Palm Sunday (John’s Story)

crowds
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahron/148314949/">Ahron de Leeuw</a>

John 12:12-16

The next day it got out in the huge crowd that had come to the festival that Jesus was coming to town. So they tore the branches down from palm trees and ran out to meet him, chanting:

God save us!
Here comes the King of Israel!
Hooray for God’s man who’s coming!

Jesus found a donkey to ride. The scripture says, “Don’t be afraid, child of Zion. Look! Your king is coming, riding on a donkey’s colt!”

His students were mystified by all this at first. Later on, when Jesus had gone to heaven, they put together what had been written about him with what had been done to him.

In John’s version, unlike Mark’s version, the crowds are clearly driving the story at this point. The best Jesus can do for initiative is to grab the nearest donkey that happens to be handy as the crowd whisks him along. The disciples are equally useless. All of it, as John says, is being done to him.

If the expectations of the crowd were misplaced in Mark’s version (and subsequently Matthew and Luke’s), the misunderstanding of the crowd is all there is in John’s version. There is no more intention of Jesus at all, and the whole episode is that much more happenstancial evidence that the prophesy about Jesus is being fulfilled as proof of who Jesus is.

Of course, nobody in the moment has any idea of who Jesus really is. And that’s the fourth gospel’s primary narrative means of communicating the story: nobody understands who anybody else really is. Those who appear to be in control never are, and those who appear not to be in control really are at the center of power.

In this scene, the crowds seem to be controlling everything, and yet have no idea what they’re doing. Jesus, who seems to be just passively along for the ride, is the one who is “being glorified.” The students, who represent the best of what can be understood, have no idea what’s going on until it’s all over.

So, what about it? Have you ever realized, only after it was all over, that something momentous was happening, that nothing really was what it seemed to be, until it was already over? Are you passively letting everything happen to you, or do you know exactly where all this is leading?

Be Godlike

sonogram
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/2282360160/">Hamed Saber</a>

Genesis 1:24-31

Then God said, “Animals!” And all kinds of animals – wild animals, tame animals, huge animals, and microscopic insects – began to wander all over the earth.

God saw how good they were. So then, God said, “Humans, like us! Who will be responsible for the fish, birds, animals, and insects!”

In this way God made humans to be like God. Male and female were made like God.

God blessed them and said, “Procreate. Fill the earth. Take charge of things. Be responsible for the fish, birds, and animals.” God said, “You can eat any kind of plant you want. And any of the animals can eat any of the plants.”

So that’s how it was. God saw that everything was really awesome. And so continued evening and morning. Day 6.

This first version of the creation story pictures humans as “like God.” Lots of people have speculated about what this means. Some suggest that it refers to the human capacity for creation, or imagination. I like those suggestions. This is the most verbose God has been in the entire six day process, though, and God mentions nothing about creativity or imagination. Instead, God’s words define humans in two distinct ways:

  1. Initiative. The human likeness to God involves the capacity to be in charge. Humans are Godlike because they initiate. Initiation may involve creativity, of course, but it goes beyond creativity. It’s the difference between imagining something, even designing something, and starting something. It could be something that’s been started before. Some processes need to be started over and over again. Without someone with the capacity to start them, without initiative, nothing happens. To be godlike is to start things.
  2. Responsibility. The human likeness to God also involves being responsible. It means taking a personal ownership and stake in what’s happening, and to bear the consequences of the actions one initiates. It means having the capacity to respond, to change course, to intervene, to take corrective action. Implicit in this is the understanding that creation is going to need some tweaking as things go along. It may be completely begun, but it’s only just getting started. It’s going to require course-corrections.

Initiative and responsibility frame the beginning and end of the creation. Start things, and take ownership of the results of what you started. Be godlike. It’s really awesome.

Somebody’s Got to Do Something

chariot
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmpalacios/3149753770/">JM Palacios</a>

Judges 4:1-7

After Ehud died, the Israelites screwed it up with God again. So God let King Jabin sack them. He was a Canaanite whose capital was Hazor, and Sisera commanded the king’s army from his home in Heathen Rift.

The Israelites cried to God for help, because Sisera had 900 iron chariots, and was a cruel oppressor for 20 years.

In those days there was a truth-teller named Deborah (she was married to Lappidoth), who was Israel’s arbitrator. She held court under her palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, between Hightown and Godhomeville, and Israelites came to her there to have their cases arbitrated. She issued a summons for Barak Abinoam, who lived in the hallowed place in Naphtali, as follows:

By this summons, know that God, the God of Israel, commands you to gather 10,000 soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun. I’ll bait Jabin’s commander Sisera to bring his chariots against you at the Snare River, and together we’ll rout him.

In this passage, the lectionary gives us only the background and Deborah’s proposal. The rest of chapter 4 is full of blood and gore, ending with a tent-peg being driven through Sisera’s head.

In its entirety, the story is witness to the way oppressive ruthless tyrants tend to come to ruthless violent ends. Call it the summons of God. Call it karma. Jesus would later say, those who live by the sword shall die by it. We need look only the the events of the past month in Libya to know that it’s as true today as it was before King David.

But the excerpt here is also important. 20 years is a long time to suffer under oppression. An entire generation. And the end of any tyrant’s reign starts with someone, maybe just one person, who finally decides enough is enough.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that Deborah started arbitrating cases under her tree until after she’d arranged the nation’s freedom. It was her initiative when she was a nobody, just “married to Lappidoth,” that gave her the authority to start handing down verdicts. In a thoroughly oppressed nation, no dictator is going to let an “uppity woman” be a leader of the people. In a thoroughly patriarchal society, no woman could rise to become the people’s arbiter. And yet, this housewife, rather than the would-be general, Barak, is the one to finally give voice to God’s liberating intention. And the trap works because Sisera expected Barak to do it.

And so it goes. The person who speaks and acts for God isn’t always the person you’d expect. More often, it’s someone you’d never guess.

The upshot: you don’t have to be “somebody” to be the one to take the initiative to change something that’s wrong. Nobody’s going to give you the authority. You have to claim it for your own. Why can’t “somebody” be you?