Palm Sunday: Not a Retreat from Life…

Posted: March 24, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday: Not a Retreat from Life…

Today in the Lectionary is a different kind of day. It is the only day in the church calendar where we can celebrate two different events. Today we are given a choice to celebrate either: The Liturgy of the Branches (Palm Sunday), or The Liturgy of the Passion (Passion Sunday). On no other Sunday does a similar system of choice prevail.

Over recent years I have found myself choosing the liturgy of the branches choice because of a growing disquiet with the violence of the Passion story. For me this violent crucifixion of a person has contributed to a world of fear driven responses to reality as opposed to an approach based in the energy of love and loving which for me is what Jesus was encouraging hos people to embrace against the violence of Rome and its peace based on victory approach to life. I make no apology for not wanting to focus on the death of Jesus as it leads to an atonement doctrinal position that does not align with a loving God who would sacrifice a beautiful created being to prove a point. And so, most of my comments today will be in sympathy with and support of that theme. This doesn’t mean that the liturgy of the Passion has nothing to say but rather what it says is more about human experience than about Jesus’ message.

The first thing to note is that the story from our religious tradition called Palm Sunday is a remarkable fictional story full of contradictions. It’s a story about a moral hero without an ending. This might suggest that the story is about the beginning of something new and not yet complete. It’s a story set around a Jewish religious festival which celebrates liberation, even as the people are prisoners of Roman imperialism. This suggests that History repeats itself and that while the obvious is before us we often can’t see it. It’s today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The earliest writing, we have considered as a gospel of Jesus the Christ.

When we get into the detail, we find there are the ‘geographical’ inconsistencies in this story. The branches can hardly be palm branches since palm trees are not common in Jerusalem. And if we use modern jargon from the media world, there is the ‘beat up’ which the Jesus Movement gave this story. Remember that many of us believe that Jesus did not set out to start a movement let alone a church. And that story has to start somewhere. In our story every devoted pilgrim who entered Jerusalem during the main religious festivals, was greeted with a similar salutation, as our tradition says, was given to Jesus. As I have indicated in previous Palm Sunday sermons the ‘real’ procession would have already happened when the Roman Prefect who governed Palestine arrived “to make sure that the celebration remained focused on the past, not the present or future.” (Patterson 2004/28) The clanking of steel on steel and the sound of leather creaking and groaning and the sound of hooves and armour intimidating the hearer with sounds of might and power and force and violence over the foolish clip clop of the ass on the stones. The story of the palms begins with the ordinariness of the preparation for the so-called ‘triumphal entry’ and the great enthusiasm of the people, which ends up coming to nothing. Here is my argument for a weak theology of God as opposed to an almighty victorious one. At the top of our liturgy there is the image of Christmas that has the infant Jesus as symbol of the weak divine. An authentic faith based not upon an almighty supernatural God but rather on the subjectivity and fragility of the human species that with language and mind creates the vision of reality that we live within.

And we note also that there are the many differences about this story as told by the other storytellers Matthew, Luke and John. A problem for us is that we have heard these stories so often, or been hoodwinked by the likes of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, that we now usually combine all of them together into one big Palm Sunday story, forgetting the uniqueness of each. For instance, in Mark there is no weeping over Jerusalem. The idea of a destruction of Jerusalem or its place in the lives of Hebrew people was not contemplated. That’s in another story. A story which Mark probably didn’t even know. Only Mark mentions the ‘procession’ going to the entrance of the city. And only Mark says Jesus went alone into Jerusalem and into the temple, not to occupy it,
not to cleanse it, but to check it out. And then to leave it and the city, retiring with the Twelve to Bethany.

Yet the early Jesus Movement in general, and Mark and his small group in particular,
saw something in this story which was important for them.

It seems that they might have found Mark hinting at bits of Hebrew teaching; that he was suggesting Jesus was the promised Messiah; and that Jesus was not just a spectator or visitor, but was really in control of things. He had a bigger picture that had all the parts connecting.

All these things would probably have ‘rung bells’, as we say, with Mark’s so-called branch of the Jesus Movement. But we need to be aware that we are not so sure they would ‘ring bells’ for us!

Stephen Patterson is a biblical scholar and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose book
Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus which talks about this. In it, Patterson suggests that to understand the stories around the death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday, the other bit of the bookend called Palm Sunday, we must first have some realistic idea of what happened to Jesus. And that can be difficult for Christians.
Because, as mentioned earlier, we have heard the story read time and again from pulpit bibles in the smallest of churches to the greatest of cathedrals. And we have seen the events portrayed in Hollywood films, Sunday School pageants and bedtime story books.

The story plot is similar in all: Jesus comes to Jerusalem to challenge his enemies. His enemies are the chief priests and scribes who have all along plotted his demise, Jesus deliberately plays right into their hands, because he knows his fate before-hand. He is betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, crucified and after three days rises from the dead.

As Patterson reminds us, the common perception is: “It is all part of God’s plan to save us from our sins…  Thus… in this mixture of text and tradition, the death of Jesus is not a calamity, or even a surprise.  It is the result of a well-executed, successful plan to create what we know today as the Christian religion.” (Patterson 2004: 5)

So developed a significant change in what we now call theology. And that change was away from the events surrounding a particular person: in whose company others came to experience God, who said and did certain things, and who stood for something so important, he was willing to give his life for… Away from real human events, to  an abstract mythic event “connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life… (all part) of a great cosmic battle with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the evil one.” (Patterson 2004:127-28)

Likewise, when later writers and storytellers talked about the ‘passion’ of Jesus, they always understood it as ‘passion’ equals ‘suffering’. And so, in the second set of readings in our Revised Common Lectionary also set down for today, the planners do just that.

But that particular understanding has now been seriously challenged. From passion as ‘suffering’, to passion as “consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment.” (Borg & Crossan 2006)

And Jesus’ passion as we have also heard many, many times, was “the kingdom of God declared in terms of God’s justice… and the fact that such declaration was seen, despite Jesus’ nonviolence, as a threat to the system of domination by Rome and its wealthy Jewish collaborators, led to his suffering.” (Olson 2006 ALA/Amazon review)

Palm Sunday at one end, and Good Friday at the other end, reminds us life is not an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world. Here again is the support for a weak theology as opposed to a mighty one and for the claim that God does not exist but rather insists. We as humans exists while God insists, or calls into being that which is our reality.

Jesus, who is human as we are, and Jesus who is a ‘gateway to God’ (Spong), confronts and submits to the worst human beings can do, in order to remain faithful to a vision, a passion, of what the best human beings can be.

This Palm Sunday may we once again reaffirm that religion is not a retreat from life
where we ponder the things not of this world… Religion in general, and Palm Sunday in particular, enables us, with insight and wisdom and power, to meet courageously and creatively the current issues of our ordinary, everyday living. And to carry with us into that everyday living what is precious: reverence for all life, beauty that displays itself in love, and deep, abiding peace. Amen.

Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

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