Thursday, April 26, 2012

Passion or palms? (Sunday Reflections for April 1, 2012)

Last year, Michael Rinehart, an ELCA bishop from Texas, discussed on his blog how there seemed to be a trend of moving Palm/Passion Sunday back to the earlier practice of 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 accurate but he seems to think this is a good idea. I believe he is right in saying that this change occurred after 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 in full swing.
I embraced the change in my first congregation (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 liturgically, but also what about the point of the story.
Perhaps my attitude began to change when I was serving 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 (and 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 last week, modern biblical scholarship has 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.
We now know that none of the gospels were written by eye witnesses. (Mark, the earliest gospel, was written at least forty years after Jesus’ death.) Did they have eye witnesses as sources? That also seems unlikely. And what’s hard for us to understand is that they probably didn’t care, either. Telling the “good news” about Jesus was their priority rather than historical accuracy, which is our modern concern.
Instead, much of the detail in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ last week was inspired by the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Thus, rather than biblical prophecy fulfilled by the events of Holy Week, this scripture was the inspiration for the details of the gospel writers’ passion stories. They created a narrative 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 on that) 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, and especially in the Passion stories. This problem has been recognized for a long time. Especially since the Holocaust, various attempts have been made to remedy it, though none have really been satisfactory.
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 because he did something they considered 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 a sacrifice for humanity’s sin like the animal sacrifices made in the temple. Today I’m not sure this is even understandable. More importantly, 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 bizarre.
The obvious rebuttal to that portrayal is Jesus himself. This supposed divine need for justice and judgment that sent Jesus to the cross is most noticeably absent in Jesus’ own teaching. 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 inspiring us to the life of love that is our human calling. God is not “satisfied” by Jesus’ death but heartbroken, as we all should be.
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 have swirled around it for centuries are now preventing us from seeing it. Somehow the church has to find a way to clear the air.

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