Palm Sunday 2020
Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 27:11-54
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
On Palm Sunday Jesus is the great hero of the people of faith. He enters Jerusalem in a bit of a parade with people laying down their cloaks on the road in front of him, waving branches of palm, and crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Later the same week, on Good Friday, Jesus is the great villain of the people of faith. “Crucify him, crucify him”, that same crowd yells out.
The movement from hero to villain is swift and sudden and very predictable. Those we regard as heroes for what they represent to us, we will soon vilify for what they have failed to do for us. And far too often, tragically, people of faith – you and I – still treat Jesus merely as a hero, someone we hope will bless our lifestyle or bring us our long sought-after happiness. Jesus is so much more than a heroic figure but that’s where we keep him in many ways. We ask him to fix our problems, alter our situations, give us control over that which threatens us, bring us to victory over those we think of as enemies. We basically want our faith in Jesus to be something that will give us power or make life easier. Our belief in Jesus often is nothing more than hero worship and that is every bit as empty and sinful as the actions of those who gather at the cross and demand the crucifixion of Jesus. To treat someone only as a hero or a villain pushes them far away and removes the possibility of anything real from occurring.
Palm Sunday and Good Friday are two sides of the same coin. Maybe as we ponder the treatment of Jesus in his day and in our day, we might all begin to convert our faith currency altogether. Maybe we can leave the childish super-hero relationship with the Son of God and take up the deeper and very personal relationship that God offers us through his very Son.
All of us can identify to some extent with the hero/villain trap. Over the years as a priest, I’ve sometimes been relegated to one or both of those two roles. People sometimes don’t know exactly what to do with priests. It’s always been hard for me to get accurate feedback from people. Some people think what a priest does is automatically good and they put priests on a pedestal. When I’m out in public with my collar on, almost everyone looks me in the eye and smiles. They just seem to assume I’m a great guy. That’s kind of fun in some ways but it’s pretty empty too because I know it has nothing to do with me as a person; without the collar, very few people actually notice me at all. Over the years I’ve noticed that I get a whole lot more praise than I actually deserve. And occasionally I’ve had to remind myself that not all the criticism I receive is completely accurate either. When we first moved to town, my parents came to visit. At a dinner party in our home, my father, being aware of this dynamic with priests, asked a light-hearted question: “Who in Montgomery is going to take my son down a notch when he needs it?” A parishioner I’ve come to count on for accurate feedback said, “Oh you don’t have to worry about that around here.”
Parents have to deal with this dynamic as they raise their children. Children basically look at parents as providers not people. Only when children reach adulthood, and sometimes not even then, can they begin to relate to their parents as real live people just like them.
We treat our political leaders like heroes or villains. We think this one or that one will finally bring us what we need. But when they don’t, it’s off to the junk pile with the lot of them. We think of them as super-human or sub-human and forget they are people just like us with strengths and weaknesses. We get lazy with our leaders and just hope they’ll fix it all themselves and blame them for everything that is amiss. We’re not willing to take responsibility for things in society and pull together for the good of each other.
Hero or villain, to be seen as either is to be dismissed, disregarded. That’s what happened to Jesus on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
Christ is sent to us not to fix our problems or give us power or make our lives easier. Christ is sent to us to save us and save our world, to recreate us and recreate the world around us, to transform us and work through us to transform the world we live in. Christ is sent to us to reveal the deeper love that God has for us and intends for us to have with him and with each other.
Think about how you pray. If my prayers are only asking God to change a situation I face or a person I deal with, I am treating God like some hero and setting him up to be the villain. I’m using God for my own purposes. I’m rejecting the deeper relationship that God offers me. When my prayers are for acceptance and change within myself, then I move from treating God like a commodity to allowing God to enter my heart. The love of Christ is given not to make me more comfortable but to move me and transform me, to open me and allow me to become the very person God intends me to be. The love of Christ is given to allow us to come together in love for God and for each other.
A question for you for Palm Sunday: How do you treat God? How do you treat others? How do you look at yourself in relation to God and others? Holy Week this year, in our more critical and anxious circumstances, gives us some extra time to think, to listen, to consider what is offered to us in the sacrifice God makes for us. We’re all much more vulnerable than we were just a month ago. Our hearts are softer. We are more human, move compassionate. Maybe the love of Christ can sink in this Holy Week in a brand new way.
Through Christ you and I are renewed and through Christ you and I are part of the renewal of this world.