Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27
Palm/Passion Sunday – Year A
The first decision to make about this Sunday is: Palm or Passion?
Depending on your context it may make sense to wave palms, parade a donkey down the aisle and sing, “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.” Or it may be that where you live and move and have your being, folks don’t tend to show up on Thursday or Friday of Holy Week so delving into one of the Passion texts will prevent the congregation skipping the horrors of Holy Week, not allowing for a “glory to glory” scenario. I am torn, frankly. I happen to love the rituals of Palm Sunday and I feel cheated when I don’t have the opportunity to see some child relentlessly beating their sibling with a palm frond. However, I also recognize the reality that fewer and fewer people mark the week with multiple church services, a truth complicated by the fact that for many Spring Break and Holy Week coincide.
After reading through all of the possible texts appointed for this week I decided to pass on palms (cloaks and branches) and go with the first Passion reading from Matthew. I chose this text in part because when I read it again I noticed something I have never noticed before. I noticed the questions. (This was a fun exercise in the Matthew 27 text, too. Go through and write down the questions, notice you asks, the answers and the outcome.) In the Matthew 26 reading there are three questions, two of them posed by Judas. Judas asks the first one to the chief priests, and it is a classic, “What will you give me?” The exact question is more specific, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” No ambiguity here. Judas is on a mission of betrayal with the root motivation being a selfish fixation on what he can gain. What is in it for me? Perhaps that could be a definition of sin: seeking personal gain no matter the cost to another.
What is in it for me? When have we asked this question, perhaps not aloud, but in our heads or hearts? When have we lived out of the motivation of getting as much as we can by whatever means necessary? Our self-serving seeking may not be as blatant as Judas’ actions, but it can often have similarly violent and hurtful consequences. The state of our environment is due, at least in part, to our inability to put aside our own immediate interests for the sake of creation and future generations. Everything from zoning laws to economic policy is tainted by the question: What is in it for me? What will you give me? What can I get? How will I benefit? The Passion narrative begins in earnest with this simple, often asked, never innocuous question: What will you give me?
When have we asked it, either silently or aloud, explicitly or by virtue of our actions?
Judas gets his 30 pieces of sliver and from that moment he begins to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus. It won’t be hard. Judas is part of Jesus’ inner circle. Access isn’t the issue. Other Gospel accounts tell us that what Judas has to look for is not an opportune moment with Jesus, but an opportune moment without the crowd present. The religious leaders fear the crowds, the ones that threw down their cloaks and waved the tree branches. Betrayal takes place when others can’t hold us accountable or threaten our ability to get what’s in it for us. Realities such as “dark money” remind us that self-serving betrayals that give no regard for the welfare of others are always easier when people aren’t watching. Few of us are so brazen that we are willing for the world to know we are asking: What’s in it for me?
But Judas asks another question in this story. It is one asked by all the 12; at least it appears on the surface to be the same question. Look closely. In verse 22 we are told that after Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him, each one, distressed, asks, “Surely not I, Lord?” Then in verse 25 we get this from Judas, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” See the difference? The others call Jesus Lord, but Judas calls him Rabbi. (I went back and looked at the Greek just to be sure.) Judas will call Jesus “Rabbi” again in the garden when he completes his betrayal with a kiss. What’s the big deal? Rabbi is a title and address of honor, after all. Well, true, but there seems a distinct difference between acknowledging Jesus as an honored teacher and recognizing that his is your Lord, and in fact, the Lord.
I wonder if Judas’ ability to betray Jesus is tied to his inability to recognize Jesus’ lordship over him. It is easier to rationalize our behavior when we distance ourselves from those impacted by our choices. History tells that story over and over again. Africans are dehumanized and therefore slavery is an institution defended not only by Christians, but as Christian. Jews were dehumanized and demonized and the Holocaust continued even as more and more people become aware of the genocide. People needing public assistance are “welfare queens” and teenage offenders are “super predators.” The list goes on and on through the ages. Words define others and our relationship to them and that, in turn, shapes our behavior towards them and our decisions that impact them.
It is easier to betray your rabbi than it is your Lord. Perhaps this Passion Sunday is an occasion to consider how we define our relationship to Jesus. Which images and words do we use the most in our prayers, hymns and liturgy? Is Jesus our Teacher, Master, Friend, Shepherd, Savior, Lord? If so, how do our choices and behaviors reflect that relationship? Or do they?
Shaping our life around the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” inevitably leads to the wrong ordering of relationships. The other texts for this Passion Sunday point to a God who asked, no matter what the cost, “What do I need to give for you?” The suffering servant gives his back to be beaten, his beard to be pulled. He does not hide from spitting and scorn. The one who was of God, emptied himself, took on the form of slave, humbled himself and was murdered. There was nothing in it for him. Nothing. And we are told in Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The question we are to ask this Holy Week is not: “What will you give me?” Jesus gave us all. In response the question we should be asking is: “What, Lord, can I give you?”
- Can you think of other titles, labels and words that shape our relationship to people? To God?
- Read through Matthew 27:11-54 and note the questions, who asks them and what answers are given.
- If you choose Passion Sunday this week, what do you lose or gain? What do you lose or gain if you choose Palm Sunday?
- Try this week to really “look to the interest of others.” Note when you are called upon to do so and what happens if you are able to do it.
- How do you think Judas bold-face lies to Jesus? Do we ever do likewise?
- Pray this “Blessing of the Palms” prayer from the UCC Book of Worship this week:
O God, who in Jesus Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem, heralding a week of pain and sorrow, be with us now as we follow the way of the cross. In these events of defeat and victory, you have sealed the closeness of death and resurrection, of humiliation and exaltation. We thank you for these branches that promise to become for us symbols of martyrdom and majesty. Bless them and us that their use this day may announce in our time that Christ has come and that Christ will come again. Amen! Come, Christ Jesus!
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