Lectionary Commentaries for April 5, 2009
Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 14:1—15:47

N. Clayton Croy

Mark is the shortest of the canonical gospels. His story moves along briskly.

On a few occasions, Jesus pauses to teach, but usually he is scurrying from one place to the next, healing, exorcising demons, raising the dead, and feeding the multitudes. It has often been noted that Mark’s favorite adverb is “immediately.”

But Mark slows down for the story of Jesus’ passion. This is the climax of the drama, and a more deliberate pace is appropriate, even in this swiftly moving gospel.

Martin Kahler, the 19th century German theologian, famously said that the Gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions,” a judgment that rightly underscores the prominence of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Mark devotes two chapters (one hundred and nineteen verses) to the period from Jesus’ anointing at Bethany to his burial in a rock hewn tomb, giving strikingly detailed coverage for this forty eight to sixty hour period of Jesus’ life. The following fourfold division attempts to reflect the sequence of scenes and actions.

Preparation and Passover (Mark 14:1-25)
In this section, two ritual acts foreshadow the passion. First, the woman who anoints Jesus engages in an individual act of extravagant devotion. She is criticized by some, but defended by Jesus. Clearly this is not a scene about stewardship or economic justice.

The woman’s action is a unique, unrepeatable act of honoring Jesus, which is precisely the point that Jesus makes in verse 7. The anointing of one’s head normally denotes an official declaration of kingly or priestly status, but Jesus interprets the action as anticipating his burial. Whether the woman understood it as such or not, Jesus credits her action with this effect and vows that it will be remembered around the world, a vow that the story’s canonization has assured.

Secondly, the Passover, the festival that commemorates Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 12:1-20), is mentioned by Mark only in 14:1, 12-16. We might wonder if the mention of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (14:1) is an allusion to the crucifixion, but the timing is off. More likely, Mark wants us to view the Lord’s Supper as a Passover Seder.

Certainly the Passover meal (verses 12-21) blends seamlessly with the institution of the sacrament (verses 22-25). In the sacrament, Jesus elevates the mundane to the level of a mystery. He takes an ancient ritual and makes it shockingly contemporary and personal: “This is my body, this is my blood.” Verses 22-24 are one of the few hints in Mark’s Gospel that the death of Jesus has salvific benefit (also see Mark 10:45).

Supplication and Seizure (Mark 14:26-52)
They depart to the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. Peter and the other disciples emphatically assert their fidelity to Jesus despite his prediction of their abandonment (verse 27), a prediction shortly to be fulfilled (verse 50).

In Gethsemane, we see a very a human Jesus, a typical feature of Mark’s portrayal but especially true here. Jesus knows that events are headed for a violent denouement. He is described as “distressed and agitated” (verse 33), and he speaks of being “deeply grieved” (verse 34). Yet his prayer combines fervent supplication with reverent submission. The human Jesus does not want to die, while the obedient Son will not turn from his task. The disciples are only superficially affected by all this anguish, as is evident by their ability to nod off repeatedly.

Judas arrives with the arresting mob, and there is a short-lived and misguided attempt at violent resistance by an unnamed disciple. The sleepiness in Gethsemane, this sword-wielding outburst, and the ensuing desertion of the disciples are among the final strokes of the dismal portrait of the disciples in Mark.

Mark admittedly paints the disciples with dark hues, but historical facts likely stand behind many of these episodes, and facts are stubborn things. In telling the story, Mark often has no choice but to lay bare the disciples’ cowardice and failure. They all flee with a kind of shameful nakedness like the anonymous “young man” of verse 51.

Trials and Denials (Mark 14:53-15:15)
The trials of Jesus are famously irregular and ignore even ancient “due process.” Mark relates a Jewish trial and a Roman one, with Peter’s infamous denials sandwiched in between.

The trial before the council and the high priest (who is never named in Mark) quickly runs into trouble. Testimony against Jesus is false and conflicting; the case is unraveling. When the high priest is unable to exact any response from Jesus, he tries a judicial Hail Mary: ask the defendant point-blank to confess!

Jesus does confess, but note how he acknowledges that he is the Messiah and then reverts to the title “Son of Man.” In a profoundly true sense for Mark, Jesus is the Messiah. But it is not necessarily in the sense commonly conceived by either Jews or Romans.

Thus, Jesus clarifies as he confesses. He is the Messiah in the mode of the suffering Son of Man. Jesus will lay claim to the title “Messiah” but only on his terms, only if he is allowed to define it by the character of his ministry and message.

Meanwhile, Peter faces his own sort of trial. He has followed Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. Twice, a servant-girl questions Peter about his association with Jesus. Twice he denies it. A third time, he is questioned, this time by a group of bystanders who recognize Peter as a Galilean, presumably by his dialect (cf. Matt 26:73). Peter’s third denial is emphatic, apparently invoking the deity and perhaps even consequences against himself if he is not speaking the truth.

The irony is bitter indeed.

Instead of bearing witness to God, Peter invokes God as a witness to his falsehood. The cock’s crow pierces his soul, and he disappears as a character in the story apart from a brief reference in 16:7. The temptation to vilify Peter is hard to resist, but we should resist it, as well as the temptation to ignore our own acts of betrayal.

The trial of Jesus before Pilate kicks into high gear. In all likelihood, the Jewish council did not have the authority under the Roman prefect to execute prisoners (cf. John 18:31). That power rested in Pilate’s hands. The practice of releasing a prisoner at the Passover (Mark 15:6) is not corroborated outside the New Testament, but it is multiply attested in the gospels (cf. John 18:39).

Barabbas is mentioned in all four gospels, and there is no obvious motive for inventing him. There were frequent insurrections against Rome in the time of Jesus, so the reference to Barabbas’s activity is quite plausible. His name means “Son of Abba” or “Son of the father,” an irony that may be both literary and historical.

Pilate’s failure is often portrayed as a lack of resoluteness. He was weak and so was manipulated by the Jewish authorities.

However, a more nuanced reading of the gospels, as well as other historical sources (Josephus, Philo), suggests that the historical Pilate was callous and conniving. Pilate’s frequent references to Jesus as the “King of the Jews” were more likely ridiculing Jewish nationalistic aspirations than showing sympathy or reverence for Jesus. The historical fact remains that Pilate had the power to release Jesus and did not.

Ridicule, Crucifixion, Death, and Entombment (Mark 15:16-47)
In this closing section, Jesus is first given into the hands of Roman soldiers and then, after his death, into the hands of Jewish sympathizers. The soldiers engage in a crude parody of homage: crowning, clothing, and hailing Jesus as a king, all the while abusing him with blows and dishonoring him with spittle. En route to Golgotha a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, is compelled to bear Jesus’ cross.

Historically, the need for this is plausible, given the mistreatment that Jesus has received. Theologically, Simon of Cyrene becomes the first person literally to enact Jesus’ description of his true followers (Mark 8:34).

The maltreatment of Jesus reaches its apex in the crucifixion itself, Rome’s fiendish method for combining execution, humiliation, and deterrence. The derision continues, coming from passersby, from priests and scribes, and even from the bandits crucified with him.

Jesus hangs on the cross from nine in the morning until sometime after three in the afternoon. At three o’clock, he emits the “cry of dereliction,” that anguished outburst of abandonment. Again we see Mark’s portrayal of the deeply human Jesus (Luke edits out this saying; John has no use for it whatsoever).

At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn in two, perhaps signifying both judgment against the temple (Mark 11:15-19) and the opening up of access to the presence of God (see Hebrews 9). The centurion at the foot of the cross, a Roman with no special acquaintance with Jesus nor the revelatory light of Judaism, makes the gospel’s third affirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship (see 1:11; 9:7).

The burial scene concludes the passion narrative. The coming of the Sabbath at sundown adds urgency to the action, for the burial cannot take place on the day of rest. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council who presumably was an exception to Mark’s earlier sweeping statements (14:55, 64), asks for the body of Jesus.

It is a bit peculiar that Jesus is dead after six plus hours on the cross. Victims of crucifixion sometimes survived for days, eventually succumbing to exposure, blood loss, dehydration, or asphyxiation. When the centurion confirms Jesus’ death, Joseph tends to the body.

The presence of women, especially Mary Magdalene, is noted at both the cross (15:40-41) and the burial (15:47). Apart from Joseph, the women are the only sympathetic characters mentioned by Mark at this point. They will reappear at the tomb after the Sabbath. But for now, this horrific and violent episode draws to a close with Jesus’ lifeless body lying on a stone slab.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

When we preachers engage the Suffering Servant passages we enter territory that is both evocative and mysterious.

The prophet we know as Second Isaiah was an eloquent poet and profound theologian, and the servant songs reveal his deepest insights. Despite their beauty and depth, they have puzzled interpreters for centuries. The enigma of the servant’s identity has produced a mountain of research by scholars. Still today, the issue is up for debate. If we try to go behind the text, or if we try to read the prophet’s mind, we end up chasing shadows.

Who exactly is this noble, brave servant? Is he an individual? If so, is he a real person, or an imaginary hero? Is he the nation of Israel itself? Is he a group within Israel? Does the identity change from song to song and even within songs? The prophet isn’t telling.

Fortunately for us preachers, we can work around the lack of detailed information. We might have an easier time preaching if we knew exactly what the prophet had in mind, but maybe not. If the servant’s identity is a mystery, then maybe we have a better chance of helping our people identify with what the servant did for us, and what the prophet calls us to do on behalf of the world. If the identity of the servant is not fixed, then we can step into the role of the servant in our own small ways.

We know that the prophet wrote at a time when the faith of the people of Judah was on life support. Everything had collapsed. Some wanted to give up on God altogether. Some had set up shop in exile and were content to stay there. The prophet undertook the task of reviving the faith of the people.

One of his strategies was to interpret the suffering the people had experienced. Did the suffering mean that God was powerless? Did the suffering mean that God had abandoned the people? The prophet offered up an alternative explanation. The suffering of the people was redemptive.

One means of proclaiming that alternative understanding was the creation of the character of the servant. In this passage the prophet speaks in first person, giving us direct insight into the attitude of the servant, whoever he may be.

The servant is a teacher, one who will help the community make sense of what has happened. God has given him the insight to “sustain the weary” (Isaiah 50:4). The teacher knows how the people feel. They are weary (Isaiah 40:29-31). They are weary of hard work. They are weary of abuse from the Babylonians (Psalm 137:3). They are weary of grief. The servant will teach them and sustain them. The servant will listen both to God and to the people. By listening to the people, the servant will understand their experience, their weariness. By listening to God, he will know how God is acting in the midst of the grief and weariness.

The attitude toward suffering is not what the people expect.  The way to endure suffering is to march right into it. The servant is not stubborn or rebellious. He listens for God’s instruction. His obedience becomes a willingness, even a readiness, to embrace suffering. He offers himself to his abusers.

One of the characteristics of this poem is its heavy use of terms for parts of the body. The poet has the tongue of a teacher; his ear is wakened; he gives his back and his cheeks; he does not hide his face, but sets it like flint. The prophet does not call for abstract, detached attitude adjustment. He plunges into the suffering with all of who he is, the mind that listens to God and the body that can feel real, physical pain.

The payoff for the prophet’s courage and obedience is a reaffirmation of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness. God will vindicate the prophet. The suffering community will experience God’s help. It will discover community as it “stand(s) up together” (Isaiah 50:8).

As we reflect on how to preach this passage in our contemporary situation, we recognize both the differences between our communities and that of the prophet’s, as well as the ways we might identify with the situation the prophet addressed. We have not experienced total devastation in North America. Faithful readers in some countries might identify with the people of Judah more closely than readers in North America.

Despite the differences in our circumstances, we face both economic stress and the precariousness of our faith. Congregations and individuals have experienced the effects of the economic downturn. The prophet calls the church to courage and integrity in the face of cutbacks, increased missional needs, shortfalls in giving. These things ought not lead us to despair. Our sinfulness, in the form of greed and shortsightedness, has exacerbated the economic situation. Yet, we can face the consequences with courage and fortitude.

On a deeper level, the church is always called to confront the evil and suffering of the world. We choose to enter dangerous and precarious situations to bring the redemptive message of God’s grace. One advantage of reading this passage on Passion Sunday is the call for us to face courageously the evil of the world. We do not shirk from confronting evil, but set our faces to oppose it. Setting our faces is a metaphor for courage, not passive acceptance of suffering.

By writing in the first person, the prophet calls us to identify with the servant. We see the world through the eyes of the servant. We are called to become a servant, not seeking suffering, but confronting evil.


Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

Nancy Koester

The Psalms enrich preaching during Holy Week and Easter, even if few preachers base an entire sermon on the Psalms.

Jesus prayed the Psalms from the cross, and the Gospels quote the Psalms to tell of Jesus’ passion. Strong liturgical traditions invoke the Psalms during Holy Week and Easter. Most important, at a season when Jesus’ humanity is so fully revealed, the Psalms show what it means to be a human being before God. No book of the Bible is more forthright about human experience, and none more militantly declares God’s faithfulness, even when God seems absent. There is every reason for preachers to mine the Psalms in Holy Week and Easter, as preachers have done from the beginning of the Christian story.

If your congregation uses this Sunday as Palm Sunday; celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; you’ll do well to bypass the lectionary Psalm, and use Psalm 24 instead. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” (24:7). This Psalm is fit for a king to enter a city. George Frederick Handel thought so too, for this is the text he set to music in his Messiah to evoke Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his passion.

But if your congregation observes this day as the Sunday of the Passion, Psalm 31 does important business.

First, it shows human suffering in the most graphic terms. If an aim of worship on this day is to ponder Jesus’ passion, Psalm 31 goes there. Second, Psalm 31 proclaims God’s faithfulness. By quoting this Psalm, Jesus expressed his trust in God; even when God did not deliver him from crucifixion.

In Luke’s version of the passion (23:46), Jesus died praying Psalm 31:5: “Father, ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit.'” But Luke did not quote the next line, “you have redeemed me, Oh Lord, faithful God.” Perhaps the implication is that Jesus committed his spirit into God’s hands, no matter what. Jesus never stopped trusting God even when he felt abandoned.

It could be that Jesus prayed the whole Psalm from the cross,1  writes biblical scholar James Limburg. Of course, there is no way to know for sure. But we may faithfully imagine Psalm 31 in the broader context of Holy Week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem toward his death, yet the people treated him like a conquering hero. They threw down their garments for him to ride over; they waved palm branches and roared their approval rating. But as Jesus moved through the crowd, he was not moved by their expectations of him. His one desire was to remain faithful to God’s will.

Later that week Jesus prayed that God might ‘remove this cup’ of suffering, then he committed himself to accept God’s will. Psalm 31offers a similar prayer: “Take me out of the net that is hidden for me.” But even so, “into your hand I commit my Spirit” (31:4, 5).

The image of the hand is important in Psalm 31 (verse 5, 8, 15). According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, “hand” means “grasp” or “power.” The psalmist declares that God’s hand upholds him.2  First comes the prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (31:5). Then comes the statement: “you…have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy, you have set my feet in a broad place” (31:8). And later, despite great suffering, the Psalmist affirms, “my times are in your hand,” and continues to pray for deliverance from “the hand of my enemies and persecutors.”

Jesus knew that even when he was literally in the clutches of his foes, they could never grasp or possess him. They might seize him, but they could not hold him. He knew that he was not “in the hand of the enemy” (31:8) but in the “hand” of God (31:5, 15).

Central to this Psalm is the confession of trust in God. Preachers call their hearers to look upon Jesus’ suffering through the eyes of faith. Psalm 31:9-13 can be used to help people picture Jesus on the cross. Here we see “an object of dread,” “horror,” and “scorn.” There is no hope of rescue, for Jesus has “passed out of mind like one who is dead” (31:12). His body is broken like a smashed vessel, his eye wasted from grief. Strength fails and bones waste away. Around his broken body, betrayal is in the air, so thick you can smell it. Enemies sneer and snicker, neighbors flee in terror. The soundtrack for Jesus’ death is mockery and hissing.

No voice of consolation comes from the bystanders. But if Jesus had prayed this entire Psalm, there would be inner consolation: “I trust in you, O LORD, I say, ‘You are my God,’ my times are in my hand” (31:14-15).

Yet the Psalm is anything but serene. It is not the prayer of one who gives up and welcomes death, but a plea for deliverance “from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (verse 15). So too Jesus prayed, “remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Psalm 31 can be used to help people imagine Jesus’ struggle: first to continue living, and then, while dying, to keep on trusting God. It was a battle all the way.

The Psalmist felt separated from God: “I had said in my alarm, ‘I am driven far from your sight'” (31:22). So too Jesus felt abandoned as he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, quoting Psalm 22:1). Jesus had no advocate; no voice but the Psalms. It seems fitting, then, that preachers listen to these Psalms for the echo of Jesus’ voice.

That voice will resound at Easter, in a different key: trust in God is vindicated by resurrection from the dead. Psalm 31 points toward this hope. It ends with a word of encouragement: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all who wait for the LORD” (31:24). It takes courage to follow Jesus through Holy Week. The spectacle of his passion is not for the faint of heart, for to watch Jesus die is to face our own death too. Only by faith can we say, “I trust in you, O Lord… ‘you are my God,’ my times are in your hand” (31:14-15).

1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 102.
2New Interpreters’ Bible volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 801.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

C. Clifton Black

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the New Testament’s truly majestic texts.

I encourage the preacher to consider this text for Palm Sunday instead of, or at least alongside, the Gospel lection of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The breadth of its Christology catches the breath of even the most jaundiced exegete. It should not frighten away timid preachers, who might inadvertently deprive congregations of a gospel they can sink their teeth into. Let me suggest three possible entrance points into Paul’s testimony.

First, consider the stark distinctions within the text itself. Whether or not we accept Philippians 2:5-11 as a pre–Pauline hymn, there’s no denying this lection’s concentrated juxtapositions.

It unfolds in two perfectly balanced stanzas: verses 6-8 and verses 9-11. Within each are evocative contrasts between:

  • divinity and humanity,
  • true being and fraudulent calculation,
  • death and life,
  • humiliation and exaltation,
  • bending and raising,
  • heaven and earth,
  • things above and below,
  • self–imposed slavery and God–bestowed lordship.

The theology is reminiscent of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. Adam once transgressed the divine command in a catastrophic attempt to be like God, thereby drawing a curse upon creation (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:5, 14-19). In contrast, Christ emptied himself of inherent divinity, and for his supreme obedience unto crucified death, he was exalted by God for unending glory. By not bringing Adam explicitly into the picture, Philippians 2:5-11 keeps the focus christologically and theologically tight. On Passion Sunday, Paul keeps us grounded in what God, through Christ Jesus, is doing.

Second, one may fruitfully reposition this lection within Paul’s epistolary context, which unfolds to embrace our own.

Philippians radiates the apostle’s warmth for a community that has generously supported his ministry (1:3-6, 25-26; 4:14-20). “For God is my witness how I long for you all in the deepest feelings [splangnois: literally, “bowels”] of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Nevertheless, there are no rose blossoms for Paul, his colleagues, or his readers.

He writes from prison (1:7, 13-14), in circumstances that make death appear strangely attractive (1:22-24). A colleague, Epaphroditus, has been gravely ill (2:25-29), “having come near death for the work of Christ” (2:30). Paul and the Philippians are further beset by a host of disturbances from both without and within:

  • unscrupulous preachers (1:15-17),
  • unnamed opponents (1:28),
  • “enemies of Christ’s cross” (3:18),
  • “evil–working dogs” (3:2),
  • potential arrogance that can rip a church apart (2:3-4),
  • an apparent falling-out between two leading women in the Philippians congregation (4:2-3).

Whether in this letter brimming with joy or at the start of Christianity’s Holiest Week, sin, suffering, and dissension take no holiday. It is at the heart of the muck and the stresses of a church in the real world that God has planted the gospel of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).

When the truth of that cross–shaped gospel seizes us, we join with Paul and his addressees in regarding this world in a radically new light: adversity drives the gospel forward (1:12); “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). The same invincible power that raised Christ from death and has exalted him to everlasting praise continues to conform our humility and humiliation to the pattern of Christ’s kenotic glory (3:20-21).

Third, the preacher may juxtapose Philippians 2:5-11 with the Old Testament texts the Common Lectionary assigns for this Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalms 31:9-16, 118:1-2, 19-29).

If so, the same pattern reemerges. The servant who “know[s] how to sustain with a word the one who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4c) is no stranger to chastisement. Morning by morning the Lord GOD has awakened that servant (50:4d) and scraped out his ear (50:5a). The Lord has supported him whose back has received the lash (50:6a) and has set like flint the face of one spat upon (50:6d, 7c).

The picture in Psalm 31 – one of scripture’s most heart–rending laments – is even more gruesome. The very one who trusts in God (verse 14) is surrounded by “terror on every side” (verse 13). The same one is wasted and miserable, broken and persecuted, an abominable thing (verses 9-10, 11, 12-13). The wonder of the LORD’S chesed, steadfast love (Psalm 118:1, 29) lies precisely in his selection as cornerstone of the rubble tossed aside by competent builders (verses 22-23). As Paul puts it, “For Christ’s sake you not only trust in him but also suffer for him, pitched in the very struggle you saw in me and now hear to be mine” (Philippians 1:29b-30).

The poetry of Philippians 2:5-11 rhymes with that of the Psalms and Isaiah’s Servant Songs. The only way that our torments – as persons, as a church, as a world – may be redeemed is by the decision of God’s Messiah to empty himself of glory and journey with us into the heart of darkness.

The challenge facing the preacher is a refusal to lower the stakes on either side: either trivializing the cross into shabby sentimentality or robbing the assurance of God’s victory with easy nihilism.

Many churches burn Passion Sunday’s palms into ashes applied to penitent foreheads on the first Wednesday of Lent in the year following. One year’s Christmas trees are reconfigured as crosses in next year’s Holy Week. These are liturgical expressions of what the Christ–hymn in Philippians 2 is driving at: the inseparability of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God’s ultimate triumph nowhere but in the crucified Messiah.