This day is an image of ourselves and of the God who comes as a power so great that resurrection defeats even cruel execution.
The church is called to reckon with paradox on this day: triumph and rejection, death and rebirth. This day is the entrance into the most holy time of year when all the most profound truths of human life are exposed.
Liturgically, this day confuses some pastors and congregations. Every year someone raises the question why we are celebrating both Jesus’ praise-filled entrance into Jerusalem on that donkey with all those palm fronds and then quickly turning to his murder. The answer is the most central truth about our faith: both winning and losing happen all the time together and in that complex journey is where we find Jesus … owning all of it with us while defeating it. Today gives us the image of cheering crowds, glad to have their “savior” entering into the city, and the image of the cruel machinations of the powerful who know their stranglehold on the rabble must be locked in by the exercise of strong and uncompromising contempt.
This story is not a documentary; it is also not a fiction. Instead, it is a proclamation of faith. From it, we receive the face of God in the midst of desolation. It is a face of resignation and deep comprehension. The failings of the people who create this abomination — and that of all victimization in human history — is known intimately by God. Even more vividly, God knows the pain of victims. Those who suffer without rescuers, those who are tormented and never defended, those who are counted as nothing, those who are mocked and tortured — all these are the ones whose lives Jesus takes on himself in this great story.
When we look at the human actions in the longer Gospel reading for today, we see many depictions of normal life, including among others: betrayal, meal preparation, distress over the presence of evil even at a table of friends, deception revealed, boasting, failure to help someone in need, using a kiss to signal its opposite meaning, physical hurt, desertion, an arrest, deviousness, abuse of a beloved teacher, denial of friendship, bitter self-contempt, repentance, suicide, confusion on the part of a political leader, receipt of a prophetic dream, mocking a vulnerable and abused person, murder, and attempting to keep a lid on the zeal of Jesus’ followers. Whew. That’s a lot of treachery for one Sunday.
And it calls for a litany of what God is doing because that is the other side of the coin. The humans are full of plotting, neglect, and finally killing what is good. Unless you look carefully, God, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be doing much. The humans are going about their business without divine power swooshing in to rescue or transform anyone — sort of what people ask about life today. Where is God when things are not going well? Have we been abandoned?
When we ponder this story, however, we find God’s power deeply at work in Jesus. Look at how Jesus is depicted, how the power of the holy one is portrayed. Jesus is either speaking of himself as Son of Man (a title scholars are still working out) or mostly silent. At the meal, Jesus “took his place with the twelve.” He knows, according to Matthew, what is going to happen. He knows his betrayer. His major speech — the one we remember every week — occurs at the table. He tells them the bread they are about to dine on is his body; the wine, his blood. His friends should remember him when they eat together.
This does not sound like the sort of thing a really grand and triumphant god would say. It sounds rather ordinary: the sort of thing we say in our families and friendship circles. Don’t forget me. At the end, he cries out his sorrow. Divine action here is made of the ordinary stuff of life — food and eating together. It points to a power that has taken up residence in the most basic needs of life. Even the most mundane of earthly acts — taking nourishment — is infused with the presence of the holy one. The bread of life is the holy one.
Given such a long Gospel text, preachers have many options for thematic focus. One of those is to explore the power relationships as they play out in the story and in our own time. This can be handled with either the full or the abbreviated reading. The particular context of power is most evident in the shorter version of the Passion story because it crystallizes the negativity by its bookending: 1) The opening zeroes in on Pilate’s questioning while 2) ending with the centurion’s amazed realization that the dead man was not your average rabble-rouser.
By starting with the government representative’s lording-it over Jesus and closing with the high-ranking Roman soldier having seen beyond the cultural dictates, the shorter reading gives the preacher an opportunity to bring in the political role of those who maintain power by drowning out threats to their self-serving status. The fact that Jesus so upset his detractors is a way for the preacher to explore with the assembly what his life, death, and resurrection mean in our own politicized and dangerously unjust time.
Who, for instance, is most threatened today by Jesus’ call to care for children and the poor? Whose politics today support or deny the command to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper? Jesus’ teaching about generosity is frightening to some people. It is easier to ignore inconvenient problems or silence the advocates of justice than to create a just society. This dangerous truth is ripe for Palm/ Passion Sunday.
Above all, this is a day for laying out the crucifixion. This is not yet the resurrection story. Tempting as it is to introduce a triumph at the end, it isn’t there in the reading. It isn’t for today. Don’t rush it.
In recent decades, the business world has begun to use the phrase “servant leadership” to designate one who leads by serving and empowering others, not by accumulating and hoarding power.
Furthermore, some Christians have adopted the phrase within the context of the church and associated this type of leadership most closely with Jesus.
Jesus becomes the model of servant leadership. Indeed, there are many examples of Jesus’ leadership in the Gospels that are worthy of examination and imitation. In fact, during this upcoming Week called Holy Jesus will perform a servant’s act by washing the feet of his disciples.
However, as we begin the last week of Jesus’ life on this Palm/Passion Sunday, our attention turns to another servant found in the book of Isaiah. By selecting this reading from Isaiah for this particular Sunday in the liturgical year, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary compel us to compare (and contrast) Jesus’ own final week with the life of an earlier, prophetic servant.
This servant does not have a name.
In fact, the identity of this servant is greatly debated within Christianity and between Christianity and Judaism. Is it an individual leader such as a prophet? Or does the servant represent the whole community of Israel?
The speaker of Isaiah 50:4-9a, this first-person speech, is likely the servant of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), although the term “servant” is not explicitly named in the passage (although see the following verses, 50:10-11). This servant has received much recent, scholarly attention ever since scholars isolated four poems within this book section that relate to the Servant: Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12.
Many of these passages are familiar to us because of their frequent recitation in churches as well as their use in Handel’s Messiah. The last poem, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, concerns a suffering servant, which early Christians read in light of Jesus.
Attempts to identify specifically the ancient servant during the exilic time period have resulted in speculation about individuals as well as the community. The debate will continue given that one of the poems names Israel explicitly as the servant (49:3), while other poems have a more individualistic tone.
Furthermore, this servant of Second Isaiah seems to have a mission, a purpose within the exiled Israelite community. While it is clear at some points that the servant is to be identified as Israel, it is equally clear in other poems that this servant is to help Israel.
No matter the identity of the servant in the past, we can still learn from his monologue today.
In order to break the passage into appropriate sections, I use the occurrence of the double divine name — Lord God (NRSV). This name is mentioned four times in the passage alongside a verb and the pronoun “me,” creating a nice structure.
verse 4: The Lord GOD gave me a tongue
verses 5-6: The Lord GOD opened to me ears
verses 7-8: But the Lord GOD helps me
verse 9: The Lord GOD helps me
The first two verbs are in the past, while two are in the present. Therefore, the speaker in verses 3-6 speaks of the past actions of God, while verses 7-9 call to mind present divine actions.
The first action recalls the duties and actions of a teacher. First, the servant figure is given the tongue of a teacher, or more literally, the tongue of one who has been taught. The literal translation places more emphasis on the fact that all teachers were first taught themselves; they sat under good teaching in order to become teachers. The receipt of the tongue is for a particular purpose: to speak an encouraging word to the weary. This servant-teacher is called to hearten the disheartened.
The second action moves to another important body part, the ear. God has opened the ears of the servant so that the servant might hear God’s voice. God’s rouses the servant every morning and calls the servant to listen. Then, the servant catalogs plainly the abuse and insults he has received. The link between the openness to hearing God’s voice and the abuse inflicted on the servant is not completely clear. Perhaps the teachings from God were not what the people wanted to hear?
The third and fourth actions occur in the present and represent statements of confidence in God. The servant proclaims that he has no reason to be humiliated — despite the abuse — because God comes to his aid. The mission of the servant has not wavered in light of the public’s negative and violent reaction. The servant appears certain about God’s calling in the previous verses; therefore he feels that vindication by God will come.
In light of the support from God, the servant interweaves three rhetorical questions into his statements of assurance:
Who will contend with me?
Who are my adversaries?
Who will declare me guilty?
The servant taunts these contenders by asking them to confront the servant. Then, the passage ends with the sobering note that these adversaries will wear out like a moth-eaten garment. They will ultimately disappear as they have no clear case against the servant, and the servant has God as his legal counsel and ultimate vindicator.
The servant’s confidence springs from past actions of God in calling the servant and bestowing gifts up him as well as God’s present helping actions in the face of confrontation by enemies. Paul, a Jew living in a time after the Babylonian exile but one steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures including Isaiah, will express this confidence by asking, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Psalm 31 is one of three psalms that appear prominently in the story of Jesus’ passion.
For the Gospel writers this psalm, along with Psalms 22 and 69, seems to have expressed better than any other passages the nature of Jesus’ suffering and his emotional turmoil while being rejected, betrayed, and crucified.
Psalm 31 appears explicitly only one time, in Luke 23:46 when Jesus quotes verse 5a, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But the entire psalm provides appropriate backdrop for Jesus’ passion. The psalm is a prayer by one who suffers unjustly and in that suffering puts complete trust in God.
Psalm 31:9-16 is chosen as a lectionary reading for the Sunday of the Passion, the beginning of Holy Week. It is appropriately paired with Isaiah 50:4-9a, which gives testimony to the suffering of God’s servant. Like the servant in the Isaiah passage, the psalmist in Psalm 31:9-16 reports that he or she trusts completely in God, yet is rejected by the people. This combination of trust and rejection makes the passage well-suited for Passion Sunday.
This section of Psalm 31 begins and ends with petitions for God’s favor and protection. Verse 9 opens with a cry to God to be gracious “for I am in distress.” The word for distress is a general term that may apply to many circumstances. It derives from a verb that means “to bind” or “be restricted.” Thus the noun communicates the idea of being in dire straits, with no possible escape. A form of the same word appears in verse 7 with the sense of “adversities.”
Verses 9b-10 then gives a litany of symptoms of this distress that suggests sickness, depression, and perhaps persecution. This mixture of references is typical of psalms in which the psalmist petitions God for help (see Psalm 6 for a similar mix of images). If the reader desires to know the exact situation of the psalmist such inexact language may be frustrating. But if the reader wishes to identify with the psalmist and to use the words of the psalm to lift his or her circumstances to God in prayer, the openness of the language may be a welcomed feature.
The language of verses 9-10 has in common with other petitions in the Psalms two important features: first, although the language is stereotypical and does not allow a narrow interpretation, all such language seems to complain about death in one way or another. The psalmist is overtaken with the forces of death that rack the body and spirit and allows enemies to have their way. Thus, the psalmist asks God to intervene and transform the situation (“deliver me,” verse 15).
Second, the psalmist seems to assume this is a problem for God and that the very fact of the psalmist’s distress is reason enough for God to act. As Walter Brueggemann says, “the speaker intends to turn his problem into a problem for Yahweh.”1 These two features of the complaint and petition provide grand illustration of the verse Jesus cites on the cross: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
Verses 11-13 draw the plight of the psalmist close to that of the suffering servant of Isaiah. So wretched is the psalmist, “an object of dread” (verse 11) that people on the street run away, just as they “hide their faces” from the despised servant (Isaiah 53:3). But perhaps the psalmist bears closest similarity to the prophet Jeremiah. With “terror all around” (verse 13) the psalmist, like Jeremiah is rejected by many acquaintances and is the victim of vicious plots (Jeremiah 20:3).
The psalmist’s testimony that “I have become like a broken vessel” is like an expression in Jeremiah 22:28. The term translated “broken” means literally “perishing.” Thus, the psalmist complains of having an experience that is supposed to be the experience of the wicked (see the term “perish” in Psalm 1:6; 2:12).2 This was Jeremiah’s complaint as well. More importantly, it was Jesus’ experience that, though he lived faithfully in dependence on God, he was despised and rejected.
In the final portion of the lectionary reading for Passion Sunday (verses 14-16), the psalmist voices complete trust in God despite the dire circumstances. The psalmist declares “trust” in the Lord and declares, “you are my God,” which is to say, “you control my life” (verse 14). Verse 15 uses the word “hand,” which refers to power and authority to describe the locus of the psalmist’s hope. The psalmist acknowledges that he or she has no power to affect the future. This power is God’s alone.
Verse 16 concludes the passage with two petitions that are common in the Psalter. “Let your face shine” evokes the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:25 in which Aaron calls on God’s favor for the Israelites. References to the light of God’s countenance (Psalm 4:6) or the shining of God’s face (Psalm 11:7; 17:15) are common descriptions of God’s favor. Since the Israelites believed they could not literally see God’s face (Exodus 33), this language may refer to the rays of the sun which symbolized God’s protection and care.
The second petition in verse 16 is for God to “save” “in your steadfast love.” “Steadfast love” refers to God’s covenant faithfulness by which God is known (Psalms 90:14; 106:1). Thus the psalmist appeals to God’s character as just and faithful, as one who does not abandon those who rely on him. As Psalm 31 is read on Passion Sunday and in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death, this final petition may be read rightly as the prayer of Jesus, the one who placed his spirit in the protective power of his God (Psalm 31:5).
1 Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Facets; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 31.
2 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV (Ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 801.
Over the past half century, this has been one of the most studied passages in the New Testament, and probably the most examined passage within the Pauline corpus.
While there is a scholarly consensus that aspects of this text reflect an early Christian hymn (a so-called “Christ hymn”), it is important to understand how it functions within two interrelated contexts: the context of the Roman colony of Philippi and the literary/theological context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In the year 42 BCE Philippi was the site of a decisive battle in a Roman civil war. The armies of the Roman senators who had participated in the assassination of Julius Caesar (March 15, 44), led by Brutus and Cassius, were soundly defeated by the armies of those loyal to Caesar, led by Marc Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus. Following the battle, indigenous landowners were deposed and their properties were given to victorious Roman soldiers as a reward for their loyalty and triumph. As a result, Philippi came to have a strong Roman ethos.
This was strengthened a decade later when Octavius defeated Antony (and Cleopatra) in a subsequent Roman civil war as a number of the troops of Octavius received additional land around Philippi. The climax of this shift to a Roman identity for this city in Macedonia came in 27 BCE when the former Octavius but now Caesar Augustus declared the city to be a Roman colony and renamed it Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis. Thus, by the middle of the first century when Paul arrived to the Gospel in Philippi and subsequently wrote his letter to the Philippians who believed in the Gospel, the elite of Philippi are the descendants of Roman military leaders. They are also proud Roman citizens who control the city, its economy, its entire competitive system for social honor, and its robust imperial cult, which regularly celebrated the lordship of Caesar.
With regard to the literary context of this passage, two points are noteworthy. First, through the intentional use of military imagery Paul has called on the Philippians to remain loyal and steadfast to the gospel as they suffer because of Christ, just as he does both in his ministry and his imprisonment (1:27-30; on his imprisonment see 1:12-26). Second, in 2:1-4 Paul is making a vigorous request that his audience live out their faith and participation in the Spirit by being fully unified in love and that they focus not on their own self-interests but the interests of others. Thus, when he comes to 2:5, suffering and selflessness are of primary focus in the minds of his audience.
Verse 2:5 serves as the transition to the Christ hymn. Here Paul is calling on the Philippians to have the same evaluative perspective among and toward themselves as is “in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s phrase “in Christ Jesus” has a twofold thrust. First, it refers to the Christ reality in which Christians live, move, and have their being (see such usage in Galatians 3:28; Philippians 1:1).
Thus, Paul is holding up the shared perspective Christians have because they share the same Christ reality. Second, it refers to the person of Jesus Christ (see such usage in 2 Corinthians 5:19; Philippians 3:3) so that Paul is calling on them to have the same perspective as Christ had. The hymn itself presents and celebrates the perspective and action of Christ as well as the perspective and action of God. In many ways the hymn is a status map as it charts the various stages of Christ’s status. While scholars have proposed numerous structures for the hymn, essentially it has two parts. Philippians 2:6-8 charts Christ’s perspective resulting in his humiliating downward status. Philippians 2:9-11 charts God’s perspective resulting in Christ’s honorable and glorious upward status.
The opening declaration that Christ was in the form of and equal to God (2:6) is not so much a claim of his ontological nature akin to the Nicene Creed. Rather, it is a status claim parallel to imperial claims of Caesar being the form and manifestation of divinity on earth. Paul is presenting an anti-imperial Christological claim to Christians living in a highly charged imperial colony. Unlike Roman rulers, Christ does not use such lofty status as an exploitable advantage to increase his own honor, power, and status.
Just the opposite, Christ demonstrates true divine character as the total renouncement of his status and its privileges as an act of self-abandonment or emptying (2:7a). Compared to such honorable high status as being equal to God, Christ now experiences human existence as slave existence (2:7b). Caesar or other Roman elites would never associate themselves with slave existence.
Christ, however, embraces it out of obedience to God’s plan through which God is in the process of defeating all cosmic and human powers which stand in opposition to God. Christ’s ultimate act of humiliation, obedience, and self-abandonment of status is not just his death, but his death on the cross (2:8). Thus crucifixion, which by Roman standards and actions is the epitome of lack of all status, manifests the true, selfless, divine character of both God, who established the divine plan, and Christ, who enacted it.
God’s exaltation of Christ is depicted and celebrated in 2:9-11. God does not simply exalt Christ as a reward for obediently going the way of the cross. Rather God vindicates the way of the cross as the essential character, action, and attitude of God, Christ, and all who participate in the Christ reality. The name which God now bestows on Christ is not Jesus but Lord.
In the Septuagint, kyrios is the name regularly used to translate the Hebrew words adonai and YHWH. Thus God has now given Jesus Christ God’s own name of Lord so that the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord” is both the saving confession for Christians and the acknowledgement of Christ’s cosmic lordship by all who inhabit all the expanses of creation.
Thus the hymn guts the imperial attitude, actions, and claims of the empire, its counterfeit lord, and its ruling elite (including those of the Roman colony of Philippi). At the same time, the hymn establishes and celebrates the divine political and social reality of selflessness, non-exploitation, and cruciformity reflecting God’s true character in and through Christ. In turn, those who now live in the Christ reality also embody Christ’s own attitude and action of selflessness, non-exploitation, and cruciformity. The hymn thus reveals how God has made the crucified Christ the Lord of the universe, and since Christ is Lord, Caesar cannot be.