Why, of all the Sundays of the year, is this the one when we do this long dramatic reading of the gospel? Why is this the one where the congregation enacts the parts? It’s not for educational purposes. This is not a historical re-enactment, as there are all kinds of historical problems with the passion gospels. For one thing, the different versions don’t agree about the details of what happened. For another, the authors obviously shaped their telling of these events to minimize the fault of the Romans and accentuate the guilt of the Jews; and the problems go on from there. We also don’t do this for entertainment. With apologies to everyone who read a part—please, don’t misunderstand me, you were terrific—this wasn’t great theater.
But there is a reason for doing it, and I’ve been thinking about it again this year, it has struck me that it must be because this story is the climax of each one of the gospels, and in each case it drives home the gospel’s central message—that we are involved. All of us are responsible. Now there’s been a tendency over the years for the church to give that responsibility a particular color, the color of guilt. It has insisted that just as the Jews are guilty, we are too. This happened to Jesus, the thinking goes, because you pulled your little sister’s hair, and now don’t you feel terrible? But, while I’m not saying that we should rule out guilt entirely as one response to this story, I’m not sure it is the only or even the best one. And I don’t think it’s the one that Jesus had in mind.
I imagine Jesus wanted us to be responsible, not out of guilt, but out of faith. He wanted us to take responsibility the way that he did, by playing the unique part that each of us has to play, that part that only we can play in the great unfolding drama of God’s salvation of the world. And taking responsibility like that is something you can only teach by example. So in the final week of Jesus’ life, he didn’t just sit teaching in the temple, taking on all comers and refuting his opponents with his wisdom and his wit. Because when your mission is to completely deconstruct the way that people understand holiness and power, and give them a radical new vision of God, it’s not enough to make convincing arguments.
He also performed a number of symbolically-potent acts, to demonstrate what he was talking about in an unforgettable way. He made gestures that people could re-experience again and again until they began to re-imagine themselves and the world from his vantage point, to understand what he was up to, and be inspired to play their part in carrying on his work. So the church doesn’t just remember those events—like the parade with the waving palms and the king riding through the gates on a donkey, or the bread and wine and the washing of feet at the supper, or the vigil in the garden, or the way that leads through the streets of the city to the cross—it also participates in them. It makes these deeds of Jesus central to its teaching and practice, so that the power of his acts, and his imagination, could live in us and set us free.
The drama in the story pivots around the question of who Jesus is—is he the Messiah? Is he the King of Israel? Jesus’ knows that the only true answer he can give to those questions is to do the will of God. Deeds will give the answer, and in the process completely redefine the terms of the question. I don’t think Jesus ever intended to become king of Israel in the political sense. He didn’t call himself “Messiah” and rally people around his claim to the throne. He didn’t mobilize the crowds to storm the temple by force. And yet I do think he saw himself as having a unique role to play. He felt called to go to Jerusalem and enter the city in the way that he did, called to go to the temple, and on his own authority to issue a challenge to the rulers of Israel. He confronted them with a radical alternative vision of what it meant to be the people of God, and he did not pretend that his was just another opinion, compatible with theirs.
In fact, it was a vision that was his and his alone, or only his and God’s. Even his closest disciples didn’t get it. The crowd in the streets certainly didn’t—they just wanted to be a part of something big, popular, and unstoppable. As for Pilate and the Chief Priests and scribes, all they knew, or wanted to know, was that anyone who put forward an idea of how the world ought to be that was different from theirs, let alone taught it to others and inspired them with its truth and power, was an existential threat. He had to be eliminated—swiftly, efficiently, publicly, and as brutally as possible, as a warning to others.
So Jesus went alone. One man who, alone of all the people, understood God’s will for the nation. That knowledge could not be taken from him by betraying him, mocking him, spitting in his face, scourging him, or nailing him to a cross, because it came to him from God. That is why, after spending the entire Gospel of Mark telling everyone to keep it a secret, it is at the moment when he stands, a prisoner, before the one man who alone may enter the Holy of Holies and represent Israel before God, and the High Priest asks him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus finally says “I am.” It is here that it is unmistakably clear that only one of these two men has any idea what that really means.
Jesus is king of Israel because he has consented to be Israel: Israel suffering under the humiliation of foriegn idolatry and oppression; Israel sold out by a cynical, self-serving elite; Israel beset by false messiahs preaching violence and hate; Israel abandoned and sentenced to death, yet still crying out for justice to her God. Jesus takes personal responsibility, in this hopeless situation, for hope: hope the moral strength to bear witness to the truth in love; hope in the ultimate victory of God over evil and injustice; hope that the smallest act of a single person, done with integrity, freedom, and loving obedience to God, has more power to change the world than an entire nation of fearful men who are just following orders. Jesus is powerful because you don’t have to be powerful to do what he does. You only need faith, and hope, and love.
Not that you have to go riding into Jerusalem at the head of crowd, or hang upon a cross. But you can’t know ahead of time, one you start on the way of Jesus, exactly where it’s going to take you. And even in our everyday, comfortable, middle-class American lives, in our relationships with spouses, and parents, and friends, in our roles as workers, as church members, and as citizens, there are times when we don’t say what needs to be said. There are times we are passive when we know we have to act. We don’t ask for what we need, or stand up for what is true, because we’re afraid to be rejected or abused, and because we doubt ourselves. We doubt our worth, and whether we deserve what we’re asking for. We doubt our own authority to know what we know. And we doubt we have the power to make a difference.
But the gospel of the passion of Jesus invites us to speak up, to act out, for his sake. He is worthy, even if we are not. His words are true, even if ours are not. His is the power and authority of the Christ, our true king and great High Priest, and he shares his office with everyone who walks the way of his humanity. We are citizens of his kingdom, not because of any particular group we belong to, or belief we espouse, or rule of life we follow, but by faith in the grace of God.
The grace of that faith is the strength, the patience, the willingness to play the part that is ours alone, that no one else can play for us. Jesus put that faith on public display for us on the cross, and so we dedicate our effort, our suffering, our gifts, and our achievements to the merit of his unsurpassable self-offering. We honor him as Christ and Lord, because that is the role God chose him for, and his faithfulness in playing it out, all the way to end, is our inspiration and our goal.