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Normally on this day in Jerusalem the local Latin-rite Christians and pilgrims go to Bethphage near the Mount of Olives and process first up to the top of the Mount and then down the steep descent into the garden of Gethsemane, and then up the winding hill through St. Anne’s Gate, into the Via Dolorosa of the Old City. They are remaking the journey made by Jesus two thousand years ago. He came riding on a donkey, the animal that symbolised peace, not on a horse which always symbolised war. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who presides over the ceremony these days prays for sustained peace, because of the sufferings of Christians and others, due to the daily stress caused by their peculiar political and geographical circumstances.
A Passion Narrative
We, like them, listen to the same Passion Narrative. Of course passion means suffering. That is why today’s reading is called a passion narrative. Here Jesus is presented as the suffering lover of peace, and for a brief moment is honoured as such. Very soon as the story progresses he is sought out and arrested as a very dangerous criminal. Swords and clubs are used to take him at night. Why was he arrested anyway? On what charge? Why was it that nobody defended him and that his nearest and dearest deserted him? And why should the Romans have been involved in what seemed to be just a religious controversy between typically factious Jews? What claims did he make that so many should have united to destroy him? In ordinary terms it should just have been one more horrible human tragedy. Yet when he had been publicly discredited and executed his importance lived on. Our narratives explain why. Ultimately the questions boiled down to who Jesus was? Each year we listen to a different evangelist’s account. And this Liturgical Year A we listen to it in St.Matthew’s version. We need to recall the historical and geographical setting.
The Essential Data
The Palestine in which Jesus lived was a small turbulent province of the Roman Empire. The Romans had been there since 63 BC. The Jews never ceased to hate their presence. The ordinary people as always were the cannon fodder for exploitation. They lived poorly and paid taxes, collected for the Romans and for the Jewish leaders, and for the upkeep of the Temple. The populace was divided into the haves and the have nots. After the Romans who were at the top came the rich high priests, basically Sadducees. These collaborated with the Romans and lived very comfortably. Then there were the Pharisees, and the separatists living as at Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea. There were also terrorists, called zealots, who lived in caves above the sea of Galilee. These had been dispossessed and continued to try their best to make life hard for the Romans. Most people lived in villages, like Nazareth, with the daily grind to make a living; their social lives centred on the synagogue. That is the setting in which Jesus grew up, and when the time came for him to go public he probably encountered at least some members of the groups who made up the social life of his day.
His basic claim
He presented himself as the prophet of the imminent coming of the kingdom and God and taught people how to prepare for it. In doing so he was to touch the lives of many in his world. The poor and deprived loved him. The Law enforcers hated him. The High priests came to fear him. And the Romans destroyed him. Between them all there was collusion. And this collusion is recounted in our passion narrative.It was impossible to ask for change without disturbing the fabric of society. Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, attracting the crowds with their expectations of a better life, involved conflict. Soon he was accused of being a false prophet, misleading the people, giving an alternative interpretation of the Law that governed them all. He lived out his own role as the faithful Son and true spokesman for God. In a world where religion and politics were closely intertwined he was perceived to be inaugurating a new way of living, setting up an unacceptable contrast society. Love as he understood it was the guide to life. The Pharisees were his main enemies outside Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem it was the Sadducees. These latter engaged the Romans. They colluded to keep the status quo just as it was. And the casualty was Jesus. For the Jews he was a false prophet and such according to their law should have been put to death (Dt 18:20). For the Romans he presented a threat as a crowd puller and as such could have been a potential rebel. So they nipped the danger in the bud. Calvary and the tomb should have ended it all, and the world could have gone on as it always did. The Gospels narrated why it did not.
Why Holy Week and Easter?
Because of the resurrection Christians never forgot their Master. Every-thing he was and said and did showed forth the meaning of life. He was the perfect exemplar of selfless love. When those who accepted him lived the way he did then the world was different. Egoism is the world of sin, a world askew, and can be changed only by a change of heart. But in following this way it is inevitable that one is going to be crucified. The Passion illustrates it perfectly. And that is what the Gospel writers want us to hear. Everyone colluded together in the death of Jesus through fear or envy or avarice or indifference. He alone evinced total goodness, dying for the values he preached and forgiving those who did not even know they needed forgiveness.
We are at the beginning of Holy Week. Once more we are presented with values that make our lives worthwhile. What is it to be a full human being, living by love, and promoting the goodness that will bring peace personally and in community? We are all imaginatively in Jerusalem this morning, and that is where the Church wants us to be. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen.
-REV RICHARD J.TAYLOR
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK