April 13, 2014
PALM SUNDAY (A)
So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. – Matt. 27: 42
Matthew tells us that this statement was made by the chief priests, the scribes, & the elders: the most knowledgeable, respected, powerful & presumably intelligent group of men in the Jewish world at that time. As such, they represented one of the most enlightened & highest forms of religion the world had ever known.
In short, they represented that which is best & good in man’s religious quest. But our text reveals quite clearly the extent to which they had failed to recognize their own God when He came to them. This is so, not simply because they had Him crucified & then added insult to injury with their scornful, mocking remarks; but also because of the presupposition underlying the assertion noted above.
On the one hand, this statement implies that God has to prove Himself to us. WE are to be the judges of whether or not He is real. WE insist on making God dependent upon us. How ludicrous this must seem to the One who gave us life. This is even more true now that man is overawed by his own scientific advances. We must look like rebellious teenagers, & how amusing He must find our pathetic attempts to prove His existence.
On the other hand, our text betrays an inadequate view of the way in which God operates in His creation. In the minds of the Jewish leaders of our Lord’s time, the Messiah was to be a conqueror like Moses or David who would vindicate the chosen people & deliver them from their oppressors – NOT one who is executed at the hands of those same oppressors.
To them, God intervenes in His creation from without like a magician & makes things right. They could not understand a God who respects the integrity of that which He had created, who operates not from without but from within as One who suffers in & with others. Like them, we believe that God is all-powerful & then fail to recognize what kind of power it is that we are dealing with. Our idea of power is limited to visible force which is coercive. At one time or another all of us have been guilty of expecting God to play magician & right things that have gone wrong in our lives, especially those given to crisis Christianity who run to God ONLY when things go wrong. But when we go looking for God in the realm of visible power & do not find Him, we say that He does not exist.
The power of God is not visible because it is the power of love. We cannot point out something & say, “There is love.” No, because we can only point to a PERSON who loves. All we can point to are the actions & words which exhibit the characteristics of love. Real lovers never find it necessary to force anything upon the other. Each respects the integrity of the other. Upon occasion, this means suffering with & for the beloved. This is exactly what God did in Christ. Because we live in a sinful world, love often leads to suffering somewhere along the line; but it is creative suffering because it could not have happened without love.
“God is love,” says John. It is this kind of power that Christians hold to be invincible. To the extent that any form of power has validity depends on the extent to which it participates in & reflects that kind of love which is God as seen on Calvary. Christ challenged many vested interests. Sensing that, we have made God a second-class citizen in this blatantly materialistic culture of ours. God’s love is a fire that – like Moses’ burning bush – consumes without destroying. It can consume our material possessions & even our very lives.
That makes it costly; & this is what the chief priests & scribes & elders could not understand. They wanted a cheap kind of deliverance which would leave them personally intact. But if the best example of religion at the time failed so did the best in man’s rational & political nature, for it was Roman law that condemned Him, & Roman soldiers who also mocked Him.
Rome was the greatest of human empires because of the enduring quality of her many contributions to the intellectual & political life of humanity. She not only transmitted Greek learning but translated it into practical applications. The system of law she set up has proved to be so durable that It still provides a basis for law in the Western world. For example, the notion of citizenship did not exist in the ancient world until the Romans invented it.
Yet to say that the greatest of man’s religious, intellectual & political institutions failed God miserably on Calvary is only to say something we Christians already know: that humans are characterized by original sin, which is another way of saying that we are incurably selfish, short-sighted & limited.
Incurable, that is, if left to our own devices. It is God alone who can expand our horizons with a vision of eternity. That is why Christianity is far more realistic & pragmatic about human nature than many people give it credit for. We recognize that without the redeeming love of God as seen on the cross we humans remain spiritual cripples: inadequate, fragmented & imperfect. That is why any PURELY humanist, socialist, intellectual or political solution for the ills of our world is bound to fail, no matter how ingenious.
But if we fail God, He does not fail us. He can & does use our very mistakes for His own ends. If the Jewish leaders had not been so misguided in their zeal, Christ might never have been sacrificed for us. Again, it was the same Roman law that later protected St. Paul, & it was the PAX ROMANA which contributed to the rapid spread of the faith. The cross IS God’s power in action. That is why we call it GOOD Friday. AMEN!