Matthew 21: “And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to…the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.”
“This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. (As Jesus entered Jerusalem) Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread the (palms) on the road. And the crowds…shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
“And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
“He said to them, “It is written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of thieves.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant; and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, `Out of the mouth of babes (you’ll hear) perfect praise’?”
“And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Preface: When I planned this sermon two weeks ago, it was my intention to simply talk about Palm Sunday and tie it into Passover…and, by extension, the Jewish-Christian story about the long-awaited messiah.
Who would have thought that in the meantime we would be reading front-page news stories about The Gospel of Judas?
Poor old Judas! He was given the bad-guy role in the dramatic story of Jesus’ journey from a manger in Bethlehem to the cross, so that the stone could be rolled away from the tomb and he would be raised to heaven, thus launching a new religion…or the final chapter of the old one.
Father Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said that the Gospel of Judas would not be a threat to Catholic teaching. “It’s not even on the radar screen in the Vatican,” he said.
Then he quipped (and I burst out laughing when I read this line) “I’m just glad it wasn’t found in a bank vault in the Vatican.”
The Gospel of Judas may shed some light on the Da Vinci Code, just in time for the release of the movie version.
A New Testament professor, Ben Witherington responded to the Gospel of Judas by dismissing it, saying, “It tells us a lot about a group that were labeled heretics in their own day.”
Another New Testament professor, James Robertson, has this less-than-profound insight—he said, “Correctly understood, there’s nothing undermining about the Gospel of Judas.”
‘Correctly understood’ is the key caveat. We’ve told you what Judas did, so if you understand this new version correctly, rather than coming up with some incorrect understanding, you will agree with what we’ve already told you.
Finally, a comment about the newly-translated Gospel from Professor Elaine Pagels, who has done such wonderful work with the Gnostic Gospels: “Startling as the Gospel of Judas sounds, it amplifies hints we have long read in the Gospels of Mark and John that Jesus knew and even instigated the events of his passion, seeing them as part of a divine plan. Those of us who go to church may find our Easter reflections more mysterious than ever.”
At its best, the Christian story summarizes what it’s like to live a human life. That’s what the birth narrative is about – Jesus is born in the most humble circumstances – placed in the animals feeding trough, a manger. Right away he becomes a fugitive from injustice, fleeing with his family into Egypt. Then he’s liberated, asserting his independence from his parents as soon as he becomes a bar mitzvah. He comes up with some interesting Biblical interpretations that cause concern among the traditionalists; eventually he makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—the story of the Jews liberation from bondage in Egypt.
After a three-year ministry, from age 30 to 33, he arranges with Judas, his publicist, to call attention to him with a kiss—a trick that all those newspapers on supermarket stands knows how to do. (The National Enquirer would have paid some paparazzi a fortune for a photograph of that kiss!)
Those who were impatient waiting for the messiah need wait no more!
Sermon: What Jesus Said
We’re homo sapiens, from the Latin sapere, to be wise, or rational. We have the ability to reason logically.
In mathematics a rational number is a whole number ’capable of being expressed as a quotient of integers.’
Is it possible to have a religion that satisfies our need to be rational, and at the same time be spiritually satisfying?
There is a creative tension between the rational mind—the need to make sense out of this life we’re living—and the emotional aspect of life—the need to feel, the need to dig down to the core ‘where the spirit meets the bone,’ which seems beyond the reasoning or rational mind.
We do it—we combine the rational and emotional—by telling stories. We take little pieces of life, both actual and fictional, or imagined, and we weave them into a whole.
For example, we tell bed-time stories to our children—they’re not true stories, but they contain the seeds of a larger truth…about what it means to be born, to live, to grow, to struggle, to face challenges and changes, and to be a person. We tell children stories that comfort them, stories that entertain them and make them laugh; stories in which they can see themselves on an adventure—for example they can go in their mind’s eye with Goldilocks into the three bears house and taste the porridge and sit on the chair that break and go to sleep in baby bear’s bed.
We tell stories because we must—stories keep us human; stories make us human. We tell one another about some event—a big fish we almost caught, as opposed to the more modest one we brought home. We tell a spouse, partner or friend about our day; we tell our grandchildren about ‘the old days.’ We even tell ourselves a story about ourselves, trying to make sense of it all.
In the final analysis, religion is all about stories. Today’s story is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; this passage actually contains several stories. One of them fulfills the prophecy that the Messiah would arrive in this fashion—which is why Matthew made the story up this way.
The passage includes several smaller stories: Jesus makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover – the story about people laying palms on his path, which is where Palm Sunday gets its name; then there’s the story of Jesus going into the temple and turning over the tables – that’s an important story; then there’s the troubling story of Jesus killing the fig tree because it didn’t have fruit for him to eat, even though it wasn’t time for the tree to have ripe fruit. What’s more ‘human’ than this angry piece of destruction in the natural world; or is this a symbol of how we ‘kill’ relationships because of our unreasonable expectations and consequent disappoint. There’s a sermon in that fig tree! (But you can write that one.)
Then there’s the story of Jesus being asked about the source of his authority, and he answers their question like any good rabbi would: he answers the question by asking another question!
There are rich stories in this passage, but we Unitarian Universalists have an uneasy relationship to these stories because we don’t think they are literally true; we have a hard time with the Christian Holy Week, which begins today, Palm Sunday, moves quickly to Good Friday and the execution scene, and ends on Easter with the resurrection.
We don’t make official pronouncements about the theological implications in all those stories that mark the Christian calendar, but we like to take them out from time to time and look at them again and see if we can find something new in them.
We don’t talk a lot about Jesus, but our Unitarian forebears talked about ‘the leadership of Jesus.’ The 19th century minister, James Freeman Clark wrote a creed for Unitarians: “We believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, Salvation by character, and the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.”
Our Universalist forebears contrasted the idea of a good, loving Creator they affirmed, and the idea of a God who would condemn the vast majority of human creation to everlasting hell. They accomplished this by saying that ‘all souls are eventually saved by an all-loving God.’ Later they simply said, “There is no hell except for that which we experience on earth.” They also talked about how we create the conditions for hell on earth by the way we treat one another.
Today, while some Unitarian Universalists call themselves Christian, most do not limit their religious label to Christian; which is why many traditional Christian denominations leave us out, saying that to be Christian you must believe in the Divinity of Jesus.
So, when Holy Week rolls around we have to explain ourselves to ourselves. One of the unfortunate aspects of the explanation is the felt need to say what we do not believe: that we don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus, we don’t believe in the Trinity, we don’t believe in hell, we don’t believe that Christianity was created by a distant god, and so forth.
What do we believe? Is it true that you don’t have to believe anything to be a Unitarian Universalist?
What I want to assert today, simply and directly, is that the life and teaching of Jesus is at the core of what it means (for me) to claim to be a Unitarian Universalist.
One of America’s most respected Catholics, Gary Wills, just published a book in which he summarizes his notion of the life and teaching of Jesus. He offers the somewhat presumptuous title, What Jesus Meant.
I bought the book; I appreciate Gary Wills’ work, and I like the title. I think each of us would do well to write some reflections under that title, completing the sentence, “This is what I think Jesus meant.”
We don’t know for certain what Jesus said during his brief life and even briefer ministry, so anything we say about what Jesus ‘meant,’ is speculative; but it’s good to speculate about what you think Jesus meant, or what the Buddha meant, or what Confucius meant, or what anyone who has influenced you continues to ‘mean’ to you.
One thing seems clear: Jesus said things to upset just about everybody.
Gary Wills says that Jesus was against religion. He wrote an entire chapter on this point. He said, “The most striking, resented, and dangerous of Jesus’ activities was his opposition to religion as that was understood in his time. This is what led to his death. Religion killed him.”
He says, “(Jesus) opposed all formalisms in worship—ritual purifications, sacrifice, external prayer and fasting norms, the Sabbath and eating codes, priesthoods, the Temple, and the rules of Saducees, Phraisees, and Scribes. He called authentic only the religion of the heart, the inner purity and union with the father that he had achieved and was able to share with his followers.”
At this point he quotes the instructions Jesus gave regarding prayer—the preface to his famous ‘Our Father’ prayer, where he warns people about praying in public, so to pray, he says, you must ‘go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret…your Father already knows what you need before you ask.’
Bart Ehrman, a former Christian fundamentalist who once believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God…every word literally true…wrote a book called Misquoting Jesus; how the scribes changed words, before the printing press…
There’s a cute story about the discovery of an original text in a cave, perfectly preserved, so the monks studied it very carefully and at one point one of the monks began to weep. The others gathered around and asked what was the matter and, with head in hands he said, “The word was celebrate.”
I had a similar experience. Someone told me that before I finished reciting the poem, Maggie and Millie and Molly and May, I lost him. He said, “You got to the line about May and said, ‘May come home with a smooth round stone, as small as a world, as large as alone.’ But I thought you said ‘as large as a loan,’ and I got to thinking about the very large mortgage I was taking out and spent the rest of the time worrying about it.”
You never know how you’re going to be heard.
I often refer to the story of Jesus being asked ‘by what authority do you do these things,’ like healing on the Sabbath, and so forth. In the passage from Matthew, he never answers. Good, believing Christians assume that this is God talking; more liberal Christians believe that it’s Jesus talking and he gets his authority from God the Father.
I identify with Jesus in this story, because I believe we derive our authority from a higher power within ourselves; that it doesn’t come from the Ten Commandments; it doesn’t come from Scriptures; it comes from our personal understanding of the spirit behind the commandments and the spirit behind the Scriptures; it comes from someplace deep within ourselves and we need to access that sense of personal authority.
I also refer to the story of Jesus tipping over the tables in the Temple, but I don’t think it’s about cheating people out of money in an unfair exchange rate: what he was saying, as I read it, is that institutional religion tends to steal something more precious than money—it steals the soul, the spirit, by making people feel like sinners in the hands of an angry god, convincing them of their lack of worth, taking away their dignity. Institutional religion suggests that someone else has the answers, but you don’t and you couldn’t come up with the answers unless you are told.
That’s the big theft.
Jesus said things that got him executed.
What would that be? And who was responsible?
Jesus led the way by what he said: he spoke up against the Roman occupiers, and he spoke up against those who were in positions of leadership in the Temple.
I don’t think he was talking about money, even though those who exchanged money for the coin of the realm were ripping people off. He was, I think, talking about taking something more precious from people—their ability to think for themselves.
The religions have a strong habit of convincing people that they are not capable of discerning the truth—the big truths.
Jesus was a human being—not some kind of god, or a special son of God — each of us is a child of God, the same as Jesus. The story of Jesus getting angry at the fig tree and in his rage he kills it, is the story of his human-ness; and it’s not a pretty picture.
Jesus preached a religion that was very personal, and in many respects, very private. It was practical and simple: it was about living your life, from day to day, and finding meaning by serving. Someone said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
Gary Wills paints a portrait of a very human Jesus; he uses the famous passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew that has Jesus say, ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it to me.’
‘The Messiah is the person next to you.’
May we find ways to get to the place ‘where the spirit meets the bone,’ so we can celebrate life in a full, authentic way.
“Hosannah! “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Peace … glory in the highest!”