I am going to shoot from the hip today.
Palm Sunday, in fact, the entire Passion Story
gives me heartburn
and is a source of agitation and discomfort.
Of course, it should be
given that it is about torture and death.
But even beyond the gruesomeness,
so many interpretations ABOUT the story
of Jesus’ last week have grown to surround it
like barnacles on the hull of a ship.
But all of that happens only if we read it as prose
and try to make a history of it
rather reading it like the poetry that it is.
This is a weeklong story
and so I will deal with the prose of it today
and the poetry of it on Good Friday.
As prose and history
this story makes very little sense.
Christian interpretation of weird gospel details
has tried to bend it into shape,
reconciling and conforming the oddities
into something plausible.
On the other hand,
as poetry it is stunning,
But like I said,
if you want the whole story
you’ll have to come back at 12:15 on Good Friday.
I will begin this Palm Sunday segment
by dismissing the Passion as history.
What we know is Jesus was executed.
After that we know very little of the history.
What we know is that he had gained significant popularity and fame up in Galilee,
which would be like Upstate New York
to Jerusalem as New York City.
In other words,
those small-town rubes liked him a lot
and even in the more cosmopolitan outposts
like Nazareth, they thought he was pretty special.
But taking his show down to the city
where they were more sophisticated and cynical,
and where corporate interests were concentrated
with greater jealousy and power,
was a very risky enterprise.
Yet, it was the eye of the tiger
that needed to be punched.
So between that dynamic
and a sentence of death by execution,
we have only the highly stylized stuff
the gospel editors fashioned
to further their interpretation of events.
We do not know exactly why Jesus was executed.
We do know he was executed
the same way criminals get executed
in the United States with electrocution
or even firing squad.
It was meant to dissuade other would-be insurrectionists.
The Romans had very clear laws
regarding capital punishment,
and it was reserved for very particular crimes.
You might think about that the next time
you put a cross around your neck –
it should be an electric chair.
The cross is the symbol of state terror
The Passion Story of Jesus’
is told with different details
by the four gospels writing 40 to 70 years later,
and not told in any detail
by the earliest Christian writer, Paul.
As we will see on Good Friday,
the earliest stories of the last week of Jesus’ life
were told through the lens of Isaiah’s
Suffering Servant Song
not from the details of historical research.
So we do not really know what happened that week,
we really don’t.
We know how the gospel editors told the story
to make sense of it for themselves,
but as to the actual events of that week
we know very little.
For our purposes,
I am going to pick at just the low-hanging fruit,
which are details in the story we know can’t be right
and then fill in those cracks
with more historical facts we know about today.
So, for example,
Luke wants to paint Pontus Pilate
in the most flattering light possible.
That is because Luke was a gentile
and not a Judean or Galilean suffering
under Roman occupation.
He was also writing his story
for a gentile audience of likely Roman citizens.
So in his depiction of events,
Luke has Pilate backed into a corner
by the “bloodthirsty Jews.”
First Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, in Luke’s version.
When that doesn’t get him off the hook,
he tries to appease the crowd with a little torture –
which would have been whipping him
with a leather flagrum
that had chunks of glass beads and bone tied into it.
But poor Pontus Pilate,
according to Luke he only wanted justice
for an innocent man
yet the bad Jews were so powerful
and cleverly strategic
that Pilate simply had to give into them.
This is one of those elements of the story
we know to be theological narrative
rather than an historical description.
What we know from history
is that Pontus Pilate was a ruthless bully
and so tyrannical
that Caesar actually recalled him in disgrace
just a few years later.
The actual Pontus Pilate of history
was responsible for the simultaneous crucifixion
of thousands of Judeans and Galileans
in which he lined the road from Jerusalem to Jericho
– twenty miles –
with decaying bodies
from one particular riot or insurrection.
Pilate required no excuses to torture and kill.
He had no regard for the temple clergy.
Pontus Pilate would not and could not
be forced by a crowd of conniving religious leaders
to do what he routinely did anyway.
That’s a fact,
and the reason it is important to state out loud
is that it helps us to dismantle
the anti-Semitic theology of the Church
that regarded Jews as Christ-killers.
But this juxtaposition of historical details
with theological rendering
is also a graphic way to see what we are up against.
This is what I meant
when I said telling the Passion Story as prose
makes it problematic and even nonsensical.
However, the way we have told this story in liturgy
is as history,
and so we have some difficult unfolding
and deconstruction to take care of –
that is, if we want to preserve the authentic power
of this central Christian story in the 21st century.
So Pontus Pilate was not some poor slob
in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He was the agent of death.
Another reason it is important to acknowledge this
is it takes God off the hook too,
and not just the Jews.
The way the story gets told as prose
makes God the architect of Jesus’ torture and death.
Indeed, Judas does what he does
because God made him do it.
God needed Jesus to die;
at least the way this comes down as prose,
so that thousands of years later
millions of people like us on the other side of the globe
could be saved from our sins.
As we will hear on Good Friday,
there is a poetic wisdom
in the idea of a suffering servant,
but as prose
this idea is nothing less than barbaric.
Is there any way that the God of grace
we have come to believe and espouse
is also a puppeteer
pulling strings on the Roman and Jewish marionettes
so that they torture and kill God’s only son?
That strange explanation of events –
God’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus –
parallels the more ancient story
of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and so somehow Jesus’ death is supposed to prove
God’s even greater love.
Put in these stark and anthropomorphic terms,
which are explicit
in the way we have told this story
as prose and history,
it is not only theologically disgusting
it renders Christian theology simply unbelievable
in the 21st century.
Who can believe in a God who does that?
Who wants to serve a God who does that?
But what we know historically
is that Pontus Pilate was a brutal dictator
that needed only one reason to torture and kill:
that any of the locals
were engaged in insurrection
by thought, word, or deed.
We know Jesus was executed as a criminal
and we know the charges –
even from the details embedded the gospel stories
that were held up and used for other purposes.
or was claimed, to be a king.
Jesus denigrated the authority of Caesar.
Jesus promoted ideas that undermined the law.
Jesus’s teaching incited others to promote his authority
over the authority of Pilate, Caesar, and Rome.
In short, Jesus was accused and convicted
of insurrection against Rome,
and executed for it.
Except that wasn’t the end.
That is the end Pontus Pilate had in mind.
His brutality was intended to cause anyone else out there
contemplating rebellion or even small resistance
to think twice.
You see what happens to people like you?
It isn’t pretty.
But we know,
because here we are,
that was not the end of the story.
The fact that it wasn’t the end
leads us through this week toward Easter.
But that is another story
which we will get to after Good Friday.
So let me finish up about this Palm Sunday story.
We know Luke’s effort to whitewash Rome
and blame Judas and the Jews, is lame.
It is unlikely Luke had in mind
the horrendous anti-Semitic theology,
oppression, and genocide
that eventually followed,
but we have to acknowledge cause and effect.
We also need to repent of it as well.
To those who object to picking on our biblical narrative
and deconstructing it like this,
I know it hurts to pull off the band-aid
but doing so is required of true repentance.
We have much to repent for in our history
before we can move on in good conscience.
And we also need to repent
of our giving God the blame
as a means of promoting our own salvation
Surely God was not Geppetto to Jesus’ Pinocchio.
Is there any more narcissistic theology?
How then can we understand the historicity
of Jesus’ death?
What are we to make
of a first century peasant-preacher
proclaimed by his followers to be a messiah
but who died instead by torture and execution
at the hands of coercive military government?
What do we do with a story like that?
The first thing we do
is acknowledge that Luke, Mark, Matthew,
John, and Paul,
along with thousands of other survivors of that event,
had multiple stories
and each of those stories
sought to make sense of it.
We need to acknowledge those stories
are heirlooms of faith but not facts of history.
We must develop our own narratives
that make sense within the world,
and life as we live it, in 2016.
The story of Palm Sunday
has to make sense to us
rather than make nonsense out of the gospels.
So here is how I make sense of it,
at the same time acknowledging
that the way I make sense of it
need not coincide with your theological narrative.
That is the beauty and the punch line for today:
because we have so many different opinions
among the earliest storytellers
we can also have a lot of different interpretations
among one another today.
So I look at the prose in this story
and sense that we have the history of an event
so shocking and painful
it gathered around it,
like the colors of light refracted through moisture,
ancient theological and even mythological explanations.
The history is just this:
Pontus Pilate executed Jesus for insurrection.
The theological explanation for that event
is the rest of the narrative.
All we need in order to make sense of Palm Sunday
is to think about Dietrich Bonheoffer
or Martin Luther King, Jr.
or Oscar Romero.
We kill the ones God sends us.
We cannot tolerate the exquisite love of God
that would have us remake human society
in a way that goes against our self-interest
so we eliminate the agents of God.
This story is really not so much about God and Jesus
as it is about us.
We are not Pontus Pilate in this story,
at least not those of us without direct pull
on the reigns of power.
Rather, we are the citizens of the empire
living our lives back in Rome
and represented by Pontus Pilate and the legions.
We get our income and food
from the labor and lands
of people out there on the margins
we don’t know much about,
and understand even less, about how our empire works.
We benefit from the empire
but we don’t know that much about it,
and we certainly do not understand those crazy people
who don’t accept us
and seem only to want to kill us.
The messengers God
sent with messages
that seem to want to upset the apple cart
and mess up our way of doing things,
make a terrible noise
unpleasant to our ears and our thoughts
and so we stifle them,
or if necessary, eliminate them.
To me, that is the message of Palm Sunday –
it is a mirror for us to see ourselves in
and an invitation to be different.
More about this story as poetry on Good Friday.