[Today is Palm Sunday. This is also Passion Sunday–a time for the church to consider the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus. From the hoopla of Palm Sunday to the pomp of Easter, it is possible for Christians to go from one celebration to another without ever confronting the cross. This year rather than focusing on the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we shall consider some neglected verses in the passion story of Jesus which can perhaps help us understand the true meaning of Palm Sunday.]
Mark’s story is coming to a rapid close. Jesus, the Son of God, has just breathed his last, crying out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The horrible death of Jesus, beginning with the torment and torture at the hands of ruffians and brute soldiers, proceeded to the traditional scourging administered before crucifixion. The whip used in this kind of beating had pieces of metal, rocks, and glass imbedded in it and would literally tear the skin and muscles in such a way that sometimes bones and internal organs were exposed. Jesus was then led to his execution. Crucifixion was a means of lethal torture designed to cause the greatest amount of suffering over the longest period of time. Each Roman legion had a “torture detachment” trained in the “fine art of pain.” Because of the scourging Jesus had already suffered, his death occurred six hours from the moment spikes were driven into his wrists and ankles. This was a relatively quick death compared to the many hours and sometimes even days some suffered who were crucified. In fact, Pilate was so surprised to hear that the robust carpenter was already dead that he checked with his centurion before allowing Joseph of Arimathea to take the body.
As Mark presents the death of Jesus, we look for some bravery and faithfulness on the part of someone besides Jesus in the face of this horrible suffering. Many people have seen the confession of the centurion as the climax of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus, rejected by his own people and abandoned by his own followers, is nevertheless confessed by a pagan Roman who is moved by his death. Here we can see perhaps some reason for hope for this particular Gospel. But Mark has skillfully crafted his words. What the Roman centurion said can be translated in two ways: “Truly this was God’s Son” (meaning “the Son of God”) or “Truly this is a son of God” (meaning this was a great man in his death and worthy of respect. This title of respect, “a son of God,” was frequently used in the Greco-Roman world. It is entirely possible that all the centurion meant was that he was impressed by the courageous way in which Jesus died, refusing to curse his tormentors. At any rate, we should not forget that it was the centurion who was responsible for carrying out the execution. And in the very next verses we see him obediently reporting to Pilate, continuing his service to a brutal regime. Throughout his Gospel, Mark would have us realize that confession without following and words without discipleship are worthless. The way Mark has phrased his Greek does not allow us to say unequivocally that the centurion’s confession is the climax of Mark’s Gospel. Indeed, it may be one more example of either a misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity or a cheap confession abandoned as quickly as it was made.
Well, what about Joseph of Arimathea? He went to Pilate, asked for the body of Jesus, placed the in a tomb, and sealed the entrance of the tomb with a stone. Surely, he is a hero—surely, he is one bright spot in this dismal story of cowardly and failed discipleship. But we should remember that Joseph was an aristocrat and a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the very council which condemned Jesus. As a part of the established order ruling Palestine he was in no danger approaching Pilate. Joseph was no peasant or pauper. He was a man of means and power. And he perhaps did the decent thing in burying Jesus before the Sabbath, although he did not give Jesus the proper last services expected at Jewish burials. That was left for the women to do. In fact, the word used by Mark to describe Joseph’s wrapping of Jesus’ body is normally used of fettering prisoners or holding people in a net. Mark leaves us wondering what kind of burial Joseph really gave Jesus. We are left scratching our heads wondering if Joseph is the hero we have been waiting for.
So, we are left with what? One disciple who betrays Jesus, one who denies him and does so with vulgarity, and ten more who run like scared rabbits—a Jewish kangaroo court led by the chief priests of Jerusalem plotting Jesus’ destruction–a Roman prefect named Pilate more interested in expediency than justice–a centurion who makes an ambiguous confession to say the least (contrary to the novel and movie entitled The Robe) and does not move toward discipleship–and a Jewish big shot who gives Jesus a hasty and not so kosher burial. Surely Mark can do better than this in describing the climatic death of Jesus! Where are the heroes?
Well, they have been there all along. At the end of each stage of this two-fold death/burial drama Mark refers to some “watching” women (15:40,47). By itself, this vigil would not be noteworthy, for it was the custom for charitable women of Jerusalem to attend to the crucified. But Mark tells us that these were not Jerusalemite women. No, these were Galilean disciples of Jesus. And then in one sweeping phrase Mark describes these women in a manner that epitomizes them as model disciples. He said they “followed” Jesus and they “served” him. That word serve is diakonein and is the root word for our term “diaconate/deacon.” Mark begins his Gospel with a woman (the mother-in-law of Peter) serving Jesus. And now he ends his Gospel with a reference to women disciples serving Jesus. Is Mark saying that only the women disciples understood the true vocation of leadership?
I would point out these verses in Mark’s Gospel:
Mark 9: 35–“Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant (diakonos) of all.” (Jesus makes this statement after the twelve disciples were arguing as to who among them was the greatest.)
Mark 10: 43– (This teaching comes after James and John had approached Jesus asking for first and second places in the Kingdom of God.) “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant (diakonos).” And then Jesus said that he came to be a servant to all.
The Gospel of Mark is about how the twelve disciples failed time and time again in learning this lesson about discipleship, servanthood, and leadership. And now, with them scattered like a covey of quail, we see the true disciples who have understood all along.
Mark tells us that these women came to Jerusalem with Jesus and stayed with him to his death. In other words, not all the disciples deserted Jesus at Gethsemane. The women were faithful and now become the lifeline of the discipleship story.
So, Mark would have us know that the women have done two things that the men in the Jesus movement found impossible : (1) they have been servants and thus have imaged the very nature and mission of Jesus and, therefore, have become leaders after the manner of Christ, and (2) they continued to follow Jesus even after he was arrested and executed. So, who were these women? We are told that there were many women who came with Jesus to Jerusalem. Why does Mark name just three? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses (Jesus’ mother?), and Salome? Is it possible that Mark is presenting them as an alternative to the three men of the former inner circle of the Twelve (Peter, James, and John)? Is it possible that Mark is saying to us and to the world, “You want heroes? I’ll show you heroes: women who understood where men would not; women who served in the manner of Jesus where men would not; and women who remained faithful when men would not.”
Throughout his Gospel, Mark has surprised us with the radical reversals of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. And now as he comes to the conclusion of his Gospel, we find his last example of this radical reversal. The world-order where men led, demonstrated courage, monopolized wisdom, and controlled access to God has been overturned. Mark ends his Gospel telling us that it was these women, the “last” who became “first,” who were entrusted with the resurrection message.
Now, how does this help us understand Palm Sunday? Palm Sunday is about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey, the symbol of peace. Palm Sunday is about a Messiah, the King of Kings, who will rule through sacrificial love and not the bloody sword. Palm Sunday is about a Savior who will redeem not by decree but through service. Palm Sunday is about a Lord who becomes a servant. Palm Sunday is about a leader who understands the power of compassion and caring. Palm Sunday is about a God who comes in gentle, vulnerable, committed ways and offers the Divine Self for the healing and salvation of the world. Virtually none of this was understood by the male disciples of Jesus. They consistently preferred brute force to compassionate sharing, haughty pride to self-giving love, positions of prominence to places of service, and easy religion to the cost of genuine discipleship. But where the men failed, Mark tells us the women, most of them unnamed, remained faithful to the very end. They and they alone are worthy of the term leader as it is taught and exemplified by Jesus. They and they alone understood what that entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was all about. And they and they alone in Mark’s Gospel receive the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. (The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end with verse 8. Scholars have recognized for many decades that the two “endings” after verse 8 did not come from Mark but were written by other men who perhaps were not happy with the way Mark concluded his Gospel.)
And over the centuries that has continued to be the pattern in the church. Granted, there have been women who have misunderstood as well as women who have been as wrong-headed and wrong-hearted as any male follower of Jesus. But on the whole, women through the centuries have understood the gospel precisely where men have failed–at that point where God is defined in ways which prefer participation to power, mutuality to hierarchy, respect to pride, cooperation to competition, sacrificial love to being so everlastingly right, and dignified service to manipulated obedience. In short, women have comprehended and incorporated into their lives the true lessons of Palm Sunday and authentic leadership.
So, my brothers, the heroes of the Jesus movement are often standing right before us. Don’t you think it’s about time we learned from them who God is, what God is about, and what it means to follow and serve Jesus? What is at stake is not just the rights of women within the church. What is at stake is the gospel and a redemptive understanding of the God Jesus came to reveal. The heroes are still right in our midst, if we would but see and love as God sees and loves.
Gracious God who continuously comes to us with new offers of salvation, life, and community, we acknowledge with gratitude your great love for us as we begin this Holy Week
We join the multitudes this day as we sing our Hosannas and offer our worship. Help us to feel the breadth of a joy which flows from knowing you as our God and our King, and grant that we will praise you with a committed understanding of what it means to name you Lord of our lives and of our world.
Keep us from praise which knows not the cost of love or the price of your peace.
Deliver us from a communion which trivializes your presence in our midst and treats lightly the holy potential you bring in the broken bread and the new wine of Jesus.
Save us from dishonest prayer, indifferent devotion, and hopeless resignation.
Rescue us from the betrayals and the denials of Jesus we are prone to commit in word, deed, and attitude as we seek everything but your Kingdom and its righteousness.
Grant that this week as we remember our Lord’s faithfulness and love and acknowledge the failures and fears of his disciples, and ourselves, we may experience afresh your forgiveness, your solidarity with us, your committed love which will not let go.
Above all, may we not gaze upon your holy sacrifice for this world without it transforming us into new men and women centered on your will and marked by your love. We pray, O Lord, that you will prepare us to meet the King as he comes to us in peace and humility, in broken bread and new wine, in sacrificial love and in the hope of eternal life. Hear our prayer in the name of Jesus, our Rock and our salvation. Amen.
If we are followers of Jesus, we are all a part of the diaconate–a part of those who serve. And those who lead among us must be the servants of all. The original meaning of the Greek verb diakonein was to serve at table. At this Table the host, the servant, and the nourishment are all found in one person. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the One who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey of humility and peace, who washed the dirty feet of proud men, and who offered his life in love for God and this world is the same One who is in our midst today. On this Palm Sunday as we partake of this bread and wine, may we understood more fully who he is and whom he calls us to be as we follow him in the ways of love and peace.
Jesus came into Jerusalem that last week of his life in love and peace as he offered himself for the healing of the world. And he bids us follow him. There is still a need in our world for heroes who understand who Jesus is and what he is truly about. Indeed, can there be any hope for our world without such heroes? This week, as we enter our own Jerusalems, wherever and whatever they may be, let us follow him who is the way, the truth, and the life.