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… or a donkey… or a colt and a donkey, 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 (Mark 11:15-19).
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 what happened to fig trees that failed to bear fruit (vv. 20-25), of authority and baptism (vv. 27-33), of vineyards and wicked tenants (12:1-9) and the stone that the builder rejected (vv. 10-12). He reminded the Jewish elders of the difference between what belonged to God… and what belonged to Caesar… and of their responsibilities in either case (vv. 13-17). And so much more. 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. And 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 on the inside (Matt 23:15-36). 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 great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). He taught his disciples about the need for watchfulness… and preparation… of wise and faithful slaves (Matt 24:36-51), foolish bridesmaids (25:1-13), the necessity for paying forward the gifts with which we are entrusted… and how we will eventually be judged in this regard (vv. 14-30). 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 there came a day when Judas Iscariot approached the chief priests with an offer they couldn’t refuse… and they didn’t (Mark 14:10-11).
A last evening among friends: the institution of that most wonderful of meals: The Lord’s Supper… some final teachings about servanthood… and love… and betrayal (John 13:1-35). 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. A kiss, a shriek of pain… a final healing (Luke 22:51)… 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 (Mark 14:32-50).
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, as participants in the drama, 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 the recipients of God’s grace: to take up Jesus’ cross… and do their part to help restore God’s Kingdom on the Earth?
I’m still not sure we really get it. And I guess we don’t really need to… I mean really get it. It’s a mystery after all. But we need to try. What if it really is all about us, and for us? What if God really did send the Messiah, the Christ, to show us an example of what it means to be fully-human, the way God intended us to be from the dawn of creation? 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”? What does that tell us about how we need to be living 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 none of us is innocent… unlike the disciples, we do not have the benefit of “plausible deniability.” We know we’re 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 through faith (Ephesians 2:8), but “faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26). 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.