Monday, April 8, 2019

Read The Whole Story

If you will be present for worship at all during Holy Week--from Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil--I recommend that sometime this week you take thirty minutes to read carefully the whole story of Jesus' last week. You could read either Luke's version or John's version or, if you're feeling particularly eager, both. Luke's version ties in with what we've been reading for most of Lent and with what we will hear on Palm Sunday. John's version is our focus during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve. Either is good, but the point is to read at least one of them in its entirety before you get to church on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, when the passion narrative gets read in the context of a "we'd better keep things moving or else this service will last two hours" service.

If you read Luke's version, I encourage you to start at the beginning of Luke 19, when Jesus arrives in Jericho and has an encounter with Zacchaeus, the tax collector. If you read John's version, I hope you'll start in John 11, when Jesus comes to Bethany the first time because his friend Lazarus is sick. In both cases, what happens before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is crucial. In Luke, Jesus' decision to eat with a tax collector and name him as a child of Abraham is both the reason the religious authorities resent him and a sign of his authority. In John, the same is true of Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead. It is both the reason the authorities want to kill him and the sign that his reign will defeat death itself.

When you read them--and I hope you will--pay attention to how the gospel writer portrays each character. What impression of the religious authorities do you take away from the text? What about Judas--to what extent his he responsible for his actions? In what ways does he represent larger forces of evil? What about the other disciples--as a group and as individuals? And what words would you use to characterize Jesus after reading the whole account?

Also, pay attention to the political issues at play. When we only read or study sections of the passion narrative, we tend to focus on what we perceive as religious issues. The "cleansing of the temple" feels like Jesus' rejection of Judaism. The religious authorities' interrogation is portrayed as a disagreement over Jesus' self-proclaimed messiahship. When you read the whole story, however, those religious issues take a back seat to issues of politics. Follow the money. Follow the power. On the way into Jerusalem, why do the religious leaders urge Jesus to tell his disciples to keep silent? What does Jesus mean when he replies that "even the stones would cry out?" When we study the whole text, we discover that Jesus was killed not for challenging the nature of Second-Temple Judaism but for challenging the religious and political authorities' (they were one and the same) hand-in-glove relationship with the Roman Empire. Jesus wasn't objecting to their religion but their refusal to proclaim the religious truth that God would come to set God's people free.

Finally, let the drama of the week wash over you all at once. We try to enact this on Palm Sunday with mixed success. Some colleagues suggest we eliminate the passion narrative from Palm Sunday and stick only with the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, saving the cross for Good Friday. There are good reasons for this, but, this year at least, I think it's good that we hear the whole thing. We need to experience liturgically--even if inadequately--the heights and depths of Jesus' last week. The problem, of course, is that, in addition to reading about Jesus' entry into the holy city and his betrayal, arrest, torture, and death, we also need to sing hymns, say prayers, hear a sermon, and make Eucharist. That's too much to grasp the whole thing, so take some time before Sunday to read it--all of it.

If you can, read it all in one sitting. Put down the screen, and read it the old-fashioned way. Hold the Bible in your hand and turn each page, allowing yourself to flip back and read it again if your mind begins to wander. Set aside half an hour to do it. It's worth it. Trust me.

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