Triumph of a cheap and shallow sort on Palm Sunday and triumph of an incomprehensibly glorious sort on Easter Sunday brace intense times of the Christian life. We frequently think about the events of the end of that week: Jesus’ last supper with the disciples, the protestations of loyalty and acts of betrayal, the bloody prayer in Gethsemane while the lead disciples doze, the violent arrest, the accusations, trials before the chief priests and Pilate, the scourging and humiliation, the crucifixion and death, the desolation of the Saturday Sabbath, the Easter vigil at the grave, the empty tomb, the resurrection, and the sudden new life of Jesus’ friends. The Church closely celebrates these end-of-the-week events with liturgies that epitomize their meaning. I invite you to our Tenebre service at 6 here Thursday evening, the service of the Seven Last Words beginning at noon on Friday with the Faure Requiem, the Easter Vigil Saturday evening at 7 in Robinson Chapel when we shall baptize and receive catechumens, and our Easter sunrise service at 7 and community worship at 11. The Church does well by these end-of-the-week events.
I want to call attention to the beginning of the week, however, where we are now. According to Matthew, Jesus was very edgy, as he had every right to be. If we combine John’s account with Matthew’s, the events of Holy Week really began several days before. Jesus’ teachings had angered some of the elders, scribes, Pharisees, and Temple authorities, who had incited a crowd to stone him. Jesus and his disciples escaped and were in hiding when he received word that Lazarus of Bethany, whom he loved, was ill. Jesus waited until Lazarus died so that he could perform a better-than-healing-the-sick miracle, but at great emotional cost to himself. While heading toward Bethany he told his disciples he would be killed. Then the mother of James and John stupidly asked him to make her boys his chief administrators when he established his kingdom: some kingdom! His disciples squabbled about the effrontery of seeking special privilege and he had to scold them. His group passed two blind men who shouted at him and he responded, “What do you want me to do for you,” before he healed them, which they obviously wanted. When he got to Bethany, he broke down and cried twice while meeting with Mary and Martha and raising Lazarus. The night before Palm Sunday they had a party at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, obviously to celebrate Lazarus’ return to the life of the flesh, also to celebrate Jesus, and probably to plan the entry into Jerusalem the next day. That is when Mary poured costly ointment on his feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus was preoccupied with his coming death, but had to deal with Judas’ petty complaint about the cost of the ointment. No wonder the man was on edge.
The crowd hailed him as the kingly Son of David next morning when he entered Jerusalem, sealing his doom with the authorities who saw him as a threat. According to Matthew he went straight to the Temple in a rage, overturned the tables of the money-changers, and told the authorities that they were making the house of prayer into a den of robbers. People flocked to him in the Temple to be healed and he healed them in defiance of the authorities. After going back to Bethany for the night, he returned to the Temple on Monday. On the way he passed a fig tree that had no fruit when he was hungry. So he damned it and it withered at once. Then he used that as an example of the power of faith. This is not the kindly Jesus of Sunday School lore; but it is my friend, Jesus, whom I can understand. A man on edge.
Monday through Wednesday Jesus taught in the Temple every day. Let me review for you the teachings, one by one, according to Matthew. What do these teachings say to us, this rush of arguments, speeches, and parables? First, Jesus was confronted by the chief priests and elders with a question about the authority by which he worked, and Jesus responded with a trick question that let him refuse to tell about his authority. A man on edge. He told the parable of the man with two sons, one of whom promised to work but did not and the other of whom fussed but did work; Jesus explained that the tax collectors and prostitutes would go to heaven before the hypocritical priests and elders. He told the parable of the landowner who leased a good vineyard to tenants who refused to pay him, killed his messengers, and finally killed his son; Jesus likened the authorities in the Temple to the tenants whom God the landowner would put to a miserable death. The power will be taken from the chief priests and Pharisees, he said. He told the parable of the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, but whose guests declined to come. So the king brought strangers in from the streets, including one man so clueless as not to wear a wedding garment. The man was thrown “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” because he did not recognize what was real. Jesus was a man on edge. The Pharisees tried to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes to the Romans, and he answered to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, an obvious reference to what he saw as the sorry collaboration between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The Sadducees then tried to trick him into denying resurrection with the question about whose wife the woman would be in heaven who had successively married seven brothers. Jesus responded by denying sexual differentiation in heaven and then confounded the anti-resurrection theology of the Sadducees by saying that the God of the living, not the dead, was also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who therefore must be still living in some resurrected state. Jesus told the crowds that the scribes and Pharisees who sit on Moses’ seat are hypocrites, and he railed at them with seven woes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” who lock people out of the kingdom of heaven, who make their converts worse than themselves, who teach people false values, who tithe trivial things and neglect the weighty, who look good on the outside but inwardly are full of greedy self-indulgence, who are like whitewashed tombs, full of hypocrisy and lawlessness, who murder the prophets and decorate their graves. Jesus talked about the end times, of the future torture of the disciples, of the coming of God at a time only God knows: stay awake, or a thief will break in. Jesus talked about faithful slaves in the kingdom, about the foolish virgins who were unready for the bridegroom, as the people are unready for God’s kingdom, about the slaves who did not invest the talents given them, about the last judgment. Jesus was not gently reminding people of fundamental wisdom, as in the Sermon on the Mount. He was not preaching peace, love, and already accomplished victory as in the Farewell Discourses in John’s account of the Last Supper. He was rushing through to press all his teachings about judgment in the last days into the last days, challenging death to come closer. He was a man on edge.
So should we be on edge, listening to these teachings. For this is an institution for training chief-priest wannabees, scholar/scribes in waiting, religious reformers like the Pharisees, elders of the church. If we are not on edge, we likely are not resonating with Jesus’ own teachings, but are the object lesson of them.
For we live in a time every bit as ungodly as Jesus’ time. Our government has led us to attack, conquer, and occupy two countries that did not attack us, for alleged reasons that have proved spurious, at the cost of well over 60,000 lives: Christian peacemakers should be edgy. Our government pursues economic policies that grow the economy by enriching the rich, impoverishing the poor, reducing entitlements to the needy, outsourcing jobs, borrowing abroad so as to depress the dollar, and mortgaging the future to skyrocketing debt: Christian solidarity with the welfare of the poor should be edgy. Our government deconstructs protections of the environment so as to allow the great corporations to exploit resources we are told are necessary for national security, so as not to have to make friends with nations more than happy to sell us resources: Christian stewards of the Earth should be edgy. Christian criticism of our nation’s policies is dangerous these days, even within the Christian community itself. As Jesus the prophet was on edge, so should we be.
Speaking of religion, Second Temple Judaism in Jesus’ time was divided into the warring camps of Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, and, shortly later, Christians. But that was nothing like the current divisions within Christianity between conservatives and liberals who seem to find no middle ground. Conservatives insist on a conception of Christian life lived under the authority of the Bible with intimate relations between individuals and God and a diminished sense of prophetic justice for society, except in unbiblical matters such as abortion, gay marriage, and a conception of “family values” wholly unknown in biblical times. Liberals insist on a conception of Christian life based on the biblical values of peacemaking, support for the poor and oppressed, respect for God’s creation, and inclusive communities tolerant of gender, class, and cultural differences, and yet require an interpretation of the Bible that draws upon current historical and scientific knowledge and is suspicious of any attempt to interpret the Bible solely on its own terms. How can honest Christians on either side not be on edge about these differences?
The one thing all Christians can have in common is my edgy friend, Jesus. Each of us, in our prayer life, can imagine Jesus as understanding us individually. Although Jesus was not a twenty-first century person I can imagine him empathizing with me and my troubles and sorrows, my ambitions and fears, my slight accomplishments and my deepest sins that I cannot admit to myself except by imagining Jesus telling me about them. This kind of piety toward Jesus, our friend, is common and central to the Christian life.
Yet we must also reverse the direction of empathy from Jesus to us and imaginatively enter ourselves into Jesus’ life, for which we have our Gospel texts. The Church has led Christians for nearly two millennia to enter into the mind of Christ, which usually means his values and teachings. I urge us to enter into Jesus’ life beyond the teachings to his act of teaching in those last days, to the situation in which he was ducking arrest to get in a few more days with his disciples, the situation in which he was reconciling himself to his immanent death while dealing with petty concerns of his friends who did not understand, the situation in which he debated his foes whom his teachings about hypocrisy could hardly reconcile, the situation in which he struggled to keep his balance as his mission and life came to an end. He was on edge, and we must understand that. We must be on edge as he was on edge in order to be people “in Christ” in our world, in our religion. We must be on edge as he was in order to enter into his life that is salvation. So I invite you to the table on this Holy Tuesday, not for comfort and consolation this time, nor for satisfaction and nourishment, all of which are among the proper benefits of the Eucharist, but in order to make yours the blood and flesh of our Lord who knew the edgy passion of prophetic teaching in the last hours of the light before the darkness comes.