a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Palm Sunday, April 5th, 2009
When I was a child, growing up in a Unitarian family, and attending a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School, I don’t recall the Bible being a very big part of my day to day experience. I know I knew something about Noah and the Ark, because I can remember building a big Ark out of my wooden blocks, and then lining up all the plastic animals I could find, two by two if possible, but there were also some unusual combinations (just to make certain everyone got paired up): jungle animals, farm animals, dinosaurs and domestic house pets alike, all together in one big jumble. And I also must have known a little about the Christmas nativity story for much the same reason: my mother liked to collect Crèches, and there was one in particular that I liked to play with in season (although my mom wouldn’t let me put those animals on my Ark).
And I also recall that whenever we went to see the pediatrician, there was one of those big, illustrated Children’s Bibles in the waiting room; and I always enjoyed glancing at that to distract myself from whatever scheduled injections awaited me inside. I remember in particular there was an illustration of 2 Samuel 18:9, David’s rebellious son Absalom caught fast by his hair under the thick branches of a great oak, “hanging between heaven and earth.” I don’t know why that picture made such a strong impression on me, but it did, even though I didn’t actually read the story itself until I was a Divinity Student at Harvard.
I didn’t actually get a Bible of my own though until I was a sophomore in High School, on a Debate Trip to a tournament in Bellingham Washington, where we were staying at the Leopold Hotel. And I decided to keep the red Gideon Bible that I found there in the drawer of my bedside table, and take it home with me. The King James version, of course. My ambitious plan was to read the whole thing cover to cover, so that I could have some ammunition when debating with the Born-Again Christians who accosted me every day in the High School lunchroom. Or maybe I was the one accosting them....
At least I had the good sense to begin with the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew blew me away: three whole chapters, and every word highlighted in green. And John’s Gospel was in some ways even more amazing, with all its mystical teachings about the Holy Spirit, even though the events John describes rarely match up with those recorded in the other three. Luke (and its companion book, the Acts of the Apostles) eventually became my favorite for a variety of reasons, but it was actually Mark’s gospel which initially made the strongest impression.
For starters, it’s the shortest of the four canonical Gospels, and scholars also believe it was the earliest, written only about 40 years after the events which it describes. Matthew and Luke both appear to have used Mark as a primary source for their own gospels (that’s right, they copied him), along with a collection of the Sayings of Jesus now lost to history, and known to scholars by the initial “Q.” And Jesus doesn’t really say a lot in Mark’s gospel either; instead the story begins with Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordon, his temptation in the Wilderness, the calling of his initial disciples, and the proclamation of his original message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, Repent and Believe the Good News.” And then it is pretty much one miracle after another (with an occasional parable thrown in) until Jesus and his followers finally reach Jerusalem for the beginning of Passover and what Christians will eventually come to know as “Holy Week.”
The miracles themselves (as I was later taught in seminary) basically come in four flavors: healings, exorcisms, feedings, and control of the weather. And like all good Unitarians I quickly learned to give them rational, plausible, “naturalistic” explanations. The healings were easy: it says right there in the text, they were all caused by faith. If you had enough you were healed, and if you didn’t you weren’t. I don’t really care much for the theology, frankly; but at least it moved healings from the category of supernaturally miraculous to something along the lines of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
The exorcisms were even easier: if you didn’t believe that demons were real in the first place, why should you have any problem with Jesus casting them out? Clearly there was something psychological going on there, but after so many centuries it’s hard to say exactly what.
The feedings were and remain my favorite, simply because they can be explained on so many levels, both literally and metaphorically. In each instance, a large crowd of people has assembled to listen to Jesus teach. And when the time comes around for them to eat, the disciples want to send them away to obtain food elsewhere. But instead, Jesus asks how much food the disciples have with them (in both cases, just a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish), and in language evocative of the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread and blesses it, and then after giving thanks, breaks the bread and distributes it to the Disciples, who in turn distribute it to the crowd. And then when they send around the baskets to pick up the leftovers, more food comes back than was sent out to begin with.
Well it’s pretty obvious to me what’s going on here. What kind of idiot (other than maybe a disciple) would go out into the desert to listen to a holy man speak without bringing along a little something to sustain themselves on the journey?
What Jesus DOES create is the kind of trusting community atmosphere where it is safe to share with others. And since there was always enough food to go around, nobody has to go hungry. Because “the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” [Mt 13:33].
And as for the weather miracles, well, it was never really clear to me from reading whether Jesus actually calmed the storm, or simply calmed the nervous sailors until the storm blew over on its own. I’ve been with nervous sailors before; I’ve even been one myself. The waves always look a lot more threatening than they are.
But the thing I liked most about Mark was the drama and suspense of Holy Week, which takes up approximately half of the pages in Mark’s gospel. It’s so dramatic that a few scholars have even suggested that Mark’s gospel was originally written to be performed as a play. And contributing to the dramatic suspense is a uniquely Markian theme known as “the Messianic Secret.” Because you see, unlike just about every other Christian before or since, Mark never actually comes out and tells you who he thinks Jesus is. Rather, he has Jesus ask “Who do men SAY that I am?” only to rebuke Peter for offering the suggestion that Jesus is actually the long-awaited Messiah. As readers we are certainly led in that direction, although for most twenty-first century readers the subtle first century distinctions between Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, or even Prophet, Teacher and Rabbi are so nuanced as to be lost on us.
Likewise, there are no Resurrection appearances in Mark. The last we see of Jesus is when Joseph of Arimathea has the body removed from the cross and wrapped in linen, then placed in a rock-hewn tomb with a heavy stone rolled in front of the entrance. Then nothing happens until a few days later, when the women go to anoint the body with oil, and discover that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty.
They speak with an angel (well, a young man in a white robe) who tells them to look for Jesus in Galilee, but the women flee from the tomb “trembling and bewildered,” and “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” [Mk 16:8] Which may simply be Mark’s way of explaining why no one had heard the story of the empty tomb until Mark finally wrote it down 40 years later.
But the most dramatic part of the story (especially for a 16-year-old boy reading this material for the first time) comes in-between. On Palm Sunday Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem for the Passover, with Jesus making a triumphal riding on a colt (or in Matthew’s version, a colt AND a donkey) while his disciples cut palm fronds as a sign of honor (and to keep down the dust on the roadway), and the assembled crowd sings “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the Highest Heaven.” When the people of the city ask the crowd what is going on, the crowd replies “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” [Mt 21:11]
There probably weren’t nearly as many people watching this demonstration as later Christians would like to believe. But there is an almost cynical irony to the act itself, since it seems intended to mimic (or maybe even parody) the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate’s earlier entry into Jerusalem at the head of a column of mercenary cavalry and marching Roman legionaires, who had come to reinforce the local garrison at what was always one of the most turbulent and potentially volatile times of the year. It doesn’t take much to turn a crowd into a mob. So already the dramatic contrast between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar is being spelled out in public view.
The next day, Jesus and his followers go up to the Temple Mount itself, where Jesus does something that to my mind is the most amazing thing in his entire ministry. Using a knotted cord as a whip, he overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and basically brings the business of the temple to a complete halt. “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,’ ” he says. “But you have made it a den of brigands.” [leston] For the next few days he teaches openly in the Court of the Gentiles, protected by the crowd from the grasp of the temple authorities, who would like nothing more than to kill him then and there.
This is the part of the story that appealed to me most when I first read the story 40 years ago, the back and forth debate between Jesus and his antagonists, who try again and again to trick Jesus into saying something that will either turn the crowd against him, or draw the attention of the Romans. But he always seems to have just the right response.
And so the Chief Priests and the Scribes and the Pharisees turn to bribery and treachery instead. They somehow manage to find and convince one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, to betray his teacher by guiding the authorities to a place where he can be easily captured, away from the protective eyes of the crowd.
So as Jesus and his loyal disciples celebrate the Passover meal, their “Last Supper” together, Judas leaves to make arrangements for the temple guards to arrest Jesus later that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, outside the city walls. Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss; the guards swoop in from the shadows to make their arrest, and after a brief scuffle the disciples all disappear disorganized and confused into the night.
Only Peter and an unnamed young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth attempt to follow, but the guards catch hold of the latter, and he flees naked into the night, leaving the linen cloth behind. [Mk 14:51] Peter has a little better luck; he gets all the way to the courtyard of the house where Jesus is being interrogated before he is recognized as one of the disciples. Denying that he even knows Jesus, Peter also betrays his teacher, then weeps for the shame of it as the cock crows the coming dawn, and he realizes what he has done.
Jesus, meanwhile, eventually ends up later that night in the hands of the Romans, who interrogate him further, beat him up a little (just because they can), and eventually take him up to Golgatha -- the Hill of Skulls -- where he is crucified alongside two other brigands/robbers/revolutionary insurgents [lestas] who just so happened to be on the morning execution list. Roman Imperial Power has just put down another threat to its hegemony; the Pax Romana (eventually with Christian assistance) is still destined to bring “peace” and order to the Mediterranean world for another few centuries at least.
But let’s go back to the original question about taxes to Rome, and these competing ideas of the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) which were so important to first century Christianity.
Taxation was everywhere in the ancient world; it was the way that the wealthy and powerful few used their power to increase their wealth at the expense of the vast, impoverished peasantry...who were basically left with barely enough to keep body and soul together, thanks to an oppressive system which combined land foreclosures, debt peonage, and exploitive taxation to keep the masses firmly under the control of their Lords and Masters.
The Romans actually outsourced their taxation to local contractors; the highest bidder won the right to collect the tax, and anything they could get over and above that was theirs to keep (which explains why tax collectors are so especially vilified in the Bible).
Even the temple was in on the racket. First, by insisting that all sacrifices of a certain kind could ONLY take place at the temple in Jerusalem, they forced people who wanted to offer those sacrifices often to travel a great distance and at great hardship just to get there.
And once the people had arrived, they still needed to purchase the animal they wished to sacrifice locally in Jerusalem, using a special temple coinage free from any “graven images” (such as a portrait of the Emperor, just to give one example).
So when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, it’s not just the practice of temple sacrifice he was condemning, but the entire partnership of the temple priesthood with the local Roman-led “domination system” which kept the majority of the population in great poverty.
Likewise, when Jesus asked the Pharisees to show him a denarius, he’d already tricked them into revealing to the crowd whose payroll THEY were on. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. God does business in an entirely different currency altogether.
As I’ve mentioned from this pulpit on several other occasions, the word “sacrifice” means literally “to make sacred,” and the size of the sacrifice -- how much you actually give up (especially in proportion to your wealth) -- is only one of the considerations. In the ancient world ideas about sacrifice originated in ideas about hospitality itself. If you want to make friends with a stranger (even someone as strange as God) there are basically two ways to go about it. First, you can offer them a gift. And second, you can share with them a meal.
In first century Palestine, ideas of sacrifice still embodied both of these notions. Some of the sacrificial animal was destroyed completely, as a so-called “burnt offering.” That was the “gift” portion of the sacrifice.
But more important was the meal you shared with your neighbors: an expression of gratitude for the ways that God has blessed you made manifest in an act of generosity toward others. From gratitude to service: this is how we make our lives sacred, by sacrificing a portion of our own comfort and affluence in order that others might have an easier time of it as well.
“The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom is at hand, Repent and Believe the Good News.” Repent: metanoeite = “transform your mind;” Believe: pisteuete = “trust/be confident.” The Kingdom is right here, all around us, and all we need to do to become citizens of God’s Empire (rather than subjects of Rome) is to follow God’s leadership rather than Caesars’s.
This part of the story is told in Mark 12: 28-34 right after the passage about taxes to Caesar, but before the story of the Widow’s Mite. A scribe has been listening carefully to this entire exchange, and comes near to Jesus to ask him a familiar question: “What is the Greatest Commandment of All?” And Jesus answers as so many others have both before and since:
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And the scribe responds “to love one’s neighbor as oneself, - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To which Jesus, seeing that the scribe has answered wisely, adds the final word: “you are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, the Scripture tells us, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
“Repent and Believe” Change your attitude, and Trust the folks around you. And the funny thing is, you don’t even have to believe in God in order to feel confident about the trustworthiness of the Good News, and to benefit from this wisdom about how best to live our lives. All you really need to do is BEHAVE like a good person, a “Godly” person, an authentic person of Faith.
NOT a Jerk.
`Is that really so much for any of us to ask or to expect? That we should at least behave as well as we would desire to be treated ourselves, with honesty, integrity, honor and respect? These are the things that belong to God, and to every other person of devoted Good Will who walks upon this planet, regardless of their beliefs.
It’s no great sacrifice to practice them every day.
And at the end of the day, this is really all that God (and our neighbors) expects of any of us anyway....
READING: Luke 20: 19-26 (Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Gospel)
Now the seminary professors and denominational executives tried to lay hands on him right then and there, but were afraid of their constituency. For they knew full well that he had aimed this Comparison at them. So they played it cool by hiring some detectives to pose as Christians and collect evidence from his preaching, so he could be arrested and turned over to the House Subversive Activities Committee. These detectives asked him, “Doctor, we know when you speak and teach you shoot straight, regardless of who’s listening. We know too that without any doubt you are teaching God’s Way. Now, is it right to pay Federal taxes or not?”
Catching on to their trick, he said, “Show me a dollar. Whose picture and insignia are on it?”
They said, “The President’s.”
He replied, “All right, then, give government things to the government, and God’s things to God.”
So they were not successful in trapping him in anything he said in public, and his answer so astonished them that they shut up.