Lectionary Commentaries for April 1, 2012
Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)
Commentary on Mark 14:1—15:47
O. Wesley Allen, Jr.
Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
Mark S. Gignilliat
Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth century mystical writer, knew of suffering.
In a particularly difficult moment of her life she was forced to cross a river while sick with fever. She raised her voice of complaint heavenward, “Lord, amid so many ills this comes on top of all the rest!” A voiced responded, “This is how I treat my friends.” “Ah, my God!” Teresa retorted, “That is why you have so few of them!”1 Some may feel it is in the fine print of the Christian contract, but following Jesus is anything but safe. The prophecy of Isaiah puts a sharp question to its readers, “Will you identify yourself with the suffering One?” This is the driving question of the fiftieth chapter of Isaiah.
Today’s reading, on this Palm Sunday, prepares us for the torturous and difficult journey we are about to take as we enter Holy Week. Like the disciples, our senses and hopes are disoriented. The Messiah we expected, triumphant and glorious, displays his triumph and glory in the paradox of suffering. Is this our Savior? Is this the one we expected to redeem Zion? It will take time to reorient us toward God’s redemptive plan. It will take Easter for us to see that God fulfills his promises in the ways he wants. But we are not there yet. We are left in the first three verses of Isaiah 50 with Zion’s sin. The next six verses, our text for the day, bring us to the third of what are called the “servant songs.”
Now we see for the first time the depiction of the servant’s suffering and affliction. It is important to note that the Lord God or the Sovereign Lord has been with the servant through it all; he has taught him, sustained him, opened his ears to hear and understand. The servant is prepared for what comes by the attending hand of Yahweh. Because of this, he turns his face like a flint to his tormenters. Whereas Judah in Isaiah is defined by her rebellion (Isaiah 1), the servant is defined by his obedience. He did not turn backward. He moved forward in the confidence of Yahweh, his sustainer and teacher. Like Teresa, however, the servant was not spared suffering in this moment. He is no Daniel sleeping comfortably on the lion’s mane. The servant enters deeply into the river of suffering: blows to the face, a plucked out beard, and the insult of spitting.
The servant does this because of his confidence in the vindication of God. Accusers and tormenters may abound. Nevertheless, the servant places his hopes and trust in Yahweh alone. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “Good” is still the right modifier for Good Friday because of the redemptive hopes attached to Jesus’ suffering and death. Friday, yes, but the clarifying word of Easter is coming.
The picture of Jesus in John’s gospel reflects the force of this third servant song. Jesus moves to the cross in the confident assurance of his Father. The Father’s teaching has instructed and sustained Jesus. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27-28). The final moments on the cross witness to Jesus’ confidence. When Jesus knew that all had been accomplished, he cried out, “It is finished” and bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30). The picture is of Jesus, our servant, confident in the will and ways of his Father for the redemption of the world and in the assured hope of his vindication.
Isaiah 50 ends with a pointed question: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant?” Many of us are familiar with the images of the beaten back and plucked out beard of this third servant song. But the final verses of the chapter are not so familiar. The question is a difficult one. Who will obey and identify themselves with this suffering figure? The reader may recall the image in the famous Isenheim altar piece of the crooked finger of John the Baptist pointing to the suffering Christ. Similarly, the prophetic word of Isaiah enjoins those reading to identify themselves and submit to this suffering figure. Or as Saint Paul says, “To know Christ and the fellowship of his suffering” (Philippians 3:10).
During this Palm Sunday we are invited once again to re-think and reorient the way we think about our own humanity. How do I define myself as a person? During this Holy Week, Isaiah the prophet, true to the Trinitarian character of Holy Scripture, encourages us to see our humanity as that which is identified by our union with Jesus Christ, the suffering savior.
My true self is the one that is in union with Jesus (Galatians 2:20), and during this Holy Week we are called once again to walk into the realization of that union by identifying ourselves in obedience with One who is, was, and is to come. When such events in our Christian experiences occur by the work of the Holy Spirit, we, like John the Baptist in the Isenheim altar piece, witness faithfully to Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus isn’t safe. But we can be assured the one we follow is worthy.
1As told in Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grover: IVP, 1998), 133.
Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16
If your congregation plans to highlight the Sunday of the Passion (instead of Palm Sunday), spending some time with this Psalm will benefit your preaching.
While I usually encourage interpreting a Psalm on its own terms instead of through the lens of the gospel text, this week is different.
Since preachers will likely not choose the Psalm as the sole focus of the sermon this Sunday and since Jesus quotes this Psalm when on the cross, I encourage you to read it through the lens of Jesus’ passion. It is clear that the Psalmist and Jesus have had similar experiences; both have experienced the weight of emotional distress and physical anguish that have far-reaching consequences.
The Psalmist describes himself as one who is distressed from a life of sorrow and sighing (verse 10). He feels as useless as a broken vessel (verse 12). This distress has led to (and/or has resulted from) paranoia: “For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (verse 13). He feels as if he has “passed out of my mind like one who is dead” (verse 12). Jesus had moments of being “distressed and agitated” as well (Mark 14:33). He himself says he is “deeply grieved, even to death” (verse 34). Like the Psalmist who prays to the Lord, Jesus “throws himself to the ground” and prays that “the hour might pass from him” (verse 35).
Both the Psalmist and Jesus experience ridicule, rejection and betrayal. “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances” (verse 11). The loss of community is evident. Isolation ensues: “Those who see me in the street flee from me (verse 11). Jesus is also betrayed by those close to him. As predicted, Peter denied his acquaintance with Jesus saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about” (14:68). Many deserted and fled from Jesus (14:50).
Given these experiential similarities, it is no surprise that Jesus connects to the Psalmist’s words and employs them in his own time of lament.
Although both the Psalmist and Jesus experience physical ailments, there is a distinction. Whereas the Psalmist’s physical ailments (eyes, soul, bones and body wasting away and strength failing in verses 9 and 10) seem to be psychosomatic, Jesus’ physical ailments result from actual physical violence. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him . . .. The guards also took him over and beat him (14:65). Thorns were twisted into his head (15:17) and he was struck with a reed (15:19). Jesus was crucified.
There are two primary theological themes that arise from this comparison exercise. First, what does it mean that the language of the Psalms we employ was also employed by Jesus? A song of lament such as Psalm 31:9-16 is our language in our times of distress. When we cannot find our own words, we look to the Psalms. Jesus did the same. This was Jesus’ Scripture. The Psalmist’s words were Jesus’ words just as they are ours. God makes a connection with God’s people through language. Second, what does it mean to say that our God has experienced emotional and physical distress as the Psalmist has? God makes a connection with God’s people through the experience of emotional and physical distress. Your understanding of a theology of the cross is crucial for this week’s focus on Jesus’ suffering and death.
These theological themes are rich fodder for the Holy Week preacher. I suggested above that spending some time with this Psalm will benefit your preaching. In addition to the possible arenas of exploration stated in the previous paragraphs (God and God’s people using the same language, God and God’s people experiencing emotional and physical distress), it is worth examining the posture of prayer both Jesus and the Psalmist take.
Their prayers of lament affirm the trustworthiness of the one who hears the prayers. You have noted by now that only the middle section of Psalm 31 is read today. This section is the second of what might have been three psalms combined to make up Psalm 31. The first and the third sections are psalms of trust or praise. Indeed the end of today’s pericope (verses 14-16) anticipates the subsequent psalm of praise. The Psalmist may be desperate, yes, but there is hope for a hearing embedded in the desperation. Despite all of the suffering, there is a proclamation of trust. “I trust in you, O Lord” moves quickly to a three-fold: deliver me, let your face shine on me, save me.
Jesus, too, takes on this posture of prayer, as he cries out, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (15:34). Imagine the depth of Jesus’ lonely desperation as he throws himself to the ground and prays that this “hour might pass from him” (14:35). Jesus, too, affirms trust in God even in the midst such despair: “Abba, Father,” he cries, “for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:36).
Through this Psalm we connect not only with the Psalmist, but also with God. Better said, this Psalm helps us connect God’s experiences with our own. A significant element is that both the Psalmist and Jesus claim God as their own as they cry in desperation, “My God, my God.” This God, the one who prays as we do and the one to whom we pray, is our God.
Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
What’s in a name? From a biblical perspective — everything!1
A name was believed to represent the essence of a person’s character. The name Jesus, of course, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “he saves.”
“The name that is above every name…”
In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul incorporates into his letter what is most likely an early Christian hymn. In this hymn we see how Jesus embodies his given name, “he saves.” Being “in the form of God,” he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, as something to be held onto at all costs and used to his own advantage. Rather, he willingly “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point to death — even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
Jesus is not a passive victim, but enters fully and willingly into his mission. He empties himself of all claims to divine glory and honor to become a human being — not a human of high status and honor, but a lowly slave serving other human beings. He humbles himself even to the point of dying a slave’s death, for the shameful and tortuous form of execution by crucifixion was reserved for slaves and rebels against Roman rule.
This Jesus is the one whom God highly exalts and to whom God gives “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). In exalting Jesus, God gives Jesus his own name — “Lord” — and confers on him Lordship over all creation. One day every knee will bend before him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and every tongue join in confessing together that Jesus Christ is Lord.
This hymn makes the astonishing claim that the one we call God and Lord is most fully revealed in the crucified one. The one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave shows us who God is and how God acts. God’s essential character is shown to be one of self-emptying love rather than self-aggrandizement or grasping for power and glory. God’s high exaltation of Jesus confirms the divine nature of his mission and ensures that one day he will be acknowledged by all for who he truly is. Jesus, the one who saves, is God’s anointed one (the Messiah or Christ), and Lord of all.
“Let the same mind be in you…”
Paul incorporates this hymn into his letter in the service of pastoral theology. He is thankful for the Philippians’ care for him and support of his ministry (1:3-8), yet there are some problems in the community. In particular, Paul is concerned about dissension among members (2:2-4; 4:2-3), and about “opponents” who preach righteousness based on circumcision and law observance (1:28; 3:2-3, 7-11, 18-19). Paul urges the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel” so that he will know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).
Paul continues on this theme of unity of mind and spirit, urging the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). In encouraging the community to be “of one mind,” it is unlikely that Paul expects no differences of opinion within the community, for he is not so naïve about congregational life. Rather, he implores them to be united in a spirit of love and concern for the common good. This becomes clearer in what follows, as he urges them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and further exhorts them: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).
Paul then introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” Paul envisions the life of the community being formed by the mind of Christ — by a spirit of humility and loving service to one another rather than competition and grasping for power and control.
On this Sunday marking Jesus’ passion, a preacher might explore with hearers what it means to bear this name above all other names. Does our life together reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”? Are we looking to the interests of others rather than our own interests? Are humility and servanthood evident among us?
Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant.2 Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”
1 Commentary adapted from one first published on this site on January 1, 2012.
2 Marsha L. Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 174.
Palm/Passion Sunday is less a day for preaching and more a day when preachers can allow extended gospel readings to set the tone for those who will be worshiping together throughout Holy Week and to rehearse the drama of Holy Week for those who will not gather with the worshiping community again until Easter Sunday.
To allow worshipers to move from the joy of the parade into Jerusalem to the joy of the parade out of the tomb without experiencing the somberness of the temple conflicts, the eschatological predictions of future suffering and redemption, the anointing, the last supper, the arrest and trial, the mobs, the crucifixion and the burial is to rob the Paschal Mystery of much of its mystery.
The lectionary for this Sunday divides the readings into the Liturgy of the Palms (anchored by Mark 11:1-11) and the more extended Liturgy of the Passion (focused on Mark 14:1 — 15:47). But if congregations are willing to forego their usual liturgical format, worship can be structured around a sequence of dramatic readings from the gospel lections (as well as the other lections). Such a format invites worshipers to experience an extended narrative in a way that the confines of Sunday worship rarely allow. Hymns, prayers, communion, and other acts of worship can be included in the service at places that invite the congregation to respond appropriately to the different readings (analogous to a Lenten version of Lessons and Carols, if you will, without stepping on the toes of a Tenebrae service that might follow later in the week).
If the preacher cannot let go of the habit of preaching even in such a format, she or he might offer a sort of running commentary on the readings that:
1) introduces pericopes in a way that invites a new hearing and assists the hearers in keeping the big picture in mind while listening to an individual scene,
2) summarizes and fills in gaps of the Jerusalem narrative that are not read in worship, and
3) highlights Luke’s distinctive voice in narrating Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem over against the voices of the other evangelists. But in such a liturgical format the commentator should shy away from providing too much detail, so that the focus of the congregation remains on the dramatic readings themselves and not on the commentary.
On the other hand, there is also value in focusing homiletically on the climax of the Markan readings, which is the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In such an approach one might read only the shorter option of the gospel lesson (15:1-39).
Indeed, the climax of Mark’s entire story is the acknowledgement of the centurion that Jesus is indeed God’s son. This christological element can be named in a way that:
1) preaches the cross in a manner foreshadowing but not upstaging the proclamation of the death on Good Friday, and
2) helps the congregation understand a key element of Mark’s theology as Mark is read throughout the liturgical year. The significant length of the gospel reading for the liturgy of the passion (whether one chooses the longer or shorter option) invites a homiletical strategy that can be expanded to the whole Gospel.
The flow of the sermon might go something like this:
Begin with commentary on the scenes in chapter 15 leading up to Jesus’ death, focusing on how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood. The religious leaders, Pilate, the crowds, and soldiers are all confused about who Jesus is.
Move to a wide angle lens approach and offer a sympathetic reading of these opponents indicating that their misunderstanding should be no surprise given that Mark presents even the disciples as being confused.
Walk through key moments in Mark where the disciples exhibit misunderstanding, e.g., in the parables discourse where insiders are supposed to understand the mystery of the reign of God but Jesus has to interpret the parables for them (4:10-13, 34), in the miracle of calming storm where they question who Jesus is (verses 40-41), when Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ (seemingly understanding) only to be rebuked by Jesus and called Satan after he rejects Jesus’ self-understanding as one who must suffer and die (8:27-33), and after the other two passion predictions where the disciples respond inappropriately (arguing over who is the greatest in 10:30-37 and asking to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand in glory in 11:32-40).
The strategy behind such a survey would be the cumulative effect of presenting the disciples’ misunderstanding. Thus the climax of the narration should be Peter’s denial (14:66-72) that is the last scene before the lectionary reading begins in 15:1: when he says in his last denial, “I do not know this man you are talking about,” he thinks he is lying, but he is not.
Sum up the misunderstanding in terms of the fact that no human in Mark’s narrative calls Jesus the Son of God. The title of the book declares it (1:1). The heavenly voice announces it at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and transfiguration (9:7), but the disciples do not “get it.” But finally one person does — the very man who crucified Jesus, the Gentile, the Roman oppressor, the centurion. When he sees Jesus die, he recognizes him: “Truly this man was God’s son” (15:39).
This long narration of Mark’s story through the christological lenses of misunderstanding and the messianic title of Son of God finally allows the preacher to claim, on the congregation’s behalf, our contemporary misunderstanding of who Jesus Christ, the Son of God is. And it allows the preacher to lead the congregation to the rejection, suffering and death of the cross, even today, as the place where we can truly understand who Jesus is for us (pro nobis).
Preachers with different theological orientations will naturally interpret the significance of the cross in different ways, but reclaiming its centrality (through the lens of Mark) for interpreting the Christ event and indeed contemporary Christian existence is not a bad way to start off Holy Week.