I think of the coming Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) as one of most over-loaded services of the year. It sets the agenda for the most ancient of the celebrations in Christianity. The oldest portions of the Gospels are the chapters that tell of the final days of the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem: arrival on a donkey with pilgrims shouting Hosanna, controversies coming to a head with the religious authorities, celebration of the Passover with the disciples, prayer and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the ecclesiastical and secular “trials,” crucifixion, death, and burial.
Here are three of my notes from our Bible study group regarding the St. Matthew Passion that we will read this Sunday.
Matthew is the gospel where there are two donkeys “and Jesus sat on them.”
One of those moments when scholars poke fun at whether or not Matthew misunderstood the parallelism in Hebrew poetry.
“Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9)
Or what if the gospel intentionally include a young still-nursing colt in order to convey an “unbroken” donkey, one on which no one else had yet sat? Fit for a king.
Matthew’s portrayal of the Garden of Gethsemane with the betrayal by Judas and later the denial by Peter. The scenes are all organized to address the early church and its concerns for surviving persecution. They heard in the Passion Narrative a call to faithfulness in their own lives: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Third, we need to address a terrible history of antisemitism. This is the gospel where Pilate in exasperation with their obvious religious motives forces them and their leaders to curse themselves: “His blood be on us and on our children.” It’s a kind of lame victory for the Roman authority who would rather appease the Sanhedrin than to insist on the rules of evidence. The struggle in the gospel is internal to Judaism: members of the religious establishment versus Christ and his followers.
Antisemitism often hides behind terrible theology about Jews as “Christ-killers” and this oath in Matthew. We need to denounce those sentiments and the behaviors they inspire. The early 17th Century hymn Herzliebster Jesu by Johann Heerman captures the Christian answer to “Who killed Jesus?” (Hymnal 1982 #158 “Ah, holy Jesus”):
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation:
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: