How do we relate a story that much of our audience already knows by heart?
How do we proclaim the good news when for many of our hearers it may have become simply yesterday’s news? This is the homiletical and exegetical challenge facing us every Palm Sunday, when year after year the cross stands before us, the pews are packed, and our hearers are anxious to hear the gospel anew.
There is a challenge in preaching these old stories but also great opportunities. These stories have been told innumerable times and yet their power to convict and inspire us has not faded.
I would like to propose a seemingly counterintuitive notion. What if we preached this text, this critical turning point in Matthew’s Gospel with our eyes focused on the margins of the story? That is, what if we draw our attention to those curious characters at the edge of the narrative? Is it possible that these minor characters may point us to Jesus anew?
For Matthew, these characters are not just pure literary adornment or mere narrative flair. They are not just extras on a movie set meant to decorate the background. Instead, these individuals are purposefully placed to point us to the crucified Christ. Too often neglected, these minor characters may help us see the passion with fresh eyes.
The Betrayers: Judas and Peter First, we might highlight a seemingly odd couple early in this long narrative. Peter, we know, will become an influential leader in the early church. In contrast, according to Dante’s Inferno, Judas faces eternal damnation in the maw of Satan himself. And yet Matthew parallels their betrayals of Jesus. Both are one of the twelve. Both are present at the supper. Both betray Jesus. Their similarities then largely cease. Judas meets a famously untimely demise; that Peter’s fall is not irreversible is intimated in the concluding chapters of Matthew and in the wider Christian tradition. At the moment when faith was most severely tested and the cost of discipleship was highest, both Judas and Peter fail. They remind us that at the cross there is but a thin line between faithfulness and treachery. We are constantly tempted to broach that line. We trust that repentance is always possible, even for Judas. Both Judas and Peter regret deeply their betrayals of Jesus and yet their lives take wholly separate directions. What do we make of their divergent paths?
Power and Corruption: Caiaphas and Pilate Jesus’ execution is a conspiracy of empowered cowardice and derelict duty. Caiaphas and his co-conspirators have predetermined the outcome of the show trial and now only need the pretense of “evidence.” They arrange for false testimony but still cannot find a way to condemn the innocent Jesus. Ultimately, it takes Caiaphas’ direct involvement to inflate already trumped up charges of blasphemy, but the office of the high priest cannot put someone to death. To achieve his ends, Caiaphas turns to Pilate whose primary job was keeping the peace. Pilate attempts to defuse an increasingly rabid crowd but eventually defers to their passions rather than justice. When Pilates washes his hands, he does nothing to minimize his complicity. The machinations of politics may be the proximate cause of Jesus’ death, but Matthew’s readers are fully aware that God continues to work in the background. The conspiracy around Jesus’ death is a powerful reminder of the political implications of following Jesus to the cross.
Accidental Actors: Barabbas and Simon of Cyrene I imagine that neither Barabbas nor Simon could have anticipated the role they would play in this story. An insurrectionist, Barabbas could not have anticipated a pardon after committing crimes against the political order. An immigrant or sojourner from northern Africa, Simon could not have anticipated being commissioned to help in the crucifixion of a presumed criminal. We know little about these two characters. We know even less about how their involvement in the passion affected their lives. Whether as an innocent bystander or a jailed criminal, the path of God’s Son may cross ours at the most unexpected moments. How will we react when we are freed from our prisons? How will react when we are conscripted to carry a symbol of shame and death?
The Condemned: Two Bandits Jesus dies between two bandits. These condemned criminals must have been found guilty of a crime far more serious than mere thievery. In some significant sense, they must have disrupted the fragile social order imposed by Rome, perhaps by making the Roman roads unsafe for commerce or taking part in insurrection. Matthew 27:44 notes only that these two bandits derided Jesus along with the crowds that gathered to witness a trio of executions. Unlike Luke, Matthew does not record the confession of guilt and hope for redemption of one of the two companions of Jesus on the cruel crosses.
In Matthew, the portrait is stark. At the end of his life, Jesus dies alongside two convicted brigands who mock Jesus with their last gasps of breath. At the end of his life, Jesus faces a virtually unanimous public shaming, a veritable consensus around Jesus’ guilt. We however know how the story ends. We know that Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday, that death does not have the final word but that life reigns through the resurrection. On Palm Sunday, all indications are that Jesus’ guilt is evident, that Jesus deserves the shame of the cross. Easter is the ultimate redemption of Jesus’ innocence and God’s mission.
Witnesses: Women and a Centurion One of the most striking consistencies among the Gospels is the shared tradition that a number of female followers of Jesus persevered to the very end. Though deserted by the disciples, Jesus is not wholly bereft of friends in this moment of darkness. The light of recognition also emerges from an unlikely source. A centurion–a representative of Rome’s willingness to deploy violence in the maintenance and promulgation of its hegemony–is witness of both Jesus’ death and his identity. Having seen Jesus’ body give out after a torturous and shameful execution, the centurion recognizes who Jesus truly was: God’s son. Though not a witness of Jesus’ healing miracles, his impassioned mountaintop sermon, or the dazzling transfiguration, the centurion bears witness to the latest in a litany of crucifixions he has seen and yet sees and declares that Jesus was no mere criminal.
Heralds of the Resurrection: Joseph of Arimathea and the Roman Guards Two final characters set the stage for Jesus’ triumph over death. Joseph helps provide a temporary home for Jesus’ body at an important time. The arrival of the Sabbath meant avoiding both work and the spiritual contamination emanated by a corpse. In a rush, Jesus finds a not-so-final resting place. At this tomb, Roman guards are posted to assure that Jesus’ body is not stolen under the pretense of claiming his resurrection. The preemptive denials of Jesus’ resurrection are already set in motion. Some will believe, but many will not.
Preaching Palm Sunday We can safely assume that many of those who will join us in worship on Palm Sunday know the basic contours and outline of this story. However, they may not have had the opportunity to focus on these characters on the margins of the action. To be sure, Jesus is THE central figure in this story, but the supporting cast Matthew draws around him in these trying days are indispensable signposts in this most important of stories. I would suggest that focusing on these otherwise obscure individuals will draw attention ever more powerfully toward the crucified Christ. How do we relate a story that much of our audience already knows by heart? One way is to focus on those parts of the stories yet to be told fully.
One of the challenges of preaching the lectionary in conjunction with the liturgical calendar is that of remaining true to the tradition of the church season while allowing the biblical texts to speak anew to our communities of faith.
Palm Sunday is certainly no different, and with the exception of Easter, may in fact be one of the most difficult weeks in the calendar to preach a new word. How might one seek a new and relevant word for the congregation that anticipates the major celebration of Resurrection Sunday in just one week’s time? How does one commemorate the entry of Christ into the city while also maintaining the depth and somberness of what he will have to face in the week ahead?
One possibility for this liturgical year is to turn to the Hebrew Bible text for this Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a. This passage is the third of four so-called “servant songs” in the second portion of Isaiah (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Christian tradition has often placed these songs as laments on the lips of Christ to express his suffering during Passion week. When read in light of the historical context of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), however, these texts take on a different tone.
Many scholars believe this second portion of Isaiah was composed during the late exilic period, sometime around 540 BCE. This period saw a shift in imperial policy from the Babylonian practice of dislocating subjugated people groups to the Persian strategy of restoring those groups to their native lands. Second Isaiah, then, reflects on the suffering of the exilic community while anticipating the hope of its release from Babylon along with its return to and restoration in Judah.
One of the most perplexing mysteries of the servant songs is the question of the servant’s identity. While many candidates exist, two common traditions of reading the voice of the servant might inform our reading of the text during this liturgical season. The singer of these songs might either represent the prophet who speaks the words found within Isaiah 40-55 or the community of Israel as a suffering individual.
First, this song might speak a word for the preachers, teachers, and other ministers. At the risk of self-aggrandizement, one might read the first verse of the song as an exemplar of prophetic responsibility. God has given preachers and teachers the ability–“The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher”–and the responsibility to “sustain the weary with a word” (verse 4a). Those in congregational ministry have an audience and the opportunity to sustain that audience with the words they present. But how does a minister responsibly and effectively do so? I believe the answer comes in the latter half of the verse: “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” (verse 4b). God has given the effective minister the ears to listen to the voice of God and to the circumstances of weary communities. Only when she does both can she effectively communicate the hope and truth that God has given to the weary congregations in the midst of economic recession, denominational decline, and the seemingly decreased relevance of the Christian community’s voice in today’s world.
Second, the song offers testimony to the suffering community of faith. In verses 5-7 the song becomes the testimony of a particular servant who has already suffered and endured harsh persecution. The body of the song, then, is a commemoration of the steely resolve of the servant who perseveres humiliation in the face of his opposition. The song displays the persecution with vivid descriptive and violent imagery. The enemies of the servant flog her back, pull out his beard, and spit in her face. Indeed, it is this very imagery in the song that inspired early Christians to identify it with Christ’s suffering during the Passion.
A temptation of superficial reading occurs, however, if we disregard the original context of these words as a response to exile. When drawing analogies between our suffering communities and the community of exile, we must be careful to note the differences in the nature and scale of the suffering, lest we trivialize types of radical suffering akin to the Babylonian exile, such as victimization in war, displacement, famine, and the like.
Third, the song exhorts these suffering communities using a legal metaphor. Verses 8-9 may seem brash, but they inspire confidence in the audience of the song. The language is clearly legal imagery with the speaker challenging his opponents to a course case: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me” (verse 8). The passage calls the faithful not only to persevere the persecution, but to challenge the oppressor knowing that God perseveres with them and will be the final vindicator: “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (verse 9a). With God as the faith community’s defense attorney, the community can stand resolute.
Isaiah 50:4-9a can speak on multiple levels to Christian worshippers on this Palm Sunday. It’s evocation when reflecting on the entry of Christ into the city can remind us of the Messiah’s steely resolve in the face of the overwhelming anguish he would face in the week to come. When one comes to this text as a potential prophet, he can learn that part of prophetic preaching involves a call to discipleship and attentiveness to the Spirit of God and the voices of the congregation. When the minister looks to the exilic context of this passage, she can carefully draw parallels to contemporary communal suffering, offering to sufferers the assurance that God recognizes and indeed travels with them through their trials.
Finally, the text offers exhortation to the weary, inspiring individuals and communities to make their stand for principles of faith and justice, knowing that the Divine Vindicator is on their side. As we come to this text in the latter season of Lent let us listen as disciples so that we, too, can speak timely words to a weary world.
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.
As a frequent worship planner in my congregation, I am often involved in the preparations for what is awkwardly called “Palm/Passion Sunday.”
I always advocate for bringing the drama of this part of the Gospel story into the worship experience, but year after year our planning group struggles with the same issues: the right balance of celebration and solemnity; the transition point from one to the other; to what extent it is appropriate to characterize members of the congregation–especially our children–as part of the accusing crowd.
Similarly, this text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians plunges to the deepest lows and soars to the highest heights, and more often than not it is a trip that we are hesitant to take. How do we avoid congregational whiplash? More importantly, how do we keep this familiar text from being nothing more than a spiritual joyride, in which we breezily plummet into the humiliation of the cross in the full knowledge that, a verse later, Christ will be restored to full glory at the right hand of the Father?
Most scholars agree that this poetically framed text is likely not Paul’s own composition, although he may have made certain modifications to it. Rather, it is almost certainly a hymn already in use in the congregations with which Paul has contact, and by quoting it Paul offers us a window into the faith and practice of those very earliest Christians. As small groups of believers in urban areas, where their close neighbors did not understand their faith and practice (at best) or were openly hostile to them (at worst), they nonetheless proclaimed that their God had control over the entire world and would, at last, put the Christ whom they worshipped in power over all.
This text appears in the context of Paul’s argument that all the Philippian congregation needs to do is to imitate Paul himself, since he is an imitator of Christ–a claim that tends to strike today’s readers as egotistical and paternalistic, and in any case a dangerous role model for any contemporary pastor to follow. A broader look at the letter to the Philippians might well take seriously the role of “imitation” in the Christian life, with a view toward emphasizing that the imitation of Christ is a goal rather than an attainment for any believer, and that part of our Christian journey is to seek to live so that those who might choose to imitate us would find a worthy model to follow.
Too, as advocates for disadvantaged groups have pointed out, this text is capable of being made into a dangerous tool of oppression. Christ, along this line of thinking, had everything but voluntarily made himself vulnerable to the most abject suffering and death–so the most important virtues for Christ’s followers are obviously extreme humility and vulnerability. The proclamation of such a message to those whose life circumstances already make them vulnerable to mistreatment and suffering is no more than a blank check for oppressors. Responsible preaching needs to avoid this trap.
A better way to describe the act of Christ Jesus in this text, then, is to emphasize his absolute obedience to the divine purpose for his earthly life. Instead of taking what he could have had on his own (the word translated “exploited” or “grasped” is notoriously difficult–does it mean taking something that was not his, or making use of something he already had?!), Jesus chose the path that fulfilled God’s will, and followed that path to the end, difficult though it was. For this willing obedience, then, God exalted him to the highest place. Followers of Christ should have the same obedience to the divine will–whether that leads to suffering and humiliation for Jesus’ sake, or to God-given boldness that challenges systems of oppression, or to radical peacemaking that refuses to accept that the way the structures of the world are, is the way they must be. In whichever position Christians find themselves, they can fulfill God’s plan for their own lives, as Jesus did, because they know that in the end Christ reigns over all.
“Sing my song backwards from end to beginning,” urges contemporary songwriter Brian Wren, and if we are true to our faith we do tell the story from the end, in retrospect. Without knowledge of the resurrection, Jesus’ death is a tragic failure of a good man against the power of institutional evil, if not a meaningless cipher. Yet if we fail to take the cross seriously, we risk a shallow celebration, a giddy power trip that ignores the dominance of suffering and sin and takes for granted the depth of divine love in reconciling us with God. The early church sang of both in its hymn, recorded by Paul in Philippians. Each Holy Week–indeed, each Sunday–of the church’s life is a challenge to us to do the same.