Yesterday evening a few of us gathered to celebrate Passion/Palm Sunday with a reading of what is often called the passion narrative – the story of Jesus’ final days. This year’s reading of the passion story comes from the Gospel According to Luke – ‘the Peace Corps’ gospel, as I described it to a friend in seminary as we studied for our Bible content examination. The Peace Corps Gospel. For instance, in telling of what is often called the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel According to Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But not Luke. Luke’s Jesus simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” As Luke tells the story of Jesus he is consistently about the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized in society.
So it was from Luke that we took our passion reading, beginning on the patio, with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and a sort of synopsis of what had gotten us to that point, followed by the story of Jesus and his disciples sharing the Passover meal together and then the events following the meal which led to his arrest, crucifixion, and burial.
It’s not a long story, actually. Even including sharing communion, Eucharist, together and reading various prayers it took just under an hour to complete. As stories go, it is a very accessible one, actually.
Except, of course, that somehow it isn’t.
One of the participants said, after we had finished our service, “You know, I have been to many Holy Week observances in my life, but I’ve never actually heard the story – I didn’t know what happened.”
It seems to me that this is not an isolated case. That many of us – even those of us who may have grown up in the church – have not actually heard the story, even though we may have been surrounded by it all our lives.
I began to wonder why that is, why this is.
For it was true of my own life, I realized, as well. I grew up in the church. I learned the stories. I even read my Bible. But it was not really until I attended seminary and took a class called “The Death of Jesus” that I actually began to ponder, to wonder, why, actually, did Jesus have to die?
But, some might wonder, “Doesn’t everybody know that already?” It’s easy – “Jesus had to die for my sins so that I could go to heaven” is the Cliff Notes version of sorts. How could there be an entire class on the death of Jesus, part of me wondered – though of course I didn’t say that out loud.
Turns out there were many things I did not ‘know already’ – and which often caused my mind to tie itself up in knots each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon as I left the Death of Jesus.
Why did Jesus have to die? Well, for one reason, he ‘had to’ because he was a threat to the system, to the institutions of the day – both of religion and of government. He was a rabble-rouser. He hung out with all the wrong kind of people.
This Jesus talked openly with women (sometimes not just women, but the wrong kind of women), he brought healing to lepers (and, to add insult to injury, he touched them – a big no-no), he shared meals with tax collectors (the very ones who were economically exploiting their own people for their own personal profit) and he even associated with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. He was a trouble maker. Unless, of course, you were not invested in keeping the system as is. Unless, of course, you were not part of the status-quo. Unless you were one of those considered ‘riff-raff’ yourself.
During our reading of the passion narrative last night, Steve provided some context a bit closer to home – had Martin Luther King stayed in his Baptist pulpit he likely would have died a very old man. Had Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while sharing in the mass (whose feast day, it happens, and death day is March 24) been content to stay behind the table where he belonged, serving up the sacrament, he would likely have been around to do so much longer than he was. But for both of these religious men – a pastor and a priest- it was because they dared to leave the confines of the safely and narrowly defined religious space that, as they followed in the way of Jesus, practically ensured the fate which befell them.
Why did Jesus have to die? “Jesus had to die for my sins so that I could go to heaven when I die” is an easy phrase to throw around, but the problem is that it fails to acknowledge the reality of what was unfolding during that first Holy Week in Jerusalem.
Why did Jesus have to die? Well, for one thing, he was stirring up the people with this crazy talk and it had finally become too much. Not only that, he refused to listen to reason, to the good sense of the authorities. The Pax Romana was a precarious peace – one that was an enforced peace, one that required that any threat to that peace be quickly and completely snuffed out. The last thing anyone in Jerusalem wanted was to receive the retribution that would surely come from such rabble-rousing. Jesus had to be silenced. His followers had to be silenced. But, as the Palm Sunday reading from Luke states, “If the people were silenced the very rocks would cry out.”
I wonder if it might not be time, after so much time being in the midst of another Holy Week, for us to hear the story? To hear the story beyond what we might think it says, beyond what explanations we’ve been given for it? I wonder if the very rocks have begun to cry out…?