Lectionary Commentaries for March 16, 2008
Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 27:11-54

Arland J. Hultgren

The Passion Narratives in the four gospels are similar to one another in major respects. They share in common the following major events: Jesus’ arrest, his arraignment before officials of the Sanhedrin on Thursday evening, his trial before Pilate on Friday morning, his suffering, and his death. Beyond those things in common, there are distinctive features of each account.

Here is a listing of those things that are distinctive to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.

1. The innocence of Jesus is highlighted (with details not in his source, Mark): Pilate’s wife calls him righteous (27:19); Pilate finds no fault, washes his hands (27:24).

2. The deceit of accusers is stressed: The Sanhedrin sought false testimony (26:59).

3. The chief priests and elders seek Jesus’ death (26:3-4; 27:1), and they influence the crowd (27:20-22). Judas conspires with them (26:15). The crowd accepts guilt for Jesus’ death (27:25).

4. The passion and death of Jesus is according to the divine plan. Jesus accepts it as God’s obedient Son. He does not seek to run from it, but goes willingly to the cross. He is in control of the situation, and trusts in God: (1) Matthew has a fourth passion saying (26:2; Mark has three); (2) Jesus says that his time (Greek: kairos) is at hand (26:18); (3) his prayer in Gethsemane is one of submission to God’s will (26:39, 42; at Mark 14:35-36 there is a more emphatic prayer for deliverance); (4) though he could be rescued by angels, the Scriptures must be fulfilled (26:52-54); (5) at his death he “yielded up his spirit” to God (27:50; Mark 15:37, he “expired”); (6) all happens that “the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (26:56); and (7) all unfolds as a drama that has an ending (Greek: telos, 26:58).

5. Matthew inserts the title “Son of God” into the passion narrative (26:63; 27:40, 43), which is not in Mark’s account.

6. The death of Jesus marks the end of the age, and so there is a (symbolic) proleptic resurrection of the dead (27:51b-54).

7. An Easter apologetic is included. Matthew introduces guards at the tomb (27:62-66) to prove that the Jewish rumor (that the disciples stole the body) is false.

Matthew’s account portrays Jesus as a regal figure, a king who suffers and dies for his people. His purpose in coming into the world was to save his people from their sins (1:21). He carries out his role as the obedient Son of God, innocent of any wrong; yet he is crucified.

His crucifixion has to do with his saving work, the forgiveness of sins. In his ministry he forgave sins (9:2). He assures the forgiveness of sins to those who pray his prayer (6:12) and partake of his supper (26:28). He gives to his people (the church) authority to forgive sins on earth in his name (9:6-8; 16:19; 18:18). He can do this because he has all authority in heaven and earth (28:18).

When speaking about the death of Jesus, it is important to say that it was not necessary for God to take this path, even though some theories of the atonement have insisted that it was, saying that the Son had to satisfy the wrath of God.

Instead of that, it is simply the case that the way of the cross was the way God chose to demonstrate his saving grace. Christ’s passion was not a matter of satisfying the justice of God for us, but a matter of God’s own entry into our world, the human condition, to show his saving work (the forgiveness of sins) in the ministry of Jesus, and in Jesus’ continuing ministry through the church.

Preaching on the Sunday of the Passion is a formidable task. For many in the congregation, it is primarily Palm Sunday, a kind of prelude to the glory of Easter. The Messiah comes triumphantly into the holy city. Moreover, the Gospel lesson is lengthy. At first glance, it seems too long for anyone to read and others to hear. But the story is immensely powerful and should be read on this day.

In terms of theological and homiletical concerns, there are several ways to go. Here are some possibilities.

We can ask two different questions today: “Why was Jesus killed?” and “Why did Jesus die?” The answers are quite different. If we ask the first, we find that the Gospel for the day is quite clear and helpful. In fact, it is more helpful in answering the first question than it is for the second. People colluded to have Jesus killed. The most certain fact we have about Jesus as a historical person is that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, just as we say in the Apostles’ Creed. Even though he had no intentions of being an earthly king, some people thought that that was what he wanted to be. The title on the cross says it all: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37). As such, his crucifixion was a political act by the Roman government. If Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews (which Pilate does not actually think, but others in power do), that was treasonous, requiring his death.

The other question is, “Why did Jesus die?” That is another, more profound question for us. The answer is more difficult to explain. But basic to it is the idea that God sent his Son into this world to reveal what God himself is like. He is a God of love, grace, and reconciliation. He is a God who seeks to have fellowship with us. He sent his Son among us, first of all, to live, teach, preach, and gather disciples. But he sent him among us also to give his life for us. Jesus took upon himself the sentence and punishment due to us for our sinfulness. This may sound cruel, but it is the way that God has worked. It is a good news/bad news story, just like life itself. Bad news, because Jesus died in our place. Good news, because Jesus died in our place. We are now set free.

The story of Jesus’ passion and death remains central to our understanding of God and of Christ. The cross has become our main symbol. We understand Jesus not simply as a great teacher or as the glorious Lord of Easter. We think of him too as the crucified Christ, who gives his life for humanity. And the way we think of Christ is important for our own lives. Jesus Christ calls us to be his disciples, taking up the cross, dying to our own selves, our selfishness, in order that we might look out upon the world to serve it. We are not called upon to do anything that Christ has not done. His death for us and for humanity is sufficient. But we are set free from the consequences of sin to serve others in the world.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Fred Gaiser

“God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” says the prophet–something, no doubt, all preachers would like to claim.

If they do, though, they should pay attention also to the next line: God “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” The preacher/prophet must first be a listener: to God, to God’s word, to God’s people, to God’s world. Then good things can happen.

The traditional Servant Songs of Second Isaiah, of which our text is the third, provide a powerful biblical witness to what is going on behind and in the suffering of God’s servants, and thus in the death of Jesus. But before joining the debate about whether the servant is Jesus or someone in the prophet’s own time, other questions should interest the preacher: What is God’s work in the book of Isaiah, who is invited to do it, and what will it cost?

If we accept the naive reading of the text (as I do)–that when authors speak of “I,” they are speaking of themselves–then these words describe our prophet. Certainly, they speak of a prophetic office (involving at the outset the “tongue of a teacher” and the comfort of God’s “word”). More, they follow close on the previous Servant Song (49:1-7), which in genre is clearly a prophetic call narrative. So, whoever else might be God’s servant in these chapters, the descriptions are in part at least autobiographical. The prophet knows whereof he speaks, for he speaks of his own experience. And his experience is both jarring and encouraging: the hearers resist (at least some of them), but God is faithful.

Why the resistance? After all, the word the prophet speaks is “comfort” (40:1), spoken to “sustain the weary.” But apparently not everyone is prepared to hear the good news of release from captivity. Why? Despair? Unbelief? Investment in the status quo? Commitment to the new gods of the culture? A developing party spirit among the exiles? We cannot be sure, but we see here another example of the rejection of God’s word–whether of judgment or of promise–and most of the possible reasons then apply equally well now. They deserve to be addressed by today’s preachers.

Isaiah 40-55 announces God’s use of Cyrus the Persian to “break down all the bars” of Babylon (43:14) and set free the Israelite captives (which did happen in 538 B.C.E.)–a task that demonstrated the inestimable power of God’s “holy arm” (52:10). Yet, paradoxically, the arm of the Divine Warrior is at the same time the arm of the tender shepherd (40:10-11). Curiously, this God who works through the military power of Cyrus will also work through the unpretentious power of a servant’s words. Interspersed through the chapters that describe this big God (“I am the Lord, and there is no other”–45:6) are the accounts of the gentle justice brought by God’s servant (42:1-4)–the servant who called Israel to be a light to the nations (49:1-7), who suffered for his fidelity to God’s word (50:4-9a), and who bore “our” iniquities and carried “our” diseases (52:13–53:12).

This is the work of God described in these chapters, the work that should interest the preacher: comfort and release to the captives, salvation and justice for the nations, suffering love for the other. And who is invited to do it? First, the servant, of course–but the servant whose work describes that of the prophet and of all Israel. The servant is the prophet is Israel; yet, none of this remains an issue of the distant past, for the New Testament and the Christian tradition have seen this work and this identity in Jesus of Nazareth–and Jesus, of course, has passed it on to his followers.

Who is the servant? Our answer must be inclusive: Israel is the servant; so is the prophet; so is Jesus; and so are “you” (the unnamed “you” that invites the hearer into the text and into its work is present already in 42:6, following the first Servant Song).1

In the text, the servant sustains the weary with a word. Who does this today? Jesus does, of course; but so do “you”–in our time, the followers of Jesus. Who listens in order faithfully to speak? The prophet does; so does the preacher; and so do all Christians. Who is called to turn the other cheek in the face of personal injustice? Jesus, of course; but also the prophet of the text–and, as Jesus makes clear, so are we. And how do we pull this off, especially in the face of strong resistance? Because, as the text knows–as Jesus knew–“the Lord God helps me.” “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” Paul knew this well, of course (Rom 8:31-39), because he, like we, had heard today’s text and believed in the God it proclaims. And he, like we, knew that the source of that help is Jesus–the one who shows us most fully God’s suffering love. The prophet is in the text, along with the servant, Israel, Jesus, and the hearer–but not all participants are equal. Jesus’ suffering for us is the primary instance of the help the text announces–the love that invites us into Holy Week not merely as observers but as servants ourselves: servants of the word, servants of Christ, servants of one another, servants of God’s justice, servants of all God loves.

That loving service is exercised by the servant in our text simply through the word. In the face of those who would bring in the Reformation by violence, Martin Luther insisted solely on the power of God’s word: “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word…did everything.”2

Absurd as it may seem, the preacher’s task is to share that confidence in God’s word–with the servant, Paul, and Luther–and to proclaim it to God’s people, inviting them into its mission.

1For more on this, see Frederick J. Gaiser, “‘To Whom Then Will You Compare Me?’: Agency in Second Isaiah,” Word & World 19/2 (1999) 149-150; available at www.luthersem.edu/word%26world/Archives/19-2_Isaiah/19-2_Gaiser.pdf

2Martin Luther, “Sermon on Monday after Invocavit” (March 10, 1522), in Luther’s Works 51:77.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

Matthew gives us the story of Jesus’ passion. Paul gives us the meaning.

The basic meaning that Paul gives us is this: the pre-existent Christ so humbles himself that he identifies with humanity all the way to the same physical death that human beings experience.

Vv. 6-11, the famous Christ hymn, divides into two equal parts. Vv. 6-8 are stanza one. There are two independent verbs in this stanza: “emptied” in v. 7 and “humbled” in v. 8. Vv. 9-11 are stanza two. The two independent verbs in the second stanza are “highly exalted” and “gave,” both in v. 9.

On Passion Sunday our attention necessarily falls on the first stanza. What is clear in this stanza is that Jesus is going in the wrong direction! He starts at “the top,” if you will–and everything goes downhill from there.

Joseph Hellerman1  has helped us look at the hymn within the context of the Roman Empire. He starts with the cursus honorum, or “course of honor,” which was the formalized sequence of public offices that a young Roman aristocrat was to follow as he advanced in his career. At each stage the upwardly mobile young man gained new responsibilities and new privileges. Lower classes of people, both inside Rome and outside of it, developed their own sequence of offices that mimicked the upper classes. Hellerman argues that the concern for such honor ratings and status was, if anything, greater than normal in Philippi, because the elites in Philippi were Roman and the city was a Roman colony often called “little Rome.”

The Christ hymn, suggests Hellerman, has taken the cursus honorum and turned it upside down. Instead of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, Jesus descends it. And so Hellerman labels what is happening in Philippians as the cursus pudorum or “course of ignominy” or “course of shame.”

And what do we see in this “course of shame”?

v. 6) Jesus is the one who was in the “form of God.” The word for “form” is morfh, morphç, which means that what is inside corresponds to what is outside. So Christ Jesus is one who both inside and outside is in the form of God, sharing God’s glory and in essence God. And this one “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Christ abandons all claims to the status and privileges of God. The NRSV introduces the word “though,” which is not in the Greek. That word sharply changes the meaning of the passage. As many scholars have suggested, it is in fact because he was in the form of God that he did not regard that equality as something to be used for his own advantage.

v. 7a-c) And so he emptied himself, as he moved in reverse gear from the exaltation of divinity to the reality of being a human. How did Christ empty himself? He took the form (same Greek word as in v. 6) and was born in “human likeness.” Does “human likeness” mean that he did not become a real human being? No. What the hymn is doing is what Paul does when he writes in Rom 8:3, “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh … he [God] condemned sin in the flesh.” Christ is a full human being, but there is a thin line of distinction between him and the rest of humanity: he does not sin. The word “likeness” protects that distinction.

vv. 7d-8) He was also “found in human form.” The word for “form” is the term sch/ma schçma, which refers to the way a thing or person appears to our senses. So from what people could see and hear Jesus certainly was in form (sch/ma) a human being.

Humility is not a virtue in Paul’s world. To be humble means to ignore the culture’s concern for status, including your own, and to stop acting on the basis of social distinctions. In his continuing to move in reverse, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient (see also Rom 5:19). It is not that Jesus is obedient to death, as though death ruled over him. Rather, he is obedient to God and because of that obedience he dies. And he dies the most cruel and degrading death, death on a cross. Christ Jesus’ negative career, his career in reverse has reached its end.

But why was this hymn included in the first place? The thesis of the letter is in 1:27-30: Christians are to conduct their lives in ways that are worthy of the Gospel of Christ. One of Paul’s major concerns is the lack of unity in the congregation. And so in the introduction to our passage he calls on the Philippians to be of the same mind and have the same love (2:2), doing nothing from selfish ambition but looking to the interests of others (2:3-4). Paul’s chief example of how to live is “Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God ….”  Jesus is their example of a life that is lived free of concern for status and honor and open to radical service to God.

But the hymn has not ended. Perhaps it is awkward on Passion Sunday to read vv. 9-11, in which the exaltation of Jesus is at the center. But perhaps it is not so odd after all, for the second stanza reminds us at this beginning of Holy Week that the one who dies on Friday is not a misguided Israelite who got a bad deal, but he is the very one who has the title of Lord (v. 11), to whom every being in the universe will one day bow down and worship.

And so in the midst of the reverse gear of our Matthew text and the first half of the Christ hymn, Paul reminds us to look up in order to see where God is taking this drama–and us. And with that in hand, we can move into the week called holy.

1Joseph H. Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi:  Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 132; Cambridge: Cambridge, 2005).