Palm Sunday – 9 April 2017

Though we remember with a combined retelling of the passion – the gospel set for today is actually Matthew 26:14—27: It would be good to contemplate Matthews version of events over the next few days. 66. Once again I found the following reflection, from “Seasons of the Spirit” (Mediacom) helpful as I have been preparing for the coming week.

No matter how one slices it or observes it, this is a day of contradictions. Even if one only read the Palm Sunday narrative, it is so steeped in the context of what is to come that we can hardly celebrate it with unbridled joy. For most churches, the celebration of palms at the beginning of worship will give way to a sombre reading of and reflection on the passion of Jesus. Each year we read it in all its grimy and painful details, and read other scriptures that simply help give some historic context. It is a painful and difficult day.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days of earthly life include Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why…?” (27:46). These words, taken from Psalm 22, are more than Jesus’ cry from the cross. These are our words as we encounter Judas’s betrayal, the disciples’ desertion, and the women’s faithful vigil at the cross and the tomb in this reading.

It seems that Matthew portrays Jesus’ twelve disciples in a harshly revealing light. Though Jesus asks them to keep watch with him in prayer (26:36), they fall asleep repeatedly. When Jesus is arrested, they flee into the night (26:56). These disciples are not at the cross, or the tomb as the women disciples keep vigil.

Matthew treats the religious and civil authorities involved in these events in an equally frank manner. Some have judged Matthew and the other gospel writers to be anti–Semitic because of the language they use in the Passion narratives. In Matthew’s account, the problem is not the religious beliefs of the leaders involved – the problem is leaders who are driven by fear and rush to judgment. The difficulties arise because of the choices made by certain leaders.

Pilate chooses to “go along to get along.” Undoubtedly, Matthew’s Jewish readers would have recognized a powerful symbolism in Pilate’s seemingly simple act of washing his hands. According to Deuteronomy 21:1–9, this could have been a way of declaring Jesus’ innocence, but Pilate – through his cowardice – reduces it to something meaningless.

Matthew strives to show how Jesus’ words and life fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the tearing of the temple curtain in 27:51 heralds the end of the old temple system and the saints rising from the tombs in 27:52–53 hearken back to Ezekiel’s dry bones.

Matthew uses several titles for Jesus. “Son of Man” is the title that Jesus uses most often. Jesus is declared to be the “one who comes in the name of God” in the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:1–11. The title “Son of God” is used in the High Priest’s questioning of Jesus (26:63–64). Jesus’ answer – which does not deny this identity – sparks the capital charge of blasphemy. “King” or “Messiah” (christos in Greek, meaning “anointed one”) takes precedence in the trial before Pilate (27:11), because a “king” represented a political threat to Roman authority. “Son of God” is the confession by the Roman guards and centurion (27:54).

In spite of all that death can strip away, God’s people declare with the psalmist in Psalm 31:9–16 that “my times are in your hand.” The acclamation, “The Lord God helps me,” is spoken twice in Isaiah 50:4–9a, a statement of extraordinary trust when made in the midst of insults and physical abuse.

Philippians 2:5–11 declares that Jesus’ death is not a loss of hope. Jesus chooses God’s way over all. Jesus’ life is lived in love and obedience to God.

What does this mean to us? Even though over 2,000 years have passed since the events recounted on this day, for many the story is as real and as present as if it were being reported in real time. On the one hand, these are historic events, but on the other hand, in a very real way they are a description of the life we live each day. How is our world denying and rejecting Christ even today? How are we complicit in that?