Oh, what a difference a week makes in the lectionary/liturgical cycle of the church… five days, really. We don’t know exactly how long it was between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a colt (Luke)… or a donkey (Mark)… or a colt and a donkey (Matthew), depending upon which Gospel account you’re reading, and the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. It might have been five days… it might have been longer… it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the way Jesus spent these last days of his earthly ministry. The first thing Jesus did after arriving in Jerusalem was to go to the Temple and eject the merchants and money changers who had turned it from a house of prayer… into a house whose occupants preyed upon the unwary (Matt 21:12-17).
Over the next several days, the chief priests and scribes tried, again and again, to trick Jesus into saying something blasphemous… something actionable, but he was too smart for them. Jesus spoke of the fate of fig trees that failed to bear fruit (Matt 21:18-22), of vineyards and wicked tenants (vv. 21:33-46), of wedding banquets (vv. 22:1-14) and the stone that the builder rejected (v. 21:42). He reminded the Jewish elders of the difference between what belonged to God… and what belonged to Caesar… and of their responsibilities in each case (vv. 22:15-22). The people loved what Jesus was saying; the Scribes and the Pharisees… not so much. They eventually stopped harassing Jesus publicly, plotting instead to shut him up for good (vv. 26:1-5). Jesus knew what they were up to… but he never let up on them. If anything, he turned up the heat. He called them out as “hypocrites” and “blind guides” and “whitewashed tombs…” pretty from the outside, but filled with corruption (vv. 23:1-36). It almost seems as if Jesus was trying to force the hand of the Hebrew religious establishment… to make them come after him.
Jesus’ disciples were likely concerned… some more than others… especially when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple and the end times… of natural disasters, persecutions and sacrilege… and the coming of the Son of Man, “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:1-31). He taught his disciples about the need for watchfulness (vv. 24:36-44)… and preparation… of wise and faithful slaves (vv. 24:45-51), foolish bridesmaids (vv. 25-1-13), the necessity paying forward the gifts with which we are entrusted (vv. 25:14-30)… and how we will be judged in this regard (vv. 25:31-46). Jesus did lots of teaching during these last days… time was short and there wasn’t a moment to lose. It’s hard to know precisely when the situation escalated to the point of no return. All we know is that, at one point, Judas Iscariot approached the chief priests with an offer they couldn’t refuse… and they didn’t (vv. 26:14-16).
A last evening among friends: the institution of that most wonderful of meals: the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26-30)… some final teachings about servanthood… and love… and betrayal (cf. John 13). And then Jesus found himself alone with his father in the gloom of Gethsemane, praying while the disciples slept, oblivious to the Passion drama that was beginning to unfold around them (Matt 26:36-46). A kiss, a shriek of pain… a final healing (Luke)… and then Jesus was led away and brought before the chief priests, bound, beaten, reviled as a trophy of their unbelief and, finally, turned over to the Roman Governor of Judea, the only man in the region with the authority to order his summary execution (vv. 26:47—27:2).
So here we are, immersed in the same Passion drama as were Jesus’ disciples two millennia ago. Of course, we have a bit of an advantage over them because we know how the story turns out. But we also know about the suffering and degradation that must take place before the final victory is won. In a way, I envy the disciples their unknowing. Because with the unknowing comes a certain innocence… how could they have known that all of Jesus’ suffering was for them? How could they have understood the implications of such a gift, freely given… and their responsibility as recipients of that grace: to walk by faith… and not by sight (2 Cor 5:1-10).
I’m still not sure we really get it. And I guess we don’t need to… really get it. It’s a mystery after all. But we need to try. I asked the question earlier during this season of Lent: “What if it really is all about us?” What if God sent the Messiah, the Christ, to show us the way to become the creatures God intends us to be? And not just collectively… but each of us! What if God is every bit as concerned about us… the greatest and the least of us… individually… as he is about nations and ecology and the Church with a capital “C.” And how should that inform the way we live our lives… this day and every day? “This is my body… this is my blood, which was given for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins…” to bring about your salvation, your atonement (at-one-ment) with your Creator….
But even if it is all about us, this week, we are called to walk with Jesus on the road marked with suffering… on the road of his Passion, as he pours out his Body and Blood to make our Salvation possible. And we are not innocent. Unlike the disciples, we do not have the benefit of “plausible deniability.” We know we’re all culpable in Jesus’ death. We know all this is happening because of us. And for us. And we really don’t know the end of the story, do we? Because the end of the story is us. The end of the story is how we pay forward the gifts with which we’ve been entrusted. We are saved by grace, apprehended (taken hold of) by faith. Think about that over the next five days of Holy Week as we relive, together, the story of the betrayal and execution of Jesus’ Messiah.