Tag Archives: Sunday of the Passion

Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Day) in Year A (Schade)

How does creation participate in this new life? Leah Schade reflects on Christ’s passion and resurrection through an ecological hermeneutic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Easter Day, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:102, 14-24
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 38:1-10

What a wonderful coincidence that the celebration of Easter is the same week as the secular celebration of Earth Day this year. Peter reminded the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house: “Jesus’ commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Thus the preacher might consider taking a cue from St. Francis of Assisi, preacher of sermons to his Brothers and Sisters in Creation, and address the “congregation” of the other-than-human members of God’s Earth-cathedral.[1] The Earth-congregation can be directly addressed and the humans told that they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism would be de-centered from the outset.

Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community could be identified by their role within the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The ecological hermeneutic can be woven throughout the sermon by seeing the events from the nature characters’ points-of-view. They were, in fact, witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and were co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. The voice of the stones echoed the ringing “hosannas” along the road to Jerusalem. The Palm leaves waved from trees and human hands as the donkey’s hooves carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gethsemane. The sun hid its face during the torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And two Trees—both felled in the prime of their lives after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes—were lashed together and forced to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Even the Rocks trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.

By the same token, Creation witnessed the resurrection. Earth essentially took Jesus’ body into herself and birthed him from her womb as the Resurrected One, the earthquake reminiscent of the “labor pangs” Paul mentions in Romans 8:22. Imagine the elements of Creation providing a unique witness to the resurrection, allowing us to see that morning from a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. The description of what they see is echoed by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection:

Only by locating the renewed body within the larger ecologies in which it dwells—of which it is a shifting configural space—do we allow renewed powers of desire and of healing to release themselves into feedback loops large enough to ’embrace’ us, to feed us back to ourselves more animate. . . [T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 179, 180).

Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, could enact a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situate the other-than-human characters as equals in the theo-drama of the Passion and Resurrection.

The sermon might remind Creation of its continued suffering of ecological-crucifixions such as clear-cutting and deforestation, oil and gas drilling, air pollution and children’s asthma, global warming and climate change. Mark Wallace makes the connection between the cruciform Spirit and “the continual debasement of the earth and its inhabitants . . . [T]he Spirit bears the cross of a planet under siege as she lives under the burden of humankind’s ecological sin” (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, pp. 23-4).

But even while recognizing that we are in the midst of “an environmental Good Friday,” the sermon proclaims the Cosmic Christ resurrected and Earth’s creatures as witnesses to the miracle. In this way, the Lutheran concept of Deus Absconditus, the hiddenness of God under the form of opposites, can be invoked and listeners given hope in the midst of the darkest hour of our modern-day Easter vigil. Further, the sermon must emphasize that Christ appears to us and calms our fears: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). At the same time we are given instruction to “go” and announce to the world the one whom we have seen, the miracle of the resurrection that Creation itself announces to us. Concretizations of Earth-renewal and community restoration would be helpful in enabling the congregation to visualize what eco-resurrection might look like. What are examples of the local community “preaching” that Christ’s resurrection is for the whole Earth? Where are waterways being cleaned up, brownfields being reclaimed, churches being revived by their attention to Earth-care, conservation, and investments in renewable energy?

When, like the women on Easter morning, we stand at the tomb of the crucified Earth looking at the enormous stone blocking our way, might we look forward to the Resurrected One surprising us by calling our name and opening our eyes to Creation transformed to new life? Even as we do all we can to resist evil and teach our children to cherish and protect Earth, speak out against eco-injustice, and change hearts, minds, practices and laws, sometimes it seems all we see is Earth’s crucified body crumpled and dead all around us. An ecological homiletic urges us to return again and again to the biblical accounts of the resurrection to recover sacred memory and thus to renew hope.

What can we learn about resurrection from the biblical texts? The key is in how Jesus appeared: the same, yet different; transformed, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be the resurrected Earth, which also bears the scars. Nevertheless, new life will emerge in ways that are sure to surprise us with God’s grace.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/


[1] Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82) [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Sunday of the Passion in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)
By Dennis Ormseth

Sunday of the Passion in Year C
Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50-:4-9a
Psalm31:9-16 (5)
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56
or Luke 23:1-49

Recapitulation of the argument: Jesus refuses the way of domination over neighbor, nations and nature. Our comments on the readings for the Sundays of Lent have shown that the texts consistently address the way of domination in a manner that involves both social justice and care of creation. All four readings from the Gospel of Luke and a fifth from John’s Gospel support this view, often in combination with either or both of the first and second readings. First, Jesus’ refusal in the wilderness to test God in acts of domination in relationship to nature and the nations is coupled with Moses’ expectation that, as they enter the promised land, the people of Israel will experience relief from their wandering and the alienation from the land that accompanies the violence visited primordially by Cain upon Abel. Second, in an encounter with Pharisees who warn, probably falsely, that Herod seeks to kill him, Jesus refuses to be intimidated and persists in his teaching and acts of healing as he proceeds on his way toward Jerusalem, whose people he would shelter as a hen its chicks under its wings. There he can expect to be greeted with cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;” it is a blessing, that, like God’s promises to Abram in the first reading, looks forward to “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life.” Third, a second encounter with Jesus’ opponents further develops this theme of resistance to domination: they again attempt to intimidate him with a report of brutal action, this time by Pilate against a party of Galileans on their way to worship, faulting their sinfulness. Jesus exposes the incipient cultural and religious dualism of their view, as to relations between Galileans and Jerusalemites, and counters it with the “horticultural” parable of the fig tree given another chance by its vine dresser, who resists the command of the land’s owner to rip it out, promising to fertilize it; this image of God as patient and generous sustainer of life is doubled by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God as an extravagant host who offers free water and food to all, in order to overcome all divisions between nations. Each of these sets of texts exhibit aspects of the way of intimidation and domination characteristic of the opposition to Jesus, and counter that way with prophetic teaching and actions.

Our argument is advanced, fourthly, in a third encounter with opponents, in which scribes and Pharisees object now to Jesus’ table fellowship with persons they, too, regard dualistically as sinners; he counters their rejection with the parable of the man with two sons, the younger whose prodigal behavior wastes the family’s wealth, and the elder who accordingly saw him only as a debauched sinner who destroyed the father’s honor. The parable reminds us that in the patriarchal narrative of Israel, the roguish younger son is expected to receive the blessing of the father. But this father loves both sons equally and seeks to overcome the elder’s alienation by assurance of his companionship and grace, thus reconciling both sons as beloved children. Left open is the question of what happens next, particularly concerning their shared participation in the blessings of the family farm. The latter’s significance is an aspect of the story that is underscored by the first reading’s account of Joshua’s crossing the Jordan into the promised land, where the people enjoy release from the shame of Egyptian oppression, and for the first time feast from the land, reminding us of Moses’ instructions to the people from the first Sunday: the people are to gather in remembrance of the Passover and offer the first fruits in thanksgiving for restoration to the land and its sustenance.

Then the texts for the fifth Sunday both recapitulate the narrative of these Lenten encounters and move the action towards a climax. The account from John’s gospel of the meal in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem and just prior to the observance of Passover, re-frames for us the themes of Luke’s narrative. The dualism of the opposition of the “scribes and Pharisees” to the sinners in Jesus’ company is now linked to the decision of the Sanhedrin to seek Jesus’ death; their threats are thrust into Jesus’ fellowship by John’s anticipation of Judas’ act of betrayal. Jesus’ teaching in opposition to the intimidation of his opponents and his steadfast procession to Jerusalem, moreover, culminate here in the confrontation between Jesus and Judas over Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet. While she reveals the future servant role of the community that follows Jesus, Judas will link up with Jesus’ opponents in order to become a player in the power struggle of the nation. Thus we are at the crux of the development which we have plotted along the way, in terms of Jonathan’s Sacks’ description of how social dualism develops into religiously sanctioned, “altruistic violence.” Which way will prevail, the way of domination or the way of service? As the older brother’s resentment prompted an attitude of victimhood in relationship to the father and destroys his relationship with his brother, so the action which Judas intends to join is premised on the idea that Jesus’ death will relieve the dishonor and danger represented by the Jewish leadership’s submission to the Roman occupation. Jesus will be sacrificed as scapegoat in order to save the nation. But as Isaiah’s watery renewal of creation envisions and as Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet foreshadows, something new is happening that will be revealed in and through the events to be unfolded in the narrative of Jesus’ passion. We can hope that Jesus will somehow persist in his resistance to the way of domination, whether of neighbor, nations, or nature, because the God whose rule he advances leads to the restoration of all these relations in the great community of life.

Reading the passion narrative as a rejection of the way of domination for the benefit of community and creation. The readings for Passion Sunday open with the account of Jesus’ triumphal procession through the streets of Jerusalem. He is welcomed as “king,” but as Luke Timothy Johnson observes, the evangelist takes immediate care here at the outset to make clear that this kingship is not about domination of enemies, neither his nor Israel’s. “This emphasis on Jesus as king in Luke’s version must be understood in light of the kingship parable of 19:11-27,” Johnson insists, but not as that parable is commonly interpreted: it is about “the successful establishment of a kingdom” but not an apocalyptic prophecy of the end time. It is rather Luke’s “authorial commentary on the narrative,” and it refers to “events unfolding in Luke’s own story”:

Who is the nobleman who would be king, and who in fact gets basileia so that he cannot only exercise it but also bestow it on followers? It is obviously Jesus himself, who will immediately be hailed as king, dispose of basileia to his followers, grant entrance to the thief, and as risen Lord, continue to exercise authority through his emissaries’ words and deeds. Who are the fellow citizens who do not wish to have this one as their ruler, who protest it, and then defeated, are “cut off”? They are the leaders of the people who will decry the proclamation of Jesus as king, accuse him of royal pretensions in his trial, mock him as king on the cross, reject his mission as prophet, persecute his apostles, and find themselves at last because of all this, “cut off from the people.” Who are the servants whose faithful use of possessions is rewarded by exousia (“authority”) within the realm of this king? The Twelve, whom we shall see in the narrative of Acts, exercising just such authority over the restored people of God (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 294).

This king, in other words, is the agent of the “constitutive blessing”,’ in Terry Fretheim”s terms, who brings about “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life” (See our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent for Fretheim’s concept). Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at 19:41 signals that his “arrival is the visitation of God that offers peace; the rejection of the Prophet will lead to destruction,” yes, but not by forces led by him. Thus Luke has no “waving of branches found in all the other Gospels,” which “might be perceived as the nationalistic implications of Jesus’ kingship,” which is “not simply that of the Jewish nation” but “the rule of God over the people of God” (Johnson, p. 297, 298, 301).

The lectionary’s reading of the passion narrative proper develops these themes of the parable, beginning with the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his followers. In his account of the meal, Luke is first concerned to establish the character of Jesus’ community. As Johnson points out, he “stresses the special relationship between Jesus and his followers,” almost entirely ignoring Judas’ presence. “Jesus’ blessing and sharing of the cup” signifies “in a truly complex fashion, the role of the disciples after Jesus’ death. They are to “divide among themselves.” At one level, this is an implicit bestowal of authority and fellowship, for such was the status of those who drank from the same cup as the king.” But this shared company’s authority is not about domination. “At another level, sharing equally in the cup signifies as well a sharing in the suffering of the Messiah, for as we shortly learn, this is the cup of suffering in which his blood is being poured out for them. This destiny, as well that of the apostles, will be fulfilled in the narrative of Acts, when they “suffer for the name of the Messiah (5:41).” Jesus’ words over the cup establish a powerful connection to the symbolism of the Passover celebration. As Johnson writes, the primordial experience of liberation that was the Exodus was more than an escape from Egypt. It was God’s formation of a people by the giving of Torah and the establishment of the covenant, sealed by the sacrificial blood sprinkled alike on the book of the covenant and the people. Luke therefore portrays the cup given by Jesus in equally “foundational” terms. The restoration of Israel by the prophet Jesus is equally sealed by sacrificial blood. But now the blood is not of animals, but of the Prophet himself. It is by the giving of his life in sacrifice—donation to God for the sake of others—that a regeneration of the people can take place (Johnson, p. 342).

So also with the thickly layered symbolism of the bread: the actions reveal the true meaning not only of this meal, but of both the feedings Jesus has provided earlier and those to come, following the resurrection. “Jesus is the servant who gives his life for others. And as the bread must be broken to be shared, so is his body to be broken in death so that the life-giving spirit might be given to them.” But “when they in turn ‘do this as a remembrance of him’ in their ‘breaking bread’ together (Acts 2:46; 20:7), he will be present not as a fond memory but as a powerful and commanding presence (24:44)” (Johnson, pp. 342).

There is deep irony in this, of course. The sacrifice of the scapegoat which the Sanhedrin counts on to save themselves from Roman punishment is subverted to become the cornerstone of a rebirth of God’s people on a new and vastly larger scale. As Norman Wirzba puts it,

Christ is no mere scapegoat, nor is his death reducible to lessons people should learn about their implacable thirst for violence. Jesus’ death speaks to God’s way of being with the world and thus also to creation’s inner meaning. On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life.

In this perspective, we begin to see the cosmic significance of the passion narrative. “The movement of sacrifice that characterizes God’s life also characterizes created life. Creation is an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). And yet, we cannot fail to observe, the use of bread and wine as the sacramental means of that cosmic presence will for all time bind both the celebration of this meal and the ministry of Jesus’ followers to the earth from which those elements are locally harvested.

So the way of domination is countered by the subversion of the very means by which it is to be effected. When Luke finally mentions the “hand of the betrayer at the table,” it is because “this is how the sacrifice of the prophet will be accomplished”:

Because the covenant is being established anthropologically—in the very fabric of human freedom—the offer of the gift and the rejection of it as well must be carried out in the messy tangle of human decisions, and the decision of Judas is part of the larger process that no human agency controls. The Son of Man moves toward a destiny determined by God.

As Jesus will emphasize in his “farewell discourse” while they are still at table, the authority shared by him is not about domination. That is the way of the Gentiles, he observes, but it is not his way, nor is it to be that of his followers (Johnson, p. 344). The authority they are given, as Johnson summarizes it, “is to be carried out as a practical service to others. Their wrangling over status (philoneikia, 22:24) is entirely inappropriate. They are neither to dominate nor to regard themselves as benefactors (22:26). Like their teacher, they are to serve humbly those they teach” (Johnson, p. 349). And in the action that follows the meal, Luke is equally insistent that Jesus will tolerate no violence: when a disciple strikes a slave of the high priest and cuts off his ear, Jesus not only forbids further such acts, but heals the wound with his touch. This gesture, which only Luke mentions, as Johnson points out, not only shows “the continuation of the ministry of healing that has accompanied Jesus’ proclamation of the good news from the beginning,” but also exemplifies “the attitudes of forgiveness and compassion toward those ‘who hate him’ that he had enjoined on his followers” (Johnson, p. 353).

Is Jesus resistance to domination truly a viable way to follow in the actual give and take of human life? The events following on the meal demonstrate both its strength and its cost. In his denial of Jesus, Peter submits to the intimidation of the crowd when he is identified as a Galilean, recalling for us the social dualism presupposed in the report of Pilate’s brutal action against Galileans. But an exchange of glances between Peter and Jesus will set Peter on the way to repentance (Johnson. p.). So also the report of Jesus’ questioning by Pilate and Herod makes note of Jesus’ Galilean origins (Luke 23:5k) as a factor in the development of friendship between Pilate and Herod (Johnson, pp. 357-358, 364, 366; see our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent). Since Jesus’ “stirring up the people” allows Pilate to act against him because ”anyone encouraging such revolt could be executed simply as a warning to others,” the Galilean connection if significant: “if this is not a local commotion at the feast, but a deliberate program of propagandizing, Pilate must take it more seriously into account” (Johnson, p. 365). But Jesus’ careful answers to Herod and Pilate give them no grounds to punish Jesus beyond the mocking and flogging he has already received. The Sanhedrin’s attempt to draw Jesus into the orbit of officially sanctioned violence thus fails on account of Jesus’ own reticence to claim his kingship in the face of its inevitable exploitation by his opponents. As Johnson points out, their charges “are plainly deceptive. The title of Messiah, which Jesus refused to acknowledge unequivocally before the Sanhedrin (22:67), is not only reported as his own claim but is cast in its most dangerous political form: Messiah, a king (23:2).” The murderous Herod and Pilate are “astonishingly reluctant to murder Jesus when they have the legal opportunity to do so!” They are forced finally to draw on the psychology of the gathered mob to force Pilate’s acquiescence (Johnson, p. 368-69). All of this is in full accord with Luke’s view, widely shared in the early church, that Jesus is to be understood as the suffering servant of Isaiah 50, our first reading for the Sunday, and Isaiah 53: he is innocent of all charges brought against him; he is the “suffering righteous one, whose death is not one of punishment for his own crimes but one of sacrifice for others;” and the violence that is carried out against him is of a piece with the suffering of the people that will take place when their leaders eventually bring down upon them all the wrath of Rome (Johnson 374-75).

The full vindication of Jesus’ refusal of the way of domination awaits the good news of Easter, of course, and the active implementation of practices of resistance, the post-resurrection re-gathering of his community. The exploration of the cosmic significance of this death will await the later writings of the community such as our second reading from Philippians 2. But Luke’s narrative offers along the way meaningful if spare witness to the full creation’s interest in relation to these events: Jesus’ words to the Galilean women following him to the cross invokes the barrenness of wombs that spares them from seeing children suffer, and the falling mountains and hills that might save them from starvation during the siege to come (Johnson, pp. 372-73). Jesus’ promise of paradise to the criminal beside him invokes the image of the “garden of joy and pleasure, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only twice (2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelations 2:7), the garden prepared by God for the first humans (Genesis 2:8), the most noteworthy feature of which was the ‘tree of life’ (Genesis 2:9). As Jesus cries out, commending his spirit to God, the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, perhaps to “symbolize the end of the division separating Jew and Gentile, giving all equal access to God” (Johnson, p.378). A pious Jew named Joseph sees to it that Jesus’ body is buried in a newly dug tomb; his reverence for that body will be shared by the Galilean women who come to anoint it with oils and so become first witnesses to the resurrection (Johnson, p. 380). And thus will the resurrected body become a sacred center for the restoration of the creation.

 

 

 

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Mundahl)

Offering Life for the World Tom Mundahl reflects on Christ’s suffering and death.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2017)

Readings for the Sunday of Passion, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27: 66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The Sunday of the Passion begins the eight-day holy week, which culminates in the central celebration of the Christian faith: the passage of Jesus from death to life marked by the Three Days. Not only do the readings contain rich support for serving creation, but the gospel readings show the cosmic significance of the events—ranging from the donkey and tree branches of the entry into the city to the cosmic elements of darkness and earthquake in the passion story.

Norman Wirzba summarizes the connection between our readings and ecojustice concerns: “We discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God’s offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 126). While the very notion of sacrifice is uncomfortable to death-denying North Americans, it still is the way of the cross that leads to new life.

To grasp Isaiah’s Third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9a), it is important to uncover the world of self-deception many exiles still embraced. In fact, one of the purposes of Second Isaiah is to convince the people that they were responsible for their condition; they had lost their freedom and land because they had convinced themselves that any wealth and status they enjoyed resulted from their own efforts, not as a gift of God. They had clearly forgotten the warning of the Deuteronomist: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Yahweh responds to this arrogance with an indictment and trial immediately preceding our First Reading. Here the very notion that the LORD is responsible for breaking the covenant and selling the people off to the highest bidder is shown to be pathetic and self-serving (Isaiah 50:1-3). Since living in self-deception only leads to greater self-destruction, the verdict is a stiff dose of the truth. As Paul Hanson suggests, “the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not dedicated to avoiding offense at all costs, but to dispelling the delusions that imprison human beings” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 137). As the prophetic word delivered by Isaiah has it, “I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

This reminds us of nothing so much as the delusion of “American exceptionalism” that credits national wealth totally to a genius that forgets what once were seen as limitless natural “resources,” centuries of slave labor, and the genocide of native people. Like the exiles, advocates of eco-justice are called to be prophetic truth-tellers, awakening us to the fact that we, too, because of water depletion, resource waste, and climate change are also living in an illusion of prosperity containing the seeds of destruction.

This Servant Song reminds us that, in spite of human delusion, God does not give up on sending prophets as messengers to help the recovery of our senses. Whereas in Isaiah 42 it is the Spirit that emboldens the servant, in this Sunday’s text it is the power of the word itself: “The LORD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In fact, this Servant Song comes close to presenting a job description for prophets. The power of calling provides the endurance to confront those who meet the truth with “insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50: 6). The simple fact of persistence—“setting the face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7)—in the face of constant ridicule is the key to prophetic effectiveness (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 229).

It is through the suffering of the servant that power to transform the whole community grows. One of the great mysteries of faith is that those with the greatest ability to encourage the distraught are often those who, far from being exempt from suffering , discover special gifts of empathy and empowerment precisely in their own valleys of personal suffering (Hanson, p. 141). Again. we see life emerging from death.

As we began these comments on Lenten season texts, climate activist and Methodist layperson Bill McKibben’s 2016 lecture to inaugurate the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lectures was referred to. We saw that McKibben took as his task applying the lessons of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to the climate struggle. The first lesson McKibben mentioned was the power of “unearned suffering” (This lecture is available online at www.fateoftheearth.org). Increasingly, it appears that McKibben’s prescience was uncanny. The courage to endure in seeking eco-justice in the face of opposition from the current presidential regime can only come from a source as strong as that described by Isaiah: in our case, the power of baptismal calling to give us strength “to set our face like flint” in the quest for eco-justice, a quest that seems more likely with each passing day to require civil disobedience. This may be how we offer ourselves to one another “to till (serve) and keep” the creation.

Few texts sing the melody of self-offering for the life of the world as clearly as our Second Lesson, Philippians 2:5-11. “For at the heart of the story of creation, from its origins through problem to resolution is the story of Christ, who enters the world to redeem it, and is raised to glory as the firstborn of the new creation. Paul summarizes this story most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 172).

Named after the father of Alexander the Great, by the middle of the first century CE Philippi had become a retirement center for the Roman military, a city where loyalty to the emperor was highly valued. In the face of the dominant culture, this Christ hymn makes the subversive claim that believers are “citizens of an empire where Christ is Lord” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, p. 499). Of course, the appellation, “Lord,” was a commonplace when referring to the emperor. As Ovid wrote, the emperor is “Lord of the empire, no less mighty than the world he governs” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, p. 108). To send a letter featuring this Christ-hymn naming Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) was surely crossing the line.

But the “career trajectory” of this lordship is unlike any sanctioned by Roman culture. Instead of a climb to the top, this lordship participates in the depths of life by obedient self-emptying (kenosis). Influenced by elements of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53: 12), the Genesis narrative of disobedience (Genesis 3), and the Roman cult of the emperor, this Christ-hymn concisely summarizes the story as one of incarnation (he emptied himself), death (he humbled himself), and glorification (Gorman, p. 506).

Although we are mindful of the final verses of the Christ-hymn, it is crucial to recognize on this day, formerly referred to almost exclusively as Palm Sunday, that it was not “hosannas” all the way. To remind his audience (and all hearers) of this, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ self-emptying is the pattern of faithful life: “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2: 5).

Some years ago, Wayne Meeks suggested that the basic purpose of Philippians “is the shaping of a Christian phronesis (way of thinking) that is ‘conformed to Christ’s death in hope of resurrection’” (“The Man from Heaven in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” in Birger Pearson, ed., The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, p. 333). As we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, perhaps we could see this “way of thinking” as shaping Luther’s theology, in particular his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Early in his career as a reformer, Luther made it clear that “everyone who knows he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests” (“The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520), in Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther—Selections from His Writings, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961, p. 349). That same year, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” Luther defines this priesthood, drawing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (12:12f.): “We are all one body, yet each member has his own work serving others” (Ibid., p. 407). Surely this priesthood—offering life for the world in the name of the Christ—includes serving creation and securing eco-justice.

Even on the Sunday of the Passion, we “lean” toward the culmination of this holy week at the Vigil. Therefore, we cannot ignore the glorification in the final part of the Christ-hymn. This, too, reflects the baptismal priesthood we share. We learn that “what a priest does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now . . . . When we ‘lift our hearts’ to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). As priests we begin to see the whole creation as an altar of God’s offering. This altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 207).

We cannot neglect our gospel reading(s). The processional reading requires good participation from the congregation—energy is important (as are eco-palms that are widely available). Because it is important to begin this week being immersed in the passion story, my recommendation is reading the longer version. If it is a single reader, it should be done at an appropriate pace, unhurried. If there is a talented storyteller in the congregation willing to take this on, what a gift! Even better is a choral reading using resources that are widely available. However, the key to a good choral reading is recruiting good readers, all standing near the lectern, who have practiced together at least twice. If sound reinforcement is necessary, that should also be “practiced.”

Is a traditional sermon necessary? That is a local decision. While serving as a pastor, when I did preach I usually focused briefly on the Philippians Christ-hymn. In the last fifteen years of ministry, simply hearing the passion gospel read was more than enough. If this is done, it is particularly important to allow silence (more than a minute before and two minutes or more after the Passion Gospel) for reflection and prayer.  While this may seem unusual and even uncomfortable for some, silence is a gift of life for this unique week and always in congregational worship.

Hymn Suggestions:

Processional: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” ELW, 344
Hymn of the Day: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” ELW, 340
Sending: “What Wondrous Love Is This,” ELW, 666

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com