Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

The hymn in Philippians opens up a different dimension of Palm/Passion Sunday.

Luke 22:27
"But I am among you as one who serves." Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 14, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

The hymn in Philippians opens up a different dimension of Palm/Passion Sunday.

There is no triumphal entry into Jerusalem, no last supper, no betrayal by Judas, no complicit religious leaders, and no Roman overlords. Instead, it offers an intimate view of Christ’s passion revealed through his attitudes and actions. Paul then pushes this intimacy further by inviting us to adopt the mind of Christ.

Philippians 2:6-11 bear more in common with poetry than systematic theology. There are echoes here of Genesis (“Adam” who is in the likeness of God, but who disobeys God), as well as John (in the movement from being with God to taking on the form of human likeness). Yet there are also enough differences to caution against using the one to interpret the other. In the hymn, Christ (unlike Adam in Genesis) exchanges one form for another, and nothing is said about Christ revealing God (John’s “Word became flesh”).

To complicate things further, the hymn also contains language found nowhere else in the New Testament (such as morphe, “form;” harpagmos, “plunder”) or in Paul (isos, “equal”). It also employs words that, only here, are used in reference to Christ (see upekoos, “obedient”). All of these caution against trying to find meaning too precisely. Rather, it may be more productive to leave space for questions, or to explore images that draw us into the mind of Christ.

Philippians 2:6-7 describe Christ’s movement from the “form” (morphe) of God to the “form” (morphe) of a slave, born in human likeness (homoiomati anthropon). Homoiomati can refer to both similarities in appearance as well as similarities in experience. The English creates some confusion in Philippians 2:7 by translating the phrase parallel to “human likeness” as “human form.” The word translated “form” is not morphe but sxemati. Like homoiomati (“likeness”) sxemati can describe outward appearance. It can also refer to the way or nature of life. Together, morphe and sxemati round out the idea of becoming human to suggest that Christ enters into the fullness of that experience.  

To what extent do we allow ourselves to fully enter into the experience of being human? What does that mean? How does this experience align us with other human beings? With Christ?

The parallel use of morphe (“form”) suggests that the primary contrast lies here, between the form of God and the form of a slave. In terms of the social hierarchy of the ancient world (much alive in the world today), the contrast could not be more extreme. God is the one who reigns above all other rulers, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth bends (the earth here conceived of as a flat surface). In between God and slaves are many social strata, each one serving those above while also being served by those below. A slave, however, only serves. A slave owes absolute obedience.

Where do we view ourselves in relation to the social strata that describe our contexts? Whom do we serve, either because we choose to or because social custom mandates it? Who is below us in the social strata? Who is above? How is this evidenced? Have you ever experienced a change in social status? How did that feel? What did you notice? 

Christ, says the hymn, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” It is difficult to know how “equality” is to be understood here. The word isos leans more toward equivalent than identical. There can be no question, however, that Christ has a status similar to the status of God.

More intriguing is the word translated as “exploited.” Hapargmos is a noun rather than a verb (as the English suggests), and is perhaps best described by words such as “plunder” or “booty.” It was common practice for soldiers (or robbers) to claim goods, properties, and people as part of their due wages — as something to which they had a right. To say that Christ did not count equality with God as “booty” is to say that, although he had a right to that status, he did not claim it as his due.

The English says that Christ “emptied himself.” There is no uniform understanding of what this means. Yet it must be understood somehow in relation to what Christ possesses that makes him equivalent in some way to God, and which he utterly abandons in order to take on the status of a slave. In Philippians 2:8 the hymn fills out this idea by saying that Christ “humbled himself.” The Greek tapeinoo can mean to either cause someone to lose status (“humble”) or to lower one’s own status. It is critical here to notice that the text says Christ humbled himself.

In the passion narratives of the Gospels, the emphasis is on how Christ is humiliated — spat upon, tortured, crucified. Here, no one does this to Christ. He chooses for himself. In emptying himself of his status, he does give up his self; rather he gives full expression to his self in his obedience to God.

Have you ever willingly given up a bonus? A raise? A title? Or chosen not to push for something that you perceive is your ‘right’ by virtue of status, such as gender, race, or class?

Other texts in the New Testament ascribe various meanings to Christ’s death. Philippians does not, except to say that Christ’s fully embracing the human experience as a slave in order to fulfill his sense of obedience to God leads to his exaltation. Paul urges us to take on the mind of Christ. Only we can determine for ourselves what this means. But the model we have requires that we carefully scrutinize ourselves, that we do not discount the ‘booty’ we possess but rather recognize it for what it is, and consider carefully what we need to empty ourselves of in order to be faithful to God and to Christ who shows us the way.