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Palm Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4–9a, Philippians 2:5–11 & Luke 23:1–49

The one thing that really struck me about today’s readings, is the amazing strength required for someone to conduct themselves in a way that many others would describe as “weak”.

I’ve spoken in the past about the four ‘Servant Songs’ that appear in the Book of Isaiah. Well our reading this morning from Isaiah is actually the third of those songs. And in this song we hear the ‘Servant’ say, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” This person has obviously been subjected to both physical and verbal abuse. And how have they responded to this abuse? They have stood and taken it. They have not flinched; they have not backed away; but they have also not retaliated and given like for like.

And in the Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross”. Jesus submitted himself to death by crucifixion; an extremely ugly, violent and horrific way to die. But he did so willingly. He accepted the physical and verbal abuse, and the suffering that came with it, and he did not fight against it. In fact, in today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus even asked God to forgive the very people who were physically and verbally abusing him.

Imagine the strength and courage it would take to just stand where you are and accept such physical and verbal abuse without offering up any form of resistance or defence. In this day and age, you would probably be described as being weak or a coward if you didn’t fight back, and at least try to give back some of what you yourself were receiving. I want to come back to this point later, but for now, I want to talk further about today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel.

This passage is Luke’s version of the “Passion Narrative”. We are probably all more familiar with the account in the Gospel of John, which is generally read in church on Good Friday, as it will be again this year when we gather at St Aidan’s Strathmore for a combined service this next Friday morning.

Luke’s version is very different to John’s account, and while it bears a number of similarities to both Mark and Matthew’s versions, it is also quite different from both of these as well. One significant difference, between Luke and the other three gospels, is the section in Luke (23:6–16) that deals with Pilate sending Jesus to see Herod. This does not appear in any of the other gospels.

Luke’s audience knows from the story of the beheading of John the Baptist (3:19–20), that Herod is both vicious and ruthless. And although the Pharisees are not the most reliable group in Luke, there is no reason to doubt their warning to Jesus that Herod was seeking to kill him (13:31). Luke tells us that Herod had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time, because he had heard stories about him, and was he wanted to see Jesus perform a sign. This reminds us of those in the crowd earlier in Luke’s Gospel who, in order to test Jesus, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. (Luke 11:16 NRSV) So we can assume that Herod’s interest in seeing Jesus is not based on good intentions. 

Luke also tells us that Pilate and Herod had been enemies, but that from the time Pilate sent Jesus to see Herod, Pilate and Herod became friends. The opening verses of Psalm 2 state, “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed.” (Psa. 2:1–2 NRSV) Some commentators believe that Luke has used this situation of Pilate and Herod joining forces in the trial of Jesus, as proof that the prophecy in the psalm has now been fulfilled, which again adds weight to the claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Also unique to Luke’s Gospel is verse 34, “[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:34 NRSV) Not only is it unique to Luke’s Gospel, it’s also unique to particular manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel. 

Like all the books of the Bible, there is not one single manuscript we rely on to provide what is presented to us in the Bible now as the Gospel of Luke. A number of ancient manuscripts that were found, some complete and others only partially intact, and which are dated to different periods of time in history, have been reviewed and compared with each other to check the consistency and authenticity of the text.

Several of the oldest of these manuscripts, do not contain the words attributed to Jesus in v.34, which lead commentators to believe that this was not in the original version of Luke’s Gospel, but was an addition made by an editor of the gospel several centuries later. Regardless of whether or not this was a later addition, the actual saying itself is consistent with what we know of Jesus and his teachings, both from the gospels and the letters of Paul, so it is not beyond reason to think that Jesus did actually utter these words on the cross.

Which brings me back to where I started this morning in talking about the amazing strength it takes to react to physical and verbal abuse in a manner which would be considered “weak” by many. 

We’ve probably all heard of the “fight-or-flight” response, which is basically a chemical reaction in our body when the body produces an excessive amount of Adrenalin if we feel threatened or under attack. This surge of Adrenalin causes us to either fight back against this threat, or to flee from the attack or threat. It’s a natural human reaction, that can obviously be difficult for us to control.

Jesus must have experienced this response too, when he was first threatened with verbal abuse, and then attacked with physical abuse. But he didn’t fight back, and he didn’t flee. He stood up to the abuse, and to his abusers, and allowed himself to receive the abuse that was heaped on him. What amazing strength!

As Christians we are called by Jesus to try and put into action in our own lives, the values and behaviour that he taught, and to also try to emulate his example. In a way we find ourselves in a position here at St Andrew’s where we might be feeling threatened and/or under attack from the local residents in St Kinnord Street, who are opposed to our proposal of building a childcare centre.

We obviously haven’t been subjected to verbal or physical abuse to this point, and hopefully nothing like that ever eventuates, but we might feel intimidated by all of the signs in the street, and by the car that has been parked directly out the front of the church in recent weeks on a Sunday, protesting against our proposal. Our natural reaction might be to get angry and to want fight back in some way against this opposition. We may want to show the residents that we aren’t intimidated by their opposition; that we aren’t weak.

But Jesus has shown us by his own actions, that it takes enormous strength to resist that urge, and to just stand in the face of that opposition and not to respond to anger with anger, but to respond with love. 

We are reminded that the “First Commandment” is to love God with all of our heart, mind, souls and strength, and that a second is like it, we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.

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