Mt. 21:1-11; Some Kind of Victory March
2008-03-10 by Jule Nyhuis
This entry was submitted by Jule M. Nyhuis, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She currently serves as Minister to Children and their Families for a United Methodist Church in Tennessee. She has been preaching and teaching the scriptures in the church for nearly 15 years. All biblical citations are New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
This Sunday the gospel text of the lectionary takes us to the first step of the Passion Story. According to this story’s traditional title, Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem. But what sort of victory march is this after all? When I read it, it sounds so much like the Oscar-nominated actor whose name is all the buzz. In the weeks leading up to the big night, everyone wants to catch if even one quick quote from him. The paparazzi swarm. The red carpet awaits. Will he show up in Armani? Which glamorous gal will be on his arm? Finally his limo pulls up. The door opens. “Ooh!” the crowd swoons while flashes pop. His smile dazzles as the entertainment anchors all tug at his elbow. How does he feel about the nomination? How long did he take to get ready for the night? Who will he thank if he wins? It’s all the pre-show hype. Only . . . his name is not called. Again. Home he will go another year with no glittering statue gripped tightly in his hand. The victory eludes his grasp. And he’s left to exit the building empty. Alone; for the crowd’s gaze has turned elsewhere. It’s such a crushing defeat.
Everyone knows they can’t all win and I cannot help but wonder how Jesus might have been feeling about his red-carpet attention. Those of us who know the story, find today’s text so ironic. After all, Jesus (along with us readers) knew the destination of his palm parade; for he knew how fickle the crowd can be. Sometimes I wonder if he was thoroughly frustrated. As the writer of Matthew points out, Jesus gave them all sorts of clues. Some were even as subtle as a fry pan upside their heads. Already there had been three passion predictions (see Mt. 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). His disciples should not have been surprised by the events about to take place because Jesus, like a broken record, had told them the fate that await in Jerusalem. However, the very large crowd that came to spread their cloaks and cut-branches most probably missed that detail. We have to presume that some of these groupies are of the same crowds from earlier encounters. Why else would they add their own acclamations as Jesus came riding down that road on his way into the city? Matthew’s writer puts ancient words of worship (taken from Psalm 118:26) on the lips of this crowd. It is interesting to note that Psalm 118 is one of the Jewish “’Egyptian Hallel’ (‘praise’) psalms, sung before and after the Passover meal” (The HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers. 1993:908). Might the author have been emphasizing the Jewish ancestry of this crowd who were so obviously steeped in their faith tradition? They knew Son of David language and perhaps believed this donkey and colt rider the fulfillment of ancient hopes for the restoration of David’s dynasty. (Note that the Son of David title in Mt.21:9 is unique to the gospel of Matthew.) When pressed by unknowing Jerusalemites about the nature of who this is, they name Jesus a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee (Mt. 21:11). The unfortunate twist of this crowd is that they soon will cry: “Crucify!” (Mt. 27:22-23). A Roman centurion and a death squad (others are with the centurion and join in the proclamation according to Matthew alone) at the foot of the cross will be the first that week to sincerely profess Jesus the Son of God (Mt. 27:54).
One caution to us all when preaching these texts of Holy Week. We must be careful not to fall into the abyss of anti-Semitic statements. Even if the text tends to wander towards such conclusions, we must keep in mind that the gospel of Matthew was written at a time when Jewish-Christian relations were sorting themselves out. Pressure to define who was part of which group must have been at a high, if not for both groups, then certainly for this newly emerging religion. As preachers of Holy Week, Year A; we must be careful not to lay blame where a potentially over-anxious author might have been seeking to justify a community’s believed “rightness” of their own commitments.
One final word on Matthew’s Palm Sunday story. Here we have Jesus descending from the Mount of Olives. I encourage you to see Zechariah 14:1-9 to know more about the ancient prophecy about the Day of the LORD when the LORD would stand on the Mount of Olives and fight the foes of Jerusalem. “And the LORD will become king over all the earth” Zechariah 14:9 goes. If the author of Matthew indeed seeks to link Jesus’ Jerusalem entry with the prophet’s prediction, then what might we make of this act taking place as Jesus rides not one but two pack animals according to Matthew’s telling of the tale? Further, if you spend some time investigating a map of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, such as the one found in The HarperCollins Study Bible (Map 16), your imagination surrounding Jesus’ entry east from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem might soar. Did he hang a left at Gethsemane and come down the winding road directly into the Temple’s Golden Gate? (Matthew and others put Jesus in the Temple at the close of his Jerusalem entry.) Was it straight into Solomon’s Portico he went? Was this the same, but reverse, route ancient tradition said the “temple-departing glory of God” took (The HarperCollins Study Bible:1902, note on Mt.24:3)? (Also see Ezekiel 11:23 for more information.) I encourage you to play with the path in your mind’s eye this week and see what insight might come.
At last, I love the way the note on Zechariah 14:4 in The HarperCollins Study Bible puts it: “the divine feet (standing on the Mount of Olives) are sufficient to alter the landscape of Jerusalem” (1426). Wow! From the start, the gospel of Matthew has been intent on emphasizing the clash of kingdoms between that of this world’s and that of God’s. Remember that Matthew’s gospel alone includes the wise seekers heading to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king (Mt. 2:1-12). Matthew alone holds King Herod’s response to such news: he orders all nearby babies two years old and under killed, just in case these wise ones have it right and a new king is about to begin his ascent (Mt. 2:16-18). If we recall Jesus’ first sermon according to the gospel of Matthew: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt. 4:17), then what attention might we pay to the gospel’s explanation in Matthew 21:5 of this branch-cloaked parade? “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt. 21:5). It is as if Matthew’s writer seeks to say: “Look! Here is the king over all the earth who comes to alter the terrain of our lives.” For in this humble king, the ways of the world will be turned upside-down and inside-right. He will not descend into the city to exercise the strength of his muscle, but the strength of his heart. His will is turned not towards self-satisfaction, but towards God (Mt. 26:39). Even if he must suffer the humiliation and unspeakable pain of death at others’ cruel hands, he will endure it all in the hope of resurrected life. Indeed the divine feet are sufficient to transform the landscape of the world, even if it will take one altered life at a time until the ways of God’s kingdom at last overtake any other.
Our gospel text is rich with possibilities this week. Happy preaching to you all!
"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-03-06 by David von Schlichten
Guest blogger Teresa Strickland has given us much to soak up here amid the bubbles, and Tom Steagald has also created quite a splash. Please scroll down to their entries.
The Lazarus story seems to beg for what Henry Mitchell calls imaginative elaboration. If we go that route, creatively embellishing the story to help people connect to it, we want to make sure that we remain faithful to the message. When being creative, it is easy to wander into the cave of eisegesis and heresy.
You can go to Share It! and then to “Free Samples from Lectionary Homiletics” to read vanThanh Nguyen's exegetical article for this week's gospel.
Below are highlights from this week's articles in Lectionary Homiletics.
Arun W. Jones reminds us that, more important than whether the raising of Lazarus actually happened, is the meaning of the story. Arun also reveals that love is essential to the story's significance. Love is a salient motif in the story and what gets the Jews to believe in Jesus is that the sign is “performed in a context of a loving community” (p. 46). Jesus loves the people he cares for in the story, and the Jewish mourners are showing love for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Further, while we can believe in Jesus without a sign and believe in the sign without believing in Jesus, love is essential for belief in Jesus.
Kristin Saldine brilliantly points out that the story contains two miracles, the second one being that Jesus weeps. She suggests that, while the common criticism is that we are a society that avoids death, we are really a society that avoids mourning. People are expected to get over grieving as soon as possible. However, in our text, Jesus weeps. God saves us and grieves with us.
Saldine also refers to Kushner's When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough. In that book, Kushner writes that, to find meaning in our lives and bring relevance to our faith, we need to: A. accept the reality of pain in our lives; B. we need to learn how to belong to others; and C. if we seek meaning in our lives we will feel compelled to make a difference in the world (p. 47).
“Preaching the Lesson”
Anna Carter Florence waxes perspicacious as she focuses on the idea that, while God is the one who does the resurrecting, he calls upon us to do the unbinding. She writes about people who have emerged to life but then have not quite broken free of the bonds of death because no one unbound them. A person recovers but then relapses because no one helps the person with the process of breaking free permanently from old patterns and behaviors. Some of us fixate on grieving the deaths of our loved ones instead of letting them go and letting us go, too. Florence provides several examples such as these. Profound.
Unwrapping, I am
Ever yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2008-03-04 by Tom Steagald
I have written elsewhere on Lazarus, wondering if he wanted to be raised from the dead. I mean, did anyone ask him how he felt about the matter? I compare his dilema to mine when I was a boy, snug in the covers (read:burial cloths) and not wanting to wake or leave the comfort of the bed, but mother's voice was insistent that I must rise and go to school. Obedience dragged me out of slumber (Praying for Dear Life, NavPress, 2006; pp.17-19)
Likewise, Lazarus' answer to Jesus' summons is obedience, and in its own way as radical (or more) an obedience as the fishermen leaving the nets, the tax collector his booth. He obeys Jesus, which is the first task of (further?) discipleship.
It is an interesting notion...answering the call to life from the midst of (even comfortable) death to stand again against the given-ness of things.
On another, completely different note, the Girardian website mentioned some weeks ago (http://girardianlectionary.net) has an interesting reading of the Greek verb in vs. 33, most usually translated "deeply moved"--that in reality, Jesus feels anger that what should be a miracle executed among disciples and the loved ones of Lazarus (and keeping with the Johannine rendering of the Messianic Secret, i.e., "my time has not yet come") instead becomes a public display that occasions further grief when the word gets out.
I think I may try to enter the text through that portal--Jesus's anger/grief and his "in spite of it" ministry, which is how the Word is still to be enfleshed among us. Something like that.
Lazarus in the Funeral Home
2008-03-04 by David von Schlichten
It is fun to splash around the text in the tub with Teresa, an unmet neighbor of mine. I am in Latrobe, PA, a mere hour east of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where Teresa teaches (I have been on that campus many times and am looking forward to the lectures on Calvin that will be given there in April).
Anyway, I value her "imaginative elaboration" (Henry Mitchell's term) on the Lazarus text.
Sometimes I imagine the Lazarus story happening today. We're at the funeral home, during the viewing. The body lies in the casket, bloodless and embalmed. There is no way that body will live, but Jesus walks in, signs the guest register, takes some flak from the grieving family. He pays his respects. Then he orders, "Lazarus, get up!" and the body sits up.
I invite parishioners to imagine being in such a situation. How would they react?
From there, I would probably return to the text and advance to proclaiming how we are the beloved ones whom God helps. We have life, physical and spiritual, because of Christ. I'd help parishioners to see their Lazarene nature.
Please share your thoughts with Teresa.
Yours in Christ in the Steeler Nation,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2008-03-04 by Teresa Strickland
Some lections lend themselves to what I call character exegesis. This is an imaginative exercise, similar to Ignatian readings of scripture, trying to imagine yourself in the scene based on research. So I thought I’d engage in that little exercise to see what stirs. Though some scholars may eschew taking the scripture as literally true, I find that when I take scripture at face value and really go with it that deeper spiritual truths beyond mere facts emerge. So let’s see where looking at Lazarus takes us. .
Lazarus may be considered at first glance to be the easiest of the characters in this gospel lesson. After all, there’s not much character to examine in a dead man except insofar as he is remembered. We don’t know much about Lazarus. Jesus loved him enough to risk going to him when it was clearly dangerous (John 11:8). Jesus also weeps over his death and the grief of all the loved ones gathered. Exactly who Lazarus is we don’t know, other than that he is the brother of Martha and Mary—no doubt leaders of the early church because of their testimony. Lazarus’ name means “whom God helps.” The only other Lazarus in the Bible is the poor man who is suffering at the gates of the rich man who gets to rest finally in the bosom of Abraham.
We also know that during his last days, Jesus stays at Lazarus’ house where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil when he is at dinner with Lazarus and the disciples object to the extravagance and probably the scandalous sensuality of it all. After Lazarus is raised, it seems the dead man walking is quite the curiosity, as we read in John 12:9. Many believed in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus, and the religious authorities are so upset that they talk about how they can kill Lazarus; evidently he and those who witnessed his resurrection made excellent evangelists.
Literary types have wondered what Lazarus’ post-resurrection life was like, imagining that life must have been quite unbearable after knowing death. This is not Biblical, though. Instead, we have Lazarus feasting with Jesus in the days before his death in a picture of the Messianic banquet where the “anointed one” is indeed anointed. Scholars speculate that when Jesus retired to Bethany after confronting folks in Jerusalem that he stayed with Lazarus, which probably pleased Lazarus to no end. I probably wouldn’t want to leave Jesus’ side if I were Lazarus. Would you?
But now, let’s imagine Lazarus coming forth from the tomb. Warm light shines in the cold darkness. He hears the Word speak: “Lazarus, come forth!” How would he come forth? Tentatively at first, surely. His feet were bound together with a band of cloth over his grave clothes. The same was true of his hands and the cloth over his face secured at the neck with another band of cloth. This means he would have had to hobble toward the light. Bewildered, confused, but obedient, he puts weight on his feet then shuffles toward the light, which must have been blinding even through the face cloth. What did he hear after emerging into the light, I wonder? My imagination hears shocked silence, perhaps the rustle of people falling to their knees, mouths gaping open as they tried to wrap their minds around this turn of events. Even the birds were silenced in my imagination. The trees stopped whispering as the breeze died. Everything stands still.
Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was more like what Yeats described in “The Musee des Beaux Arts” where Icarus falls from the sky and no one even notices. (See http://poetrypages.lemon8.nl/life/musee/museebeauxarts.htm for the poem and an unclear reproduction of the painting by Breughel.) Maybe Lazarus came forth and most folks in the village barely took notice: “Oh, yeah, there goes Lazarus. Thought he was dead, but apparently he wasn’t. Oops!”
At any rate, there stands Lazarus before the open grave. Did it hurt when Martha and Mary rushed to hug him? When folks removed his grave clothes? Or was it more of an enveloping warmth? In the narthex of Benton Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University are two sculptures—one of Lazarus bound and the other unbound bursting forth with arms in wide-open joy. Some picture Lazarus as wistful, sad even, that he had to return to earth from the presence of God’s glory, as some do who have died and return to life. But many of those who have after-death experiences have a profound appreciation for life in all its mundane splendors. Would Lazarus have leapt for joy like Scrooge does on Christmas, stopping to praise God for the intricacies of even a fly’s wing? I’d like to think Lazarus’ life became one glorious, extended doxology—a model of human life touched by Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.
Spiritually, there is much here, isn’t there? When Christ calls us out of our tombs of death, we’re blinded, confounded at first. We’re not sure what anything means. We hobble tentatively toward the light, unsure, but compelled by that Word to obediently go forth. When we emerge from death for others to see, we can expect that no one else will know what to do with the changes they see in us. They may stand back at first to see if it’s really real before helping us take off the grave clothes and continue the process of being integrated into life in all its abundance, which continues to astound and amaze us as a profound gift of God, the Giver of Life, Christ the Resurrection, and the Spirit Life Eternal.
We don’t know much about Lazarus, but we know the effect he had on those who saw him come forth from the tomb. We know the effect their testimony had on the religious authorities as the leaders intensified their efforts to get rid of Jesus and the living proof of Lazarus that made life under Roman rule difficult at best.
But the religious authorities are another character to explore another time. . . .
I encourage you to use your “sanctified imagination,” dear preachers, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit that continues to bring us the living and life-giving Word through Holy Scripture. Preach on!
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