“The Question of Why”
Palm Sunday, April 9, 2022
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ***
About a dozen years ago I spent two weeks with the brothers of The Community of St Jean at their priory in a southern French village. The visit there spanned Holy Week and provided a new perspectives on the rites and remembrances of this high time in the Christian Church.
On Palm Sunday morning the brothers, along with the sisters of the Contemplative community nearby joined in a spirited procession led by several brothers of African descent. Waving sticks of budding forsythia and other deciduous branches they sang “Hosanna to the King of kings” robustly in French.
The procession ended in the chapel and within minutes one of the priests was reading the story of Jesus’ arrest and execution.
I wondered, what just happened? How did we get from “sing Hosanna to the King of Kings” to “crucify him” so quickly?
That is the question Palm Sunday puts in front of us when we celebrate the procession of palms and then so quickly read the story of Jesus’ arrest and execution. Like no other, Palm Sunday makes the paradox of Christian belief most apparent. The enigma that the Messiah — the Son of God come to save the world — should be nailed to a cross and killed as a despised criminal.
How could this happen? Why does this happen? One answer is the human answer.
Throughout the Gospels we learn Jesus was not the Messiah people wanted him to be. They were waiting for a political and military king, who would drive out the Roman occupiers and restore the kingdom of Israel. Yet, Jesus was not that kind of king. Repeatedly we read He steadfastly refused to take part in their exclusive nationalism or rigid religiosity. He crossed boundaries, he reached out across all the lines the good and upright citizens had erected to protect themselves and their religious tradition.
In the end, they turned against him. There is nothing so surprising about that. That is how people act when their nationalism and traditionalism are threatened. We see this playing out in the world today.
But there is another side to the question of Why? and it is the God question. Why would Jesus go willingly to the cross? Why would God send Jesus to die?
For that answer we turn to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a brief bit of poetry for this day which serves as a sort of hinge between the Gospel of Palms and the Passion narrative.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “This is Paul’s birth narrative, his passion narrative, and his ascension narrative all rolled into one.” This is how Paul makes sense of that move from Hosanna to Crucify, from death to resurrection.
Jesus emptied himself of divine power and gave himself to live a fully human life. Jesus emptied himself of ego and gave himself to loving and serving others, especially the “others” who had been scorned and marginalized.
Jesus was obedient, even “to death.”
Here, Brown Taylor offers an intriguing interpretation of the text.
“Was it God’s will that Jesus die or was it Jesus’ will to be subject to (to obey) the same kind of death that other people died? Rome had crucified thousands of other Jews before it got to Jesus. In many ways, the preferable translation here is: ‘Jesus became obedient to death.’ Having taken the form of a slave, he asked for no special pass at the end. He submitted to death the same way he had submitted to everything else that made him fully human.”
Taylor is one of many theologians who question the classic theories of Jesus’ death:
· that he had to die as a sacrifice to appease God’s anger for our sins.
· Or that his death balances some cosmic justice scale, paying the penalty for our sin which we cannot pay.
Such ideas have always been difficult for me to swallow as well. Yet, these theories remain popular in some Christian circles.
The problem with such theories is this: we talk about God’s infinite love, yet explain Jesus’ death in ways that make God sound angry, vengeful, and unforgiving.
It makes more sense to say that Jesus entered so fully into human life that he willingly accepted a death like that of the despised people he cared for. He would not keep score the way they wanted him to, he would not use power the way they wanted him to. He was so committed to the way of love — to living out the love at the heart of God — that he went willingly to the death caused by his refusal to be judgmental and divisive.
Jesus’ death on the cross shows that God would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business. That sin-accounting business is of human design, and Jesus lived and died to show us another way to relate to one another and to God.
If that had been the end, Jesus would have been an admirable human being — but we would never have heard his story.
But we know that was not the end. Jesus had done what he came to do. He had lived life fully in relationship with God, fully in solidarity with the “least of these” among humanity.
And now God takes over.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians and its poetic description changes from what Jesus did, to what God did. God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating death not only for his sake, but for all humankind. God exalted Jesus — raised him up — so that we might hear his story and see in him God’s power — the power of infinite love.
Paul invites the followers not only to hear this story but to live it. “Let the same mind be in you,” he says.
As Christ emptied himself, lived out God’s love, and was obedient even to a cross — so too are we called to do as Christians.
It is not an easy call. Especially in this time of ugly and divisive public rhetoric, when our culture encourages us to draw lines and keep boundaries, it is not easy to live the love of Christ. But it is more important than ever.
Let the same mind be in us, that all may know the love of God through us who seek to follow Christ.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective on Philippians 2:5–11,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009; pages 171, 173