the Christian blame-game, let the Liturgy of the Palms conform its message to Jesus’ witness to God’s justice as love toward all, including all Jews.

Nevertheless, because of the events that come next, the Liturgy of the Palms must also acknowledge the opposition God’s anti-war and anti-imperial peace and justice faces from powerful social, economic, and political forces, and powerful religious and political people. Jesus’ story represents all who witness to God’s anti-war and anti-imperial peace and justice in the face of strong opposition. So, don’t let the presence of children the next scene in the temple (21.15-16) fool you. The Liturgy of the Palms is not a time for waving palm branches with an air of easy, child-like celebration. It should be a time for serious awareness of the cost of conforming the church’s ministry and mission to Jesus’ anti-war and anti-imperial witness.

Liturgy of the Passion Focal Theme:
Second Isaiah’s “Third Servant Song” is an example of faithfulness to God in the face of humiliation, suffering, and death. The Psalm focuses on faithful trust in God in the face of injustice, suffering, and death, and God’s faithfulness as deliverer of people in distress. Paul’s “hymn” praises Jesus’ faithful service to God even to the point of his death on a cross. In the Gospel reading, we see that steadfast faithfulness to God’s justice on earth is not for the weak-willed, nor for those who put their trust in “princes” or those whose idols are wealth, social status, or nation. Jesus’ story and stories of Israel’s prophets warn us that those who serve God’s justice on earth need to expect stiff opposition. Jesus’ faithfulness shows the way, and is the way, to “be strong”: Love and trust in God!

Isaiah 50.4-9a
Second Isaiah’s “Third Servant Song” reflects either the time of exile in Babylon or the time of return and restoration of Israel and its temple in Jerusalem following the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at the hands of the Persians during the reign of Cyrus the Great. This “song” is flanked at the beginning and end with words of judgment addressed to the disobedient people of Israel. In verses 1-3, “the servant” confronts the children of Zion: it was because of their sins that God punished their “mother,” Zion with its temple (compare Gal 4.21-31, where Paul claims “the Jerusalem above” as “our mother,” instead of “the present Jerusalem”). Verses 10-11 are again addressed to the community: to be “the light of the nations,” they are to turn from their disobedience and conform to the servant’s example of faithful service to God, or face God’s judgment.

The focus of the “the servant song” in between these rebukes is the faithfulness of God’s “servant”: God “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught… and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (verses 4-5). And, “The Lord God helps me; …therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; God who vindicates me is near…. It is the Lord God who helps me” (verses 7-9).

This “song” is a “servant’s” self-portrait as an idealized individual who represents the newly restored Israel, or at least the Israel the returnees from exile are to become: namely, a “light to the nations” (Isa 46.2 and 49.6). Their “light” is to be their faithfulness to the God of Israel in the face of ongoing humiliation, afflictions, and even death. Faithfulness in the face of ongoing humiliation, afflictions, and even death—not their humiliation, suffering, and death alone—is the way Israel will be “the light of the nations.” Empires seek to “transform” other nations through military and economic violence, injustice, and domination. The “servant’s” resistance to oppressors, in contrast, is non-violent: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). The “servant” of Isaiah testifies to the people of Israel and its leaders as well as to “the nations” that the God of Israel desires and seeks to transform “the nations” by the witness and example of Israel’s faithful servanthood to their God.

As the first reading in the “Liturgy of the Passion,” this “servant song” is one way to interpret Jesus’ faithfulness in his life up to and during his arrest and trials. His “passion” was to be a faithful servant of God, even in the face of humiliation, suffering, and death. It was through his faithfulness in the midst of humiliation, suffering, and death that Jesus witnessed to God’s desire, not for humiliation, suffering, and death, but for faithful servants! Jesus’ faithfulness in the midst of humiliation, suffering, and death confounded the imperial authorities and makes him “the light to nations.”

Psalm 31.9-16
These verses are at the center of this psalm, which opens with the servant’s prayer for help based on the trusting faith that God is faithful to God’s character as a protector and deliverer (verses 1-5). The servant—representing King David, or a king or “servant” like him—continues to proclaim trusting faith in God’s character as “steadfast love” (verses 6-8). We then hear a distressed servant turn to God, confident that God will respond out of God’s “gracious” character (verses 9-13). The cause(s) of the servant’s distress are unclear. The psalm’s imagery suggests a national crisis, focusing on plots against the servant (see verse 21), but the imagery is also representative of human need in the face of injustice, suffering, and death. A reaffirmation of the servant’s trust that God is “my God” (verse 14) launches another statement of confidence that God’s “steadfast love” will “save” God’s servant (verses 15-18). The psalm ends with the servant’s encouragement to all God’s “saints” to follow the servant’s example by loving God and being “strong,” trusting God to protect “the faithful” (verses 19-24).

The psalm’s twofold focus on the servant’s faithful trust in God in the midst of plots against the servant and God’s faithfulness to be the servant’s protector suggests a possible interpretation of the faithfulness of Jesus and of God leading up to and during Jesus’s arrest, trials, and crucifixion. Like the servant of this psalm, Jesus remained faithful in his trust in God’s “steadfast love” (compare Psa 31.5 and Lk 23.46, in contrast to Mk 15.34 and Mt 27.46). God’s faithfulness to protect God’s servant becomes clear, however, only on Easter Sunday. As Marti Steussy points out, “Unlike the psalmist, who commits his spirit to God in confidence of being saved from experiencing death, Jesus finds deliverance on the other side of death—he is not sheltered from human plots” (Steussy, Psalms, 92). On this side of death, and up to the point of his death on a cross, Jesus embodies the psalmist’s ideal of strong, steadfast, faithfulness.

Philippians 2.5-11
[The following comments reflect the wave of studies of Paul in the context of the Roman Empire, and in the context of more contemporary empires. See David J. Lull, “Paul and Empire: A Review Essay,” Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.]
Phil 2.5-11 is a parody of the apotheosis of the Caesars. The Roman Senate declared Caesar Augustus a god. Successive Caesars, as his descendants, called themselves, or were called, sons of a god. Most were declared a god after their deaths. The Emperor Claudius, who is reputed to have banished Jews from Rome, was proclaimed a god by his successor, Nero, and the Senate immediately upon his death in October of 54 c.e., in what some think was the result of an assassination plot to put Nero on the throne. Nero, the Roman Emperor during Paul’s missionary journeys and martyrdom, was called a son of a god during his lifetime and was declared a god upon his death (a suicide). According to Roman imperial theology, the gods granted the Romans imperial rule over the world because of the Caesars’ superior virtue and piety (“righteousness” and “faith”). What audacity!

The theology of the Philippians “hymn” contrasts radically with this imperial theology. This Christ is the opposite of the Caesars. Instead of exploiting his divine status, he gives it up. Instead of ruling as the “first citizen” (princeps), as the emperor was called, he became an obedient slave, and even died the death of slave on a Roman cross. The apotheosis of this crucified slave was God’s own act, not an act of any human council. The Caesars sought to keep law and order with violence, but God made this Jesus, crucified by Caesar’s representatives, the Lord of the universe, so that all deities and creatures, even the Caesars, might come to recognize Jesus’ lordship. Whereas the Caesars ruled through domination and violence, Jesus’ lordship is one of solidarity with the least. In fact, God identified with the crucified Jesus, not with tyrants. This “Christ-hymn” shows that Jesus’ “first passion,” we might say his “Lenten passion,” and God’s passion, was not suffering and death, but solidarity with the least, to the point of death, even death on a cross. God exalts Jesus above all others, not alone because of his death on a cross, but because of his faithfulness in his life for others, even to the point of death.

Paul’s hymn praising Jesus’ faithfulness has been perverted by those who think they have found in it God’s will and desire that Jesus die. But what would Jesus’ dying prove or accomplish unless it showed his faithfulness to serving God’s solidarity with the least, who also suffer? What would be the point of having in mind—being conformed to—Jesus’ alleged will and desire to die? What a twisted notion of “righteousness”! To be conformed to (to “have in mind”) Jesus’ faithful service to God’s solidarity with the least—now, that’s something to live, and even, die for!

Matthew 26.14-27.66 or Matthew 27.11-54
Two interpretations of Jesus’ “passion” as his “journey to the cross,” embedded in tradition, are such unfaithful betrayals of the gospel that we must call them out (compare Cobb et al., Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus). The first is that God willed, or even caused, Jesus to die on a cross. The second is a corollary of the first: namely, that faithfully following Jesus’ “journey to the cross” means accepting suffering as one’s God-given destiny. These interpretations are distortions of the gospel, whose message is that Jesus bears witness—through faithfulness in serving God’s justice among the sick, the poor and other outcasts—that God’s justice on earth is love. Imperial powers thought that crucifixion would discredit Jesus’ steadfast faithfulness to God’s justice on earth. Instead, based on their experiences of Jesus’ “resurrection appearances,” Jesus’ disciples eventually believed that God had vindicated Jesus’ faithfulness. That empowered them to take up his faithfulness to God’s justice for the sick, the poor and other outcasts. Before that, however, stories of Jesus’ disciples’ “betrayal” and desertion and of the imperial powers’ determination to execute Jesus bring into sharp focus Jesus’ steadfast faithfulness to serving God’s justice (“kingdom”) on earth.

Steadfast faithfulness to God’s justice on earth is not for the weak-willed, nor for those who put their trust in “princes” or those whose idols are wealth, social status, or nation. Jesus’ story and stories of Israel’s prophets warn us that those who serve God’s justice on earth need to expect stiff opposition. Jesus’ faithfulness shows the way, and is the way, to “be strong”: Love and trust in God!

We also have to call out the anti-Jewish tradition running through the history of Christianity, and is still heard in churches today (compare Pregeant, Matthew, 160-64). This anti-Jewish tradition developed as early Christians interpreted stories about Jesus’ “opponents” in the Gospels at a time of Jewish redefinition and of emerging Christian self-definition. Originally, Jesus’ followers were a small, persecuted minority among much larger rival Jewish groups. Today, the situation is reversed: Jews are the persecuted minority. To be silent about the gospels’ hostile portrayal of Pharisees has had, and continues to have, tragic consequences. It also denies churches the opportunity, not only to set the record straight, but also to regain an appreciation for Judaism in its many historic and current forms, and for the “family” relationship Christianity has with Judaism. One way to recover that appreciation is to name the hostile portrait of the Pharisees for what it is: polemical, rhetorical fiction.

The Gospel of Matthew, like the other Gospels, was written at a time when, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exodus of many Judeans into the diaspora, Judaism was undergoing reinvention. Local synagogues were increasingly replacing the temple—and Jerusalem itself—as the primary location of Jewish “sacred space.” Pharisees increasingly were surpassing temple-oriented Sadducees as leaders in this process of redefining Judaism, so that the teachings of scripture and the traditions of the “elders” were increasingly moving to the center of Judaism. These changes were being wrought in the context of heated debates and rivalries among competing Jewish groups. Followers of Jesus were among the rival groups making their voices heard. In this polemical context, as Jesus’ followers wrote gospels, they denounced rival voices and proclaimed God’s choice of Jesus as God’s representative.

Jesus’ opponents in the gospels are stereotypical characters. Of course, for Matthew they were stereotypical Jewish characters. We can, and must, let this Gospel say the awful things it says about stock Jewish characters, but we do not have to like what it says or agree with it. As we think about how to apply what this Gospel says to our own contexts today, we are free to universalize, or re-particularize, its cardboard characters to fit our contexts. Interpreters do that all the time when they ask readers to “look for yourself” in the narratives. So, we can ask, “Who are today’s opponents of Jesus?” You can name ways individuals, churches, and nations—including our churches, our nation, and us—oppose Jesus’ witness to God’s justice as love for enemies as well as for all neighbors.

Another common misconception in interpretations of Jesus’ opponents is the view that Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a victorious military messiah who would liberate Jews from Roman occupation of Palestine. That might have been one form of messianic expectation at that time, but it was not the only one, and might not have been the most popular one. Others, like the “son of man” from Daniel 7 and the peaceable king of Zechariah, were less militaristic and nationalistic. These too were every bit as Jewish as the other expressions of messianism. Casting Jesus in the image of non-militaristic and non-nationalistic messiahs, as an advocate for God’s justice for the poor and other marginalized people, is as much a prophetic critique of militarism and nationalism today as it was in Jesus’ day.

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.