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A Reflection on Matthew 21:1-9 for the Start of Holy Week
I have to confess that as a writer, I admire the author of this morning’s gospel reading for crafting a really spectacular scene. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job. Even Netflix couldn’t have done a better job than the gospel writer has done of creating an almost unbearable dramatic tension–despite the fact that everyone listening knows exactly how this story is going to end.
Watching Jesus enter into Jerusalem with his ragtag band of followers, we know that just across town, the Roman army is already assembling, preparing to crush any hint of rebellion. From the moment this scene begins, we know, in our bones, that this is going to end very badly. We know that is not going to be possible for Jesus — a Jew living under Roman occupation; a peasant; a guy with no money, no political clout, no army — it is not going to be possible for Jesus to take a stand against the cruelty of the Roman empire without being crucified himself. Even after all these years, this knowledge stirs in our hearts everything that Aristotle says good drama should stir in us: pity, suspense, grief, and maybe even fear as we contemplate what awaits Jesus in the week ahead.
But as difficult as this week is going to be for Jesus, and as painful as this week may be for Christians, the sad truth is that for many centuries now, this week–the one Christians call Holy Week–has been by far the most terrifying week of the year for Jews. And this is a direct result of the gospel texts that churches traditionally read during their Holy Week liturgies. Before Easter Sunday dawns, churchgoing Christians all over the world will hear again what has come to be known as the passion narrative: a gospel story about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. A story that was created, depending on which gospel we’re using, 70 to 90 years after Jesus died.
I think it’s important to remind ourselves every year that the stories we read in the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, no matter how convincingly they render the story . None of the gospel writers knew Jesus. They wrote half a century and more after his death, and they were writing for a community that had grown confused and angry. Confused because the Messiah they were waiting for had failed to return as promised. Angry because their fellow Jews were not flocking to join their new religious movement, but were choosing instead to remain in the synagogue and wait there for the Messiah they believed had yet to arrive.
In fact, by the time our passion narratives were written, the followers of Jesus, who made up what we might call the very early church, were in the midst of an excruciatingly painful divorce from the synagogue. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has witnessed this kind of painful divorce. Some of us have surely experienced one firsthand. We know that in the midst of divorce, as a couple slogs through thickets of grief and disappointment, one partner or another is likely to say things about the other that are gravely distorted, that are sometimes untrue, and that should never be repeated, much less captured in writing. Imagine what would happen if, during a painful divorce, our most bitter, hateful words were not only written down as gospel truth (so to speak), but also passed on to our children, and to their children, on down through the generations. Imagine the hateful words that would poison the hearts of those generations toward their ancestors forever.
This, sadly, is what happened during those first difficult centuries of the church’s life. By the time the gospels were written, a generation and more after Jesus’ death, the community of Jesus followers was baffled by the fact that the risen Christ had not yet returned, and bitterly disappointed that their fellow Jews were not rushing to join them as they continued to wait and hope for Jesus’ return.
And so ensued a terrible, bitter divorce. If ever there was a poison pen, it was the pen that wrote the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, such as the one we read in book of Matthew, which tells us that it was the chief priests of Israel and a crowd of angry Jews who convinced Pontius Pilate to release a different political prisoner and to crucify the innocent Jesus. Now, one might think this would be poison enough: laying the blame for Jesus’ death at the feet of his own people.
But there’s more! In the next scene, Pilate ceremonially washes his hands of the whole affair, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” To which the assembled crowd of Jewish onlookers, with one voice, declares, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
This is the story that has been handed down to us as gospel truth, despite the fact that historical evidence argues against any such event. Biblical scholars know that Rome was not in the habit of releasing political prisoners. Scholars also assure us that the chief priests of occupied Israel and the assembled crowds of Jewish peasants had no power to influence the decisions of a Roman governor. This is poisonous falsehood, penned in the heat of a terrible divorce.
At first, the damage was merely rhetorical. After all, at the time the gospels were written, the fledgling Christian community had no real power to harm its Jewish neighbors. But just a few centuries later, when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman empire, these gospel stories become the sacred texts of the Church of Rome. And this is the moment when the anti-Jewish rhetoric embedded in these early Christian stories suddenly acquires the power to kill.
And kill they did. Forced conversions at the point of a sword. Denial of Jewish civil rights by Christian bishops. Medieval crusades and expulsions. More forced conversions. Deep, church-sanctioned anti-Semitism that spreads throughout Europe and proceeds to genocide. Even today, the number of attacks against Jewish communities worldwide rises this week, as Christians continue to hear, from their pulpits, the gospels’ distorted and slanderous accounts of Jesus’ death.
It is disturbing and perplexing to me that the worldwide church continues to use these texts in worship. In a classroom or in a Bible study, where we have time to unpack their historical context, we should certainly be studying these texts for the lessons they can teach us. But to continue to read them uncritically in worship–this is baffling to me. I find it particularly perplexing here in what we like to think of as the progressive wing of the church, where we often renounce other gospel texts that we view as dangerous to life and health and freedom.
Take first Corinthians, for example, in which the apostle Paul states that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Or take Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, in which he urges slaves to “obey your earthly masters.”
Knowing, as we do, how much damage these texts have done; knowing how many people have been enslaved, oppressed, and diminished because of these texts, I’m pretty sure we would be astonished if anyone stood in the pulpit and simply read them aloud uncritically. If we ever use these texts in worship, we do so in order to very explicitly, very publicly, renounce them. If we read them in Bible study, it is so that we can unpack their historical context and work to undo the enormous damage they have done.
But somehow, this is not the case for the texts that speak of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. During Holy Week, the church continues to read these texts in worship, usually without unpacking them, and without renouncing them. And every time the church does this, we reinscribe upon our own souls, and upon the souls of our children, the centuries of hatred, terror, and bloodshed that the church has inflicted upon its Jewish neighbors.
Why the church continues to use these texts uncritically, I can only guess.
What I know for sure is that to cast “the Jews” (as the angry crowd is named in the gospel of John) as the agents of Jesus’ death is to dramatically distort history and to fatally scapegoat the most powerless players in this first-century drama.
I also know that even today, it can be very difficult for our Jewish neighbors to feel safe inside any church. Even a church that intends no harm toward anyone. Even a church that spends its days trying to make amends and working to make peace. Both psychologists and neurobiologists tell us that if our Jewish neighbors still feel afraid in our presence, it is not paranoia but deep memory–the memory of trauma that we now know lives not only in our minds and hearts but quite possibly also in our cells, passed down from generation to generation. If our Jewish neighbors feel a tremor of fear during Holy Week, it is not because they have failed to forgive, but because they cannot forget the historical terrors the church has perpetrated this very week in the name of the crucified Jesus.
What this means is that as members of the church, we continue to embody this bloody history for our Jewish neighbors. Whether we are aware of it or not, as members of the church, we continue to represent the face of terrifying persecution to our Jewish friends.
So. How in the world are we to proceed? A couple of thoughts…
First, I believe that the least we can do is to explicitly name the harm that the church has done: to learn about the hatred our sacred texts have sewn, and about the violence our Holy Week liturgies have incited against Jewish communities. It is only by becoming aware of this history that we give ourselves the option to try and repair the damage.
Of course, one way to repair that damage might be to simply stop reading these texts altogether, just as we have largely stopped reading the other texts of terror that have caused so much pain for enslaved peoples, for women, and for all those who are marginalized and oppressed. I believe this would in fact be a better choice than to continue to use these texts uncritically.
But I think we can do even better. Because if we merely ignore these harmful texts and pretend they don’t exist, then we fail to grapple with–and we fail to heal–the harm they have done.
I want to suggest that if we are courageous enough to face the church’s painful history, then Holy Week might actually become a week of deep healing. A week in which we intentionally atone for the Jewish blood that has been shed in the name of Christ. And this would be a great gift to the world.
In Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of atonement. If we have done something to harm our relationship with God, then the way to atone is to ask God for forgiveness. On the other hand, if our actions have harmed another human being, then simply praying to God cannot bring atonement. If we have harmed another, then we must go to that person directly and ask forgiveness. Only then can real atonement take place.
If this is true, then Holy Week, with all its terrible historical baggage, begins to look like an opportunity. An opportunity for great healing. An opportunity for reconciliation with our closest spiritual relations.
I wonder what this kind of atonement and reconciliation might look like for us this week?
Maybe you’ll feel called to do some reading about what scholars think really happened to Jesus that week in Jerusalem so long ago.
Maybe you’ll want to reach out to a Jewish friend and invite them to have coffee or take a walk, and talk together about the pain that each of you brings to this complicated week.
Maybe you’ll want to spend some time in prayer this week, asking God for guidance about what particular act of healing and atonement might be yours to make. And then perhaps you’ll go out and undertake that act of healing.
This morning, as we step together into this holy and terrible week, we seek to follow, day by day, the one we call Teacher: the one who rides into Jerusalem today on the back of a donkey, the very symbol of humility and patience. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Healer: the one who, on Thursday night, will kneel to gently wash the dusty feet of his friends. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Savior: the one who on Friday will choose death on a cross rather than let anyone–anyone–shed blood in his name.
Together, this week and always, we follow the one we call the Prince…of Peace. Thanks be to God.