April 9, 2006
I GAVE MY BACK TO THOSE WHO BEAT ME, MY CHEEKS TO THOSE WHO PLUCKED MY BEARD; MY FACE I DID NOT SHIELD FROM BUFFETS AND SPITTING (Isaiah 50:6)
The Old Testament text for Palm Sunday is the same for all three cycles. It is the third Suffering Servant Song from Second Isaiah (i.e., Isa 40-55). The book of Isaiah is the second longest book in the Bible after the book of Psalms. Its authors span several centuries from 742 BC to 500 BC. It’s also the single most important Old Testament book used in writing the New Testament. It is second only to the book of Psalms for being directly quoted in the New Testament. Much of the early Christian understanding of who Jesus was and the meaning of his life and ministry is derived from the book of Isaiah. It is a template for the gospels, the genetic code for the New Testament. Without the book of Isaiah there would be no New Testament as we know it.
The book is divided into three sections. This week’s text comes from what we call second Isaiah, an author who lived and prophesized during the bleak years of Babylonian captivity (ca. 587-539 BC). In the history of the Jewish people there was never a darker moment. Their beloved city of Jerusalem was no more. In addition, every living member of King David’s family had been killed, their temple destroyed and their priestly cult disbanded. Sadly, many of their people had been killed and, of those left, many of the most talented and influential of them were taken into captivity to the great city of Babylon (in present day Iraq). By all rights, the Jewish faith should have disappeared into non-existence, their God beaten by the more powerful gods of the Babylonians.
The prophet who wrote Second Isaiah had the daunting task of speaking to his disheartened people words of comfort and hope. He had to find a message that would give them reason to continue believing in their God, despite their great losses. He had to find the words to inspire them to remain faithful to their Jewish calling, a reason to continue being God’s chosen people.
His most difficult task, now that they were in captivity, was to tell them what God expected of them. They knew well why these calamities befell them. Prophets like Jeremiah warned them about what would happen to them if they continued in their infidelities. But now that the worst had happened, what did God expect of them? What purpose did God have for them?
It was in these circumstances that Second Isaiah came up with a revolutionary new concept, what we call Redemptive Suffering. Second Isaiah wrote four songs describing a servant of the Lord. It is never clear who this servant is (perhaps a single person or a faithful remnant?). Whoever it is, this ‘servant’ was faithful to God, holy and just. Being poor themselves they took the side of the poor and oppressed and spoke on their behalf. For this they were greatly persecuted. Yet, through all their suffering, they never complain, retaliate or seek justice for themselves. Through the suffering of this servant, Isaiah wrote, “the sins of all will be erased and all nations, not just Israel, are redeemed.”
When the four Gospel writers were recounting the last hours of Jesus’ life, they relied heavily on the four Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah for guidance and understanding. I suggest people read and pray over these four Suffering Servant Songs as a Holy Week meditation. They are: Isa 42:1-4, Isa 49:1-7: Isa 50:4-11 and Isa 52:13-53:12.
“THEY TOOK PALM BRANCHES AND WENT OUT TO MEET HIM, AND CRIED OUT: “HOSANNA! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, THE KING OF ISRAEL”. Jesus found an ass and sat upon it. (John 12:13-14)
The account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem the last week of his life is found in all four gospels. Its place in the Gospel narratives serves as the beginning of the end of the story, the dramatic action that sets in motion Jesus’ final confrontation with the Jewish ruling elites and their Roman masters.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was really a street demonstration, a parody of the triumphal entries of Kings and conquering generals common to the Jewish and Greco-Roman practice. Today we would call what Jesus did political street theater. In a typical entrance procession (in Latin a pompa) the citizens of the city would line the streets cheering while a parade beginning with foot soldiers, followed by archers then chariots, followed by any captured prisoners and booty won in war, passed them by. The people would save their loudest cheers for the king or general who came last in the procession in the largest chariot. The procession would end at the city’s temple where the king or general would be welcomed by the city’s leading citizens.
In Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession, there were no foot soldiers, archers, chariots, prisoners of war or war booty. There was only Jesus, the would be King, riding on the back of a donkey, while his disciples and followers followed him through the streets waving palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel” (John 12:13).
By riding on the back of a donkey Jesus was making an important statement about how his claim of kingship and method of exercising his authority differed from the worldly kings claims of kingship and exercise of authority. The gesture of riding on the back of a donkey was not lost on the citizens of Jerusalem, especially the ruling elite.
It comes directly from the book of Zechariah 9:9-11. In it Zechariah states that Israel’s King, a just and meek savior, will come to Jerusalem riding on an ass. He will disarm Israel and proclaim peace to all nations, freeing all prisoners. In this gesture Jesus was affirming all the things he was doing and teaching, claiming to be a different sort of King. His kingship did not need military violence or employ social or economic exploitation. Jesus’ kingship ruled by being merciful, inclusive, life giving and marked by a spirit of willing service and peace. He is the King who protects the needy, strengthens the weak and heals the sick. He comes not to fight for Jerusalem but to serve it; a radically different King!
Unlike the typical Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance procession Jesus did not have the backing of the leading citizens of Jerusalem. There was no official greeting party at the entrance of the Temple. (Jesus had no parade permit.) Nor did the people of the city welcome him as a whole. Mostly they were confused. “The whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘who is this?’” (Matt 21:10-11) There was indeed a crowd in the street cheering Jesus. “Some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’” Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40) Those cheering Jesus in the streets were probably his disciples and rural people from Galilee in Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, who were familiar with Jesus and his ministry. They certainly were not people Jesus could count on. The very next Friday, a similar crowd was gathered to condemn Jesus, cheering equally as loud, “Crucify him, crucify him!”