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Jesus knew what he was doing. That’s what the gospel writer wants us to understand. It’s why we hear two gospel passages on Palm Sunday. Our first gospel tells us the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we are reminded of how successful his movement actually was – how his amazing words and miraculous actions were known all across Roman-occupied Judea and how people gathered to see the man they thought of as a great prophet. When Jesus arrived in the big city, the crowd that followed him was so large that when they spread their cloaks on the road in front of him, the feet of his mount did not touch the dirty street. He literally received the “red carpet” (or palm carpet) treatment.
But he didn’t stay popular for long. According to our second gospel reading, it took less than one week for Jesus to become so unpopular that he died the ignominious death of a political prisoner. His was a quick and precipitous fall. Which makes you wonder if someone made a mistake somewhere along the line – if Jesus got some bad publicity – or if there was some sort of a scandal that made the public turn on him. You have to wonder how Jesus’s story took such an abrupt turn for the worse.
The short answer is that Jesus allowed it to. In fact, Jesus planned it – planned to be put through the betrayal, abasement and misery that we now call “Holy Week.” He chose to suffer and die. That’s what the writer of this gospel wants us to comprehend – that everything that happened to Jesus on his journey from regard to ruin was not just passively accepted by him, but that he actively sought it. All of it was part of the divine plan. All of it was necessary.
The narrative we enacted today from the Gospel of Matthew is based on the report of Jesus’s crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark – but Matthew’s is much longer and far more structured. Among other differences, Matthew’s gospel contains references to Hebrew Scriptures and character motives that never appear in Mark. That’s because Matthew’s gospel is not a “historical” document; it is a passion play. All of the gospel writers – and the authors of Paul’s letters before them – were no different than our own popular “nonfiction” writers of today. They had agendas. They were motivated by the desire both to emotionally touch people and to convince them of the truth of what they were writing. And to do it, they embellished.
That doesn’t mean that they weren’t telling the truth. They were exaggerating to make a point – and for Matthew the point is that Jesus needed to die – and Jesus knew that. One of the ways Matthew makes this argument is by referencing the Song of the Suffering Servant, part of which is found in the passage from Isaiah we heard today. Scholars don’t know who the suffering servant really was, but by emphasizing Jesus’s treatment at the hands of his persecutors – the way they used stealth, bribery, trumped up charges, false witnesses, mockery, and shaming to destroy him – the author of Matthew draws a direct parallel between Jesus and the suffering servant described by the Hebrew prophets. He also takes great pains to describe Jesus’s innocence and stoicism in the face of his impertinent questioners, as well as his willingness to stand down in the face of betrayal and denial by his closest friends. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was ready to die.
One of the most controversial books of the twentieth century (and films of the 1980s) is “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Criticized and condemned by some Christians as “heretical,” the book is a meditation on that very question. What would have happened if Jesus had opted not to die – if Jesus simply used his divine powers to step down from the cross and live his life as a “normal” man? “The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to…temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.” Jesus would not be “the Christ” – the salvation of humanity. That is what the letter writer means when he tells the Philippians that Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” choosing to be starved, whipped, and beaten – to be degraded and diminished as a human being – so that he could become a worthy God.
It is not a choice that we are asked to make. It is not a choice that we are able to make. Beating and starving yourself is not what it means to imitate Christ. While it is true that some people experience self-denial as a way of engaging the deep, sacrificial love of Jesus, it is not the only way – and for many of us it is simply not a realistic way. And it is not what I expect you to do for Holy Week, because it is unnecessary. Every one of us has already experienced humiliation, agony, and fear. We know what is like to feel pain that we desperately want to avoid. We already recognize the enormity of Jesus’s willingness to suffer voluntarily on our behalf. But we can make our own choice. We can choose to recognize God’s presence in our suffering – to listen when God speaks to us directly in response to our pain. That is how we learn to trust God. That is how we experience grace.
At the beginning of Lent I suggested that, rather than “giving up” something that you want to give up for your own benefit, you might think about adopting a Lenten discipline that would bring you closer to God. During this Holy Week I invite you to consider what it is that helps you to understand Christ’s sacrifice. To appreciate that the example that Jesus set for us by his willingness to accept his fall from superstar to scoundrel is not one of self-hatred but one of humility and trust. Jesus humbled himself because he believed in God and put himself in God’s hands. We can imitate him by choosing to believe that God will deliver us from our distress, our humiliations, and our fears. Jesus chose death so that we can choose life. Make that choice. AMEN.