Monday, March 10, 2008
God Save Us
I will make this caveat before I begin so that many of you can move on to sweeter pastures: what I have to say about this Sunday's lectionary passage will not preach well, at least not from some pulpits in the United States. Many good Bible-believing Christians will not be at all happy with what has occupied my heart and mind over the last few days, despite the fact that I simply want to tell the "old, old story." But there were several recent events that conspired to pick me up by the lapels and give me a good shaking – and all, it seems, with an eye toward persuading me to write what needs to be written, now more than ever
As my week began I was alarmed to hear in an interview with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz projections for what the Iraq War will eventually cost American tax-payers. I say eventually because, unless I have my facts wrong, the majority of the funds that have already been spent on what was supposed to be just a little dust-up in the Middle East were borrowed, placed on the national credit card as it were. And this makes George W. Bush the first American president ever to pull this rabbit out of his top hat of tricks, leading the country into a very costly and protracted war while simultaneously cutting taxes. All told, if the research of Stiglitz and others is on the mark, we are looking at a three trillion-dollar price tag. I think it's pretty safe to say that, despite the president's triumphal assurance from the deck of a naval carrier on May 1, 2003, the mission has not been accomplished.
As if this news weren't bad enough, last night I watched a documentary film called No End in Sight. It basically picks up on the war story where the president left off, with the US army rolling into Baghdad, toppling the Saddam regime and then doing nothing for the next several months while looters of all kinds – men, women, and children -- took to the streets and destroyed the city. Perhaps most tragic of all were the priceless historical treasures, some as much as 7000 years old, that were removed from the Iraqi national museum. Then came a series of blunders that could only have issued from a cabal of men and women with little else on their minds than unbridled greed: de-Ba'athification, the dismantling of the Iraqi army (which left thousands of heavily armed men unemployed – not a good plan), the indiscriminate round-up and imprisonment of suspected terrorists (think Abu Ghraib), and the precipitous descent into violence between religious factions that has now left the country in ruins.
I was left to contemplate all these things while spending time meditating on the Lenten passage for the week: Matthew's account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Here Jesus makes his way into the holy city in high prophetic fashion, offering a marked contrast to the Roman Empire whose chains could be heard rattling, whose soldiers could be heard jeering, whose crucified could be heard dying, as the Messiah came riding his little parable into town. "Look," says Zechariah in apparent anticipation of the event, "your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Matt. 21:5).
Actually, Zechariah doesn't say this exactly, but Matthew preferred his own redaction to the actual words of the prophet. What Matthew excises from Zechariah's text is what should give us pause for reflection: "…your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…" (Zech. 9:9). Funny, isn't it – especially in light of Matthew's careful treatment of the original – how we still insist on calling this Jesus' "triumphal entry"? How easy it is to get it all wrong if we are the least bit careless in our interpretation.
To understand the import of Matthew's omission it is helpful to back up a bit and recall the events that directly precede this final phase in Jesus' messianic career. Remember that the mother of James and John had just come to Jesus with a very special request: "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom" (Matt. 20:21). To this Jesus simply replied that she did not know what she was asking. The sons of Zebedee would have to drink from the same cup as he, and no mother would ever wish this upon her children. This woman – along with her two boys it seems – was on the wrong side of empire, unaware of the kind of kingdom that Jesus had come to proclaim. No doubt she was among those who shouted their Hosannas to the messiah on his way into town, placing palm branches at his feet, assured that her mighty deliverer had truly come. "God save us."
But two people did see the messiah for who he truly was, or so it would seem by Matthew's placement of their story just prior to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Leaving Jericho and followed by a large crowd, Jesus is hailed by two blind men who call out, "Son of David, have mercy on us" (Matt. 20:30). When Jesus asks what they would have him do, we are offered a telling preface to the events that are about to ensue. "Lord, let our eyes be opened." Filled with compassion, Jesus heals them, and in doing so seems to tell his followers, "your eyes too will be opened… like it or not." It would not be the so-called "sons of thunder" who would sit on his left and right in a new empire of triumph and victory. Rather, it would be the likes of these "sons of light," these two who could now see, who would accompany Jesus into a kingdom of humility and compassion. And Matthew does all he can to make sure that future readers of his narrative do not lose sight of this one essential point, misquoting the well-known text of the prophet and drawing attention to his glaring omission: "Look, your king is coming to you, [OK, let's leave this 'triumphant and victorious' part out], humble and riding on a donkey."
Apparently we in the 21st century didn't get this memo – and it appears that we missed it in practically every other century as well. Is it really so difficult to discern from Jesus' ministry what side of victory and triumph – as they are classically and militarily defined at least – he and his kingdom ultimately come down on? For all our careful reading of the text, and all our deep respect for the authority of scripture, how is it that we keep on missing this one? How many US soldiers who rumbled and bombed their way into Baghdad nearly five years ago sported crosses around their necks as they entered that city in triumph and victory? Who, at Abu Ghraib, photographed the cruciform shape of a hooded man without making any evident connection with the one who had been similarly humiliated nearly two thousand years before? And perhaps the most disturbing question of all: By what twist of logic did history's most notable victim of empire – Jesus of Nazareth – eventually become one of its most established icons?
I have to wonder how many sermons this Sunday will note the bitter irony of professing with our mouths a steadfast faith in Jesus and his peaceable kingdom, while at the same time declaring with our actions that our real trust lies in the very machinations of triumph and victory that drove this man finally to the cross.
Hosanna was the cry that greeted Jesus as he rode his way slowly into the holy city of Jerusalem: "God save us." Hosanna is also the word that we most need to hear at this lamentable point in our history. God save us, now more than ever. God save us, because we've certainly made a mess of things trying to do it ourselves.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. How many bake sales do you suppose it would take to raise three trillion dollars for our American public school system?
2. Some might say that addressing the issue of the Iraq War on Palm Sunday is entirely inappropriate -- politics doesn't belong in the pulpit. At the same time, however, we affirm that Jesus is making a very obvious political statement with his ride into Jerusalem. How do we reconcile this? Is the church a political entity? If so, what topics are appropriate or inappropriate for it to address?
3. What is the theological difference between "empire" and "kingdom."