Thursday, March 17, 2016

God wept.... and then took action: the message of Palm Sunday

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it,  saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” 

-- Luke 19:41-44English Standard Version (ESV)

The time of Palm Sunday draws near, a time to reflect on Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This was a  moment of  incredible joy but also of tears. Jesus' disciples and the people of Jerusalem rejoiced because they saw in Jesus a liberator who would redeem them from Roman oppression.  But Jesus had a different view of freedom, and knew its price. In Luke's account, Jesus wept over the city, anticipating its destruction because it didn't know "the things that make for peace." He made it clear he had come to liberate not just individuals, but also the city that is considered the spiritual heart of Judaism.

For Jesus, as for many people, the city itself has a spirit and even its stones are alive. When Jill and I went to Peru and saw the stonework of the Incas, we felt the aliveness of  the stones that they considered sacred. Today Jews pray to the stones of the temple destroyed by the Romans and call it the "wailing wall." According to the prophets, the stones of a city have emotions and "cry out" because of the injustice and violence they have witnessed. 

When the Pharisees criticized Jesus' disciples for proclaiming him the Messiah, the King of the Jews--a statement that the Romans would consider subversive and an act of rebellion, Jesus responded,  "If my disciples remained silent, the very stones would cry out." He was alluding to a well-known passage of the prophet Habakuk:

You have devised a shameful thing for your house by cutting off many peoples; so you are sinning against yourself. Surely the stone will cry out from the wall, And the rafter will answer it from the framework. "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed And founds a town with violence!"… (Habakuk 2:10-12)

Jesus saw that violence was endemic in the city of Jerusalem--Romans imposing their rule through violence, and Jews violently resisting Roman hegemony. Jesus understood that violence is not the answer. "Those who live by the sword perish by the sword," he told his disciples when they to used violence to try to rescue him. Jesus came to rescue Jerusalem and all humanity through the power of nonviolence, the power of self-sacrificial love.

This Gospel was written down after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Zealous Jews had driven out the Roman army using violent means, and the Romans had responded with utterly brutal retaliation. They razed the Temple to the ground, used its gold to build the Coloseum,  and drove the Jews into exile, much as Jesus had predicted.

No doubt many Jews wondered: What was God doing when our City was ravaged by the Romans? Why did he destroy us?

Jesus provided an answer. God wept. And then God took action. He sent His son, His anointed one, to show "the ways that lead to peace."

This story reminded me of a time when my seven-year-old nephew asked me what God looked like. My sister is not a church goer and my nephew had not been to Sunday school, but he was a curious boy with a questioning mind. I didn't give him an answer, but told him that when we went to the Metropolitan Museum, I would show him how artists have portrayed God. When we went to the museum, he avidly studied the icons in the Medieval section but said very little. Afterwards, we went to a Chinese restaurant where crayons and paper were provided for children. My nephew decided to draw his image of God.

What my nephew drew was amazing: Jesus on the cross, with two thieves on crosses next to him. In the sky was a picture of God's bearded face, and tears were pouring from his eyes.

That picture was etched in my mind.  God weeping over this horrendous scene, his tears falling like rain.

But God and Jesus did not simply weep. They also took action. After his tears dried, Jesus boldly went into Jerusalem. Filled with righteous rage, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and spoke truth to power. He  resisted oppression through nonviolence, and let himself be arrested and punished, even to death. He set an example for us of what it means to be a nonviolent liberator.

God also took action. He didn't allow Jesus, his beloved, to rot in a grave. God raised Jesus from the dead, to the amazement of his grieving followers. Through the power of a love that cannot be killed, the resurrected Christ started a movement that transformed the world.

The tears of God and of Jesus became a river of love and justice, flowing like a mighty stream throughout the course of history. This is the message of Palm Sunday. May we enter that prophetic stream and follow the ways that lead to justice and peace!


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