Reflections on the Passion

March 28, 2010    Palm/Passion Sunday

Luke 19:28-40    Luke 23:1-49


Poem for Palm Sunday

will I lay my cloak before you,
when they arrest you on olive mountain,
or pull it tighter around me,
fading into the ranks of the deserters;

will I shout
'Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of the Lord!'
when they parade you
before the authorities,
or will I tell any one - and every one - around me
I never met you in my life;

will I lay my palm branches at your feet,
as they march you to Calvary,
or use them to put more stripes
on your bloody back;

will I run behind you
when they carry you to the tomb,
or turn away
as the ashes of my hopes
are rubbed into the
wounds in my heart?

  Luke 23:1 Then the entire council took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. 2 They began to state their case: “This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.”

 3 So Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

   Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

 4 Pilate turned to the leading priests and to the crowd and said, “I find nothing wrong with this man!”

 5 Then they became insistent. “But he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!”  

6 “Oh, is he a Galilean?” Pilate asked. 7 When they said that he was, Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, because Galilee was under Herod’s jurisdiction, and Herod happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.

Strange, that Pilot would be the one who actually saw Jesus for who he was and recognized his innocence.  The crowds who protested that he was guilty of something were made up of faithful Jews, everyday folks, many of whom had been following Jesus and listening to his stories and his sermons.  Why didn’t any of them speak up for Jesus?  Why didn’t even one of them say that he was innocent?  Was the intimidation practiced by the religious authorities so strong that they feared for their own lives if they dared to say something against them?  There is a story about Khruschev at the time he was pronouncing his famous denunciation of Stalin, someone in the Congress Hall is reported to have said, “Where were you, Comrade Khruschev when all these innocent people were being slaughtered?”  Khruschev paused, looked around the hall, and said, “Will the man who said that kindly stand up!”  Tension mounted in the room.  No one moved.  Then Khruschev said, “Well, whoever you are, you have your answer now.  I was in exactly the same position then as you are now.” According to our scripture reading, even powerful Pilot was not willing to stick his neck out and contradict the Jewish religious authorities directly.  After attempting to gain support for his pronouncement that Jesus was innocent, and finding none, he seized the chance to send Jesus off to Herod in the vain hope that hHerod would take the matter off his hands.

Luke 23:8 Herod was delighted at the opportunity to see Jesus, because he had heard about him and had been hoping for a long time to see him perform a miracle. 9 He asked Jesus question after question, but Jesus refused to answer. 10 Meanwhile, the leading priests and the teachers of religious law stood there shouting their accusations. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers began mocking and ridiculing Jesus. Finally, they put a royal robe on him and sent him back to Pilate. 12 (Herod and Pilate, who had been enemies before, became friends that day.)

 13 Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, 14 and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. 15 Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. 16 So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”

 18 Then a mighty roar rose from the crowd, and with one voice they shouted, “Kill him, and release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas was in prison for taking part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the government, and for murder.) 20 Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

 22 For the third time he demanded, “Why? What crime has he committed? I have found no reason to sentence him to death. So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”

 23 But the mob shouted louder and louder, demanding that Jesus be crucified, and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate sentenced Jesus to die as they demanded. 25 As they had requested, he released Barabbas, the man in prison for insurrection and murder. But he turned Jesus over to them to do as they wished.

Despite his best efforts, Pilot was the one who ended up sentencing Jesus to death.  He was a part of a system that owned him, a system that he was a mere player in.  He could not slip out of the role and leave it to someone else, and so Pilot did what he could.  He used all of his powers of persuasion to try and change the minds of those who accused Jesus.  He offered to flog him - punishment enough, it seemed for the petty crimes they were accusing Jesus of - but the Jews were having none of it.  They insisted on the highest punishment available, the death penalty - and not an easy death, either - a very painful, agonizingly slow death.  Against the backdrop of Jesus’ false conviction, Barabbas, a man who was most certainly guilty of murder and insurrection, was let free.

When I read this account, I find myself vacillating between getting angry at Pilot and feeling sorry for him.  Angry with him for not being stronger, for not sticking to what he knew to be true of Jesus - that he was innocent, and feeling sorry for him because he was just a pawn in the hands of the religious authorities.  Pilot is a very human figure, someone that we can relate to in terms of knowing what is right and still not being able to get to the point where he could act on what he knew.  We find ourselves stuck in situations like this too, don’t we?  We often know far better than we do.  We can feel as if we are only a part of a much larger machine, and that we alone cannot change the outcome.  We imagine ourselves to be only one small voice, incapable of being heard.  We think of ourselves as ineffectual and incapable of producing real change.  The truth is that we also fear for our own safety and long-term security, and so we go along with the status quo, hoping someone else will come along who can change things, someone who is stronger than us, who understands the situation with more clarity than we give ourselves credit for.  In my own experience, there are times when I sit back, noticing something is wrong, afraid to speak up because I can’t imagine that I am the only one who notices.  I assume that someone else will say something, someone who has more authority or more clarity.  Alternately, I assume that maybe I don’t understand what is happening, maybe there is a detail I am unaware of, and so I am wrong about the whole thing.  I don’t trust my own judgement when faced with the fact that no one else is saying anything at all.  

I wonder how many events in history and in everyday life might have been different if simple folks who noticed something spoke up and spoke their truth?  How might the world be different?

Luke 23:26 As they led Jesus away, a man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, happened to be coming in from the countryside. The soldiers seized him and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A large crowd trailed behind, including many grief-stricken women. 28 But Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are coming when they will say, ‘Fortunate indeed are the women who are childless, the wombs that have not borne a child and the breasts that have never nursed.’ 30 People will beg the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and plead with the hills, ‘Bury us.’ 31 For if these things are done when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross when he grew too tired and weak from his beatings to carry it himself.  I cannot imagine the mixture of emotions going through Simon’s mind as he did so.  Historical accounts don’t say much about him, but a new book called “Simon’s Crossing” attempts to put a face on him and his experience.  The Roman soldiers who pressed Simon into service were well known throughout Jerusalem for their brutal acts against anyone who got in the way, and so Simon did as he was told, but what was he thinking?  What did he know of Jesus?  How complicated it must have been to be helping Jesus by lightening his load, but also at the very same time to be moving him closer to the moment of his death.

Jesus’ comments to the women who were trailing behind him express the depth of what is going on here.  It is not just a death, but a death that reveals everything that is wrong with the systems of those days - political and spiritual.  Jesus had come to the people, in Isaiah’s words, which Jesus quoted in reference to himself early on in his ministry, “to preach good news to the poor....to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..” They all had to be wondering if anything would come of it all, if Jesus’ life and ministry would make a difference for all of the high hopes they had held at the beginning, or was it all in vain?

Luke 23:32 Two others, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.

 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.

 35 The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine. 37 They called out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 A sign was fastened to the cross above him with these words: “This is the King of the Jews.”

 39 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

 40 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? 41 We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

 43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Even facing imminent, painful death, Jesus still expressed compassion for the people around him.  He cared about people whom others had given up on - common thieves hanging on their own crosses.  He even cared about the soldiers gambling at his feet for the few pieces of clothing that remained in his possession, asking God to forgive them because they really had no idea what they were doing; they didn’t know the magnitude of the event in which they were participating and on a human level, they really didn’t seem to know anything about compassion.

Luke 23:44 By this time it was noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. 45 The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. 46 Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last.

 47 When the Roman officer overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, “Surely this man was innocent.” 48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. 49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

Even the head of the soldiers who had been assigned the duty of crucifying Jesus saw his innocence!  How could the religious authorities have made such a grave error in judgement?  How could they have put Jesus to death when all of the secular folks around them kept pointing out his innocence?  Because he threatened them and their authority.  The secular folks had nothing to lose in keeping Jesus around and letting him keep speaking, preaching, healing.  It was the religious folks for whom the stakes were too high.  They had too much to lose by letting him continue to preach about compassion and love, and talking about God as “father” or “abba” which translates as “daddy.”  If people started feeling that God was approachable, God whose name the Jews didn’t even pronounce or write in its fullness due to his high and holy nature, then there was less need of the rabbi’s to interpret and the priests to demand sacrifices.  If people started having a personal relationship with God, then the whole authority of the priests and rabbis would fall into ruins.

It is so interesting to me, that after all that Jesus did in terms of helping people make a more personal connection with God, to see God as loving and compassionate, even as “daddy,” that even the churches of today often position themselves squarely in the middle between God and people.  This week, this holy week between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem accompanied by waving palm branches, smiling faces and shouts of hosanna and before Easter’s resurrection celebration, is a time when each of us can draw closer to God.  The curtain in the sanctuary ripped in two when Jesus died as a symbol of the fact that the holy of holies - the place behind the curtain that only priests could enter - was now available to everyone.  Anyone who wanted to draw close to God could do so just by setting his or her intention and following through on it.  Why don’t we all set our intention to draw close to God this week?  This could take the form of listening carefully for God’s silence in the midst of the hustle and bustle, living out the compassion of Christ Jesus in our everyday interactions, and being present to our lives moment by moment, breath by breath.

May each beat of my heart draw me closer to God this day.

May this life that I lead touch others with the compassion of Jesus.

May I feel the breath of God moving through me every moment.