Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) (Year A)

How do we relate a story that much of our audience already knows by heart?

April 17, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 27:11-54

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.