Monday, April 18, 2011

Time to lose some Passion (Sunday Reflections for April 17, 2011)

Recently Michael Rinehart, an ELCA synod bishop from Texas, was discussing on his blog liturgical and preaching issues related to Palm/Passion Sunday. It seems to him that the trend is swinging back toward this day focusing exclusively on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. The Passion story then is reserved exclusively for Good Friday.

I don’t know if his perception of a trend is accurate but he seems to think this is a good idea. I believe he is correct in saying that this change occurred when attendance at Good Friday services had declined significantly. Growing up I only remember Palm Sunday but by the time I got to seminary the transition to Passion Sunday was all the rage.

I embraced the change (to the dismay of the senior pastor I worked with) and especially enjoyed the dramatic reading in parts of the full Passion narrative (usually replacing the sermon because of its length). For me, the high point (for lack of a better term) was always the moment when the congregation (taking the role of the crowd) shouted out, “Crucify him!” in response to Pilate’s offer of mercy.

Well, that was then. As the years have passed, my enthusiasm for all that has waned considerably. While I still appreciate the drama, I have found myself asking, “But what’s the point?”--not just what's the point of it liturgically, but also what is the point of the story?

Perhaps my attitude began to change when I served as interim pastor of a congregation in Omaha. We had a lay parish assistant who I respected a lot. She surprised me when she said she wouldn’t be at the Good Friday service (she attended nearly everything). “The story is just too sad,” she said. This was someone who probably could have explained Luther’s theology of the cross as well as many pastors, but for her the Passion story itself was just too much.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, biblical scholarship of the past two centuries has significantly challenged the traditional understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Basically scholars tell us we really just don’t know much about what happened. We do know, however, that a lot of what the gospels’ passion narratives say is unlikely and sometimes preposterous. In many places the gospel accounts contradict each other so obviously they can’t each be right; some of their reports then have to be wrong.

It’s now nearly certain that none of the gospel writers were eye witnesses to the events they report. (Mark, the earliest gospel, was written at least forty years after Jesus’ death.) Did they have eye witnesses as sources? We don’t know but that also seems unlikely. And what’s hard for us to understand is that they very likely didn’t care, either. Telling the message, the “good news” about Jesus, was their priority rather than historical accuracy, which is our modern concern.

In all likelihood, much of the detail in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ last week was inspired by the writers’ Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Thus, rather than biblical prophecy fulfilled by the events of Holy Week, this scripture was the primary source for the gospel writers’ passion stories. They created a narrative with material from their scriptural tradition, which conveyed the meaning and importance of Jesus’ death rather than its history, which probably no one knew.

The question for us is whether the meaning and importance they saw (and the gospels themselves have differing views) is what we would now see or value. To me, there are at least two major problems for us today, and both contribute to the overwrought nature of the gospels’ telling of the passion story.

The first is the anti-Judaism present to some degree in each of the gospels, especially in the Passion stories. This problem has been recognized for a long time and, particularly since the Holocaust, various attempts have been made to remedy it.

Biblical scholarship has cast doubt on what role, if any, Jewish religious authorities would have had in Jesus’ death. Even the gospels strain to come up with a plausible connection, primarily because their own accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee give them little to work with. It is much more likely that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities, probably because he did something which made them consider him a threat to public order. The table-turning incident in the temple is one possibility.

So why the hostility to Judaism in the gospels? Because they were written at the time of the split between church and synagogue. Divorces can be angry, messy affairs and this one certainly was. That most Jews did not embrace Jesus as the Christ became an awkward embarrassment for the early church. If Jesus really was the Jewish messiah, then why did most Jews not accept him? Thus began the meme of the messiah’s rejection by his own people, portrayed most dramatically in his Jerusalem trial.

The second problem is the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. Again, the gospels have somewhat differing views on this (as does Paul). Yet they all agree that Jesus’ death was somehow necessary in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for humanity’s sin like the animal sacrifices made in the temple.

Today I’m not sure this is even understandable by modern people. More importantly, however, it makes God appear as some kind of ancient bloodthirsty ogre. While some fundamentalists still revel in this image, most people find it repulsive and just bizarre. There is a lot of anger in the Bible but today we can recognize that much of it is our own anger and frustration projected on God.

The obvious rebuttal to that portrayal is, of course, Jesus himself. This supposed divine need for justice and judgment that sent Jesus to the cross is most noticeably absent in Jesus’ own teaching and human interactions. Forgiveness and compassion is the heart of his life and ministry. As this has been rediscovered in recent years, Jesus’ death has been reframed as the ultimate act of that compassion and selflessness. Jesus’ death is saving for us by vividly portraying and leading us to the life of love that is our human calling. God is not “satisfied” by Jesus’ death but heartbroken.

Can the gospels’ Passion narratives be saved? The disinterest in Good Friday and the resistance to imposing the Passion on Palm Sunday are pretty strong indications of how average Christians feel. I think we need to pay attention. The image of the cross is certainly important and powerful and should not be lost. Ironically, however, the stories that for centuries have swirled around it are now preventing us from seeing it. Somehow the church has to find a way to clear the air.

1 comment:

Michael_SC said...

This week I'm reading "Jesus the Jew" by Geza Vermes. According to him, the Galilee region was a center of
anti-Roman sentiment. Rome, not infrequently, violently quashed rebellions in Israel in the 1st centuries AD and BC.
So a Galilean like Jesus, with a following, with words applied to him like 'king or Messiah, might get Rome's attention.

As I read more of the historical development of the NT, the anti-Judaism is really alarming
(and in light of 20th century events, even sickening due to its eventual implications). Rome is left off the hook for the crucifixion, and blame is given to the Jews.