Obedience

13 April 2014
Palm/Passion Sunday
Palm Sunday A (RCL)
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

We get a lot of Scripture on this particular Sunday — a big chunk of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the other readings. It’s almost too much Scripture to deal with on a single Sunday. Several things, however, stand out. Matthew (and all the Synoptic Gospels) narrates the trial and death of Jesus with little apparent theological interpretation, as opposed to Paul, who almost never narrates the trial and death, but provides plenty of theological interpretation. Along the same lines, Matthew narrates the last supper without any indication that Jesus intended this to be a repeatable (and repeated) ritual. In fact, Jesus says he will never again drink from the fruit of the vine until he drinks it in the Kingdom. Matthew also narrates the passion in such a way to show all the details as fulfillment of scripture, as he does also the infancy narratives. He leaves us to dig around in Scripture and figure out the theological interpretation on our own, not even providing us with a key to the reading of the scriptures which the passion fulfills.

In the infancy narratives, Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel, going down into Egypt and being called out again. The three kings come bringing gifts which Isaiah sees the kings of the nations bringing to Jerusalem after the restoration of the Temple after the Exile and return. If this is the interpretive key, then Jesus’ passion and death also recapitulates the history of Israel. Lying close behind much of Matthew are the Servant Songs of Isaiah and their interpretation of Israel’s suffering in Exile. Matthew also includes the detail of the curtain before the holy of holies being torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus dies. Wisdom is leaving the Temple, and the future history of the Temple is sealed — it is only a matter of time before it is destroyed again (which of course happens in Matthew’s own past).

The theological interpretation, then, resides in Matthew’s irony. Chief priest, elders, scribes, Pilate, co-crucified bandits — all misunderstand Jesus’ identification with Israel. Only the centurion and those with him “get it” — surely this man was divi filii, a son of God, Caesar, not just king of the Jews or of Israel, but of the whole world. In the scene in the Garden, Matthew duplicates Jesus prayer that this cup might pass from him, submitting nevertheless to God’s will. Matthew calls attention to Jesus’ obedience as the interpretive key to the passion. Where Israel failed again and again to obey God’s intentions, Jesus submits. God’s people fail even to measure up to the Servant Songs: this suffering was to be for the admission of the Gentiles to the promises of God, and yet once the Temple was rebuilt, the people used the identity given by it to exclude Gentiles, even forbidding entry of the Gentiles, in opposition to Isaiah’s vision.

The early christological hymn quoted by Paul calls attention also to Jesus’ obedience, “even unto death.” We have to be very careful about how we understand this obedience, or we could fall into the trap of thinking that suffering is redemptive in its own right. Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history; God’s intention for Israel was the redemption of the world. We, however, messed it up, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden. We aspired to be God, rather than submit to our creaturely existence. Irenaeus and other early theologians understood the Incarnation to recapitulate the whole of human history. Jesus had to undergo (suffer, passion share the root of “to allow to happen”) all that humans undergo in order to redeem humanity. Jesus accepts in his person the very worst that humans can do to one another, else it would be irredeemable. The suffering in itself is not redemptive; that Jesus accepted it is. It allows us to accept again our creaturely status and at the same time participate in the divine life; with the apple, we tried to have the divine life without at the same time being creatures. There is a German hymn which points out that Jesus had to die on the tree, to redeem our disobedience on the first tree.

To accept the other, to love without control, requires that we “suffer,” allow the other to be. As creatures, never should we take that so far that we cease to be what God intends us to be, allow the other to destroy us. However, to redeem the worst that humans have done, God must be obedient in our place. Jesus death allows us to see in him the divine, the true emperor of heaven and earth. God would not let the worst we could do to one another separate us either from Godself or from one another, but suffered it and transformed it in the resurrection. The women grieving at the tomb are also the first witnesses of the resurrection, because they did not deny the suffering and death which is ours.

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