The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday - 13 April 2014

The Liturgy of the Palms
-       St. Matthew 21:1-11
-       Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word
-       Isaiah 50:4-9a,
-       Psalm 31:9-16
-       Philippians 2:5-11
-       St. Matthew 26:14-27:66

Background: Palm Sunday
With the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council in the Roman church, and the subsequent reforms in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches in the late 60s and 70s, this Sunday is a conflation of two ceremonies.  The first is the Palm Sunday Liturgy and Procession, which includes the reading of the Palm Sunday Gospel, a psalm is also provided, and finally the blessing of palm branches and the procession into the church.  What follows then is a focus on the reading of the Passion.  Some have described this as a “whiplash” liturgy, with the joy of the entry into Jerusalem, followed by the sorrows of the reading of the passion. 

The symbols and images of the Sunday are many.  Some refer to the donkey as a symbol of peace, when actually it was a more available creature in the 10th century BCE than a horse.  There is nothing humble about it – it was the mode of transportation for the kings ruling in the Levant for some time.  The palm branches and strewing the way with scarves and cloaks was also a common practice, making any humble entry grand with color and movement.  Jesus does come into Jerusalem in the manner of a king.

The Liturgy of the Palms

St. Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

There is an economy to this reading, with many relevant details and descriptions seemingly omitted.  Many commentators describe these omissions as a sign that this is one of the earliest of the traditions and memory of the early Christian community.  Matthew is only interested in describing Jesus as a Messianic King entering his city.  What follows in the subsequent chapters in Matthew go on to describe the nature of Jesus’ kingship both through action (for example – the Cleansing of the Temple) and a Series of Parables.  The core of material is meant to describe what Matthew sees as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, namely, Isaiah 62:11, and Zechariah 9:9.  The stronger of the two is the Isaiah quotation, which further describes the messianic nature of Jesus’ entry and its ties to the Davidic monarchy.

Breaking open Matthew:

1.     What are Jesus’ royal attributes?
2.     In what ways do you see Jesus’ humanity?
3.     What is this scene really all about for you?

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."

Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the LORD.

"This is the gate of the LORD; *
he who is righteous may enter."

I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.

The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the LORD'S doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

On this day the LORD has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Hosannah, LORD, hosannah! *
LORD, send us now success.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the LORD.

God is the LORD; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

"You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

This psalm is a thanksgiving psalm, and as the lectionary parses it out for this day, the initial verses are ones of acclaim and praise.  The second verse suggests the psalm was some kind of responsive liturgy, spoken between two groups.  The psalm is actually filled with several focal points, and appears in some editions as five different psalms.  On this day we use the final verses, which are appropriate to the Liturgy of the Palms, but with hints of what will follow in the Sunday of the Passion liturgy.  The reference to the gates opening up recalls the import of the day.  The following phrase about the cornerstone reminds the reader of Jesus who is discarded at points, but is seen by others as the messiah. The stone that the builders rejected reminds us of the speaker’s presence in the temple.  That which was once deemed inappropriate for use is now incorporated into the grand structure. 

The psalm also includes the Benedictus qui venit, which is used in the closing lines of the Sanctus.  (I was surprised by the practice in my current parish, which has a Rite I liturgy early in the morning, that this phrase is omitted by the people. They will have to learn to say it.)  It is followed by references to branches and a procession to the altar.  This is a wonderful temple psalm that speaks to the practice of Palm Sunday.

Breaking open Psalm 118:

1.     Why do you think Christians identify Jesus with the rejected stone?
2.     And likewise, Jesus as the cornerstone?
3.     How does Jesus enter into your life?

At The Liturgy of the Word

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

In the passage from the second Isaiah, we have the third of the Servant Songs.  Form critics liked to refer to this psalm as an individual lament (see 5a and 6), but others see it as a psalm of confidence, and verses 7ff are cited in defense of this view.  What it does for Christians is to depict not only the trials of Jesus during his passion, but also to describe the divine support that lifts up Jesus during his Passion.  What is present here is the confession of one who is willing to use his own life as a lesson and a discovery of what it means to live with both sin and God’s favor.  He assumes that the example of his life will be inspirational to those (Israel?) who have suffered much.  Prophets are called to stand firm, “I have set my face like flint,” and thus announce YHWH’s word to the present. 

The final verses call us to a courtroom, there to determine truth and to execute justice.  The adversaries and accusers are left nameless, but the advocate is written with a sharp focus, “it is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty.”  What the prophets had said about Israel’s guilt is now in the time of exile and return reversed.  God is on their side.  Christians, likewise, will see in the aid and counsel of the Lord God, a model of the Spirit who stands beside us in all things.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     How is Jesus a servant to you?
2.     How do you see in the Suffering Servant the life of Jesus?
3.     How are you a servant?

Psalm 31:9-16 In te, Domine, speravi

Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.

For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.

I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.

For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.

But as for me, I have trusted in you, O LORD. *
I have said, "You are my God.

My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.

Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

In its original sense, the psalm seems to be a personal lament, in which the author bemoans his situation in life.  The scope is broad and wide, unlike the 23rd psalm, which is narrow and intimate.  Here there is no “valley of the shadow” of death, bur rather a “wide-open place” (see verse 8, not included in the parsing for today’s psalm).  The impression is that the psalmist is expected to deal with his lot in a place where god has placed him, “you set my feet in a wide-open place.”  In this vast theater, with all looking on, the author discovers his repulsiveness.  The phrases used to describe this psychological reaction to something difficult in his life are from the other psalms, and sources (Jonah and Jeremiah).  What is clear in this psalm is that death is an end, “I am forgotten…I am as useless as a broken pot.”  Never the less the author still is calmed in the protection of God – “my times are in your hand.”  That Christians would see the crucified and suffering Christ in these words is no surprise, and they are used with great effect on this day.

Breaking open Psalm 31:
  1. What laments do you have in your life?
  2. Are the reasons for your lament public?  Do others know the details?
  3. How does this lament affect the image you have of yourself?

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but 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 of death--

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In a section of instruction to the community, Paul addresses three virtues that he commends to the people of Philippi.  Of the three, steadfastness, harmony, and humility, our reading comprises the bulk of the section on humility.  Paul holds up for his readers the example of Christ’s own humility, and it is this humility that he urges the to take hold, to possess, to put on – “have the same mind.” 

What follows then is the inclusion and adaptation of an early Christian hymn that describes the stages of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation.  In six stages: “divine pre-existence”, “Incarnation”, “Death”, and then “Heavenly exaltation”, “Cosmic Adoration”, and finally “Jesus = ‘kyrios’, Lord”.  What results is a confession of the early church’s kerygma (proclamation) and belief.  In the first three stanzas, Christ is the actor - while in the last three, God is the actor.  To these verses Paul makes an emendation that specifically points to the passion of Jesus, “even death on a cross.”  Thus the “emptying” of Christ becomes an example for the behavior that the Philippians are bidden to follow, and the last verses describe the behavior of worship that all Christians are bidden to follow.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. In what ways have your followed Christ’s example of humiliation?
  2. How is Jesus Lord in your life?
  3. Have you ever emptied yourself out for some good purpose?  What was it?

St. Matthew 26:14- 27:66

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I betray Jesus to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'" So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me." And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?" He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" He replied, "You have said so."

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

`I will strike the shepherd, 
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'

But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee." Peter said to him, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Again he went away for the second time and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him." At once he came up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him. Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you are here to do." Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?" At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, "This fellow said, `I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'" The high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you,

From now on you will see the Son of Man 
seated at the right hand of Power
, and coming on the clouds of heaven."

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death." Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, "Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?"

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before all of them, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about." When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." Again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you." Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know the man!" At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." But they said, "What is that to us? See to it yourself." Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money." After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter's field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me."

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, `I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

If we know the passion narrative of Mark, the earliest of the narratives, then we, by in large, know that of Matthew as well.  It might be best to follow those aspects of the Matthean narrative that stand alone and apart from the narrative of Mark.  Matthew constantly calls to mind the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures as a point of departure and a commentary on the passion itself.  One such area is the notion of “responsibility for the blood of an innocent person.”  Even Judas, along with Pilate’s wife, and Pilate himself struggle with this responsibility.  Judas attempts to give back his ill-gotten gain.  Pilate’s wife seeks to dissuade him, and Pilate washes his hands in a ritual act that he hopes will dispose of the responsibility.  The most potent of these references comes from the people themselves who proclaim, “his blood be on us and on our children.”  Matthew was probably written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.  Thus the obvious connection of consequences to these responsibilities seems part of the Matthean program.  It is a connection that has its difficulties and seems to sum to a general responsibility that is not compatable with our own understanding in these times, “This is what you must say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep’…and to this day that is the story among the Jews.” (Matthew 28:13-15).

There is another connection as well.  In the birth narrative, it is a star (nature itself) that announces the birth, and serves as a guide to those who would know Jesus.  Likewise in the passion narrative, nature has its say as well in earthquakes, breaking rocks, the opening of tombs.  The final sign, the raising of bodies, along with the earlier natural occurrences point to an intervention by God to point out the significance of the events of the narrative, and to imply their source and inspiration. 

Reading the two narratives, that of Mark and then of Matthew, provides for both the student and the preacher an opportunity to see Matthew’s “take” on the events, and how the particularities of his own time serve to influence how the evangelist tells the tale.  Such might be a good work for Holy Week. 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What events of your life inform you as you tell the story of the crucifixion?
2.     What are your emotions during Holy Week?
3.     How will you observe the week?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020