SJF • Palm Sunday 2011 • Tobias S Haller BSG
From my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.
It has been said that our lives are constituted based on the choices we make. At every point of our lives we are faced with options and choices, alternatives to go one way or the other — and the choices we make determine the shape of our lives, sometimes in dramatic ways, and sometimes more subtly.
This truth is laid out plainly for us to see in Matthew’s account of the Passion. We see the choices that people make all along the way, choices to act or refrain from action, and choices to act in one way or another. So many options for so many lives! And how each of these choices shape the reality of each one’s world — and our world!
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Think of the terrible choice that Judas makes: the choice of betrayal, the choice to accept a handful of silver to betray a man to death, in whose company he could have found eternal life. Instead, he chooses the path of delivering his master and teacher to death, and when stricken with remorse, he chooses death for himself.
Then look at Peter, the unsteady man who totters between heroism and cowardice, pulling out a sword at one point to defend his Lord, and then cowering in the shadows at another, denying that he even knows him. He chooses to deny Jesus, and only the rooster’s crow recalls him to himself, and rebukes him for his choice.
Then there’s the high priest, Caiaphas. Matthew doesn’t supply us with a window into why he acts as he does; for that we have to depend on John’s Gospel, which we will hear on Good Friday. Caiaphas is a practical man — who follows what would later be called the ethics of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So, John tells us, he advises that, given the danger Jesus creates in the fragile political climate of Jerusalem, it is expedient that one man should suffer instead of many. In making this choice, Caiaphas is going against the teaching of the greatest rabbi in Judaism, Rabbi Hillel. who ended his ministry during Jesus’ childhood. In a powerful statement on the value of human life, Rabbi Hillel had said that to save a single human life is to save an entire world. Caiaphas on the other hand, weighs human life in the shopkeeper’s scale, life against life, and figures the trade-off is reasonable: one life sacrificed to avoid the possible loss of others. And by that choice he sets in course all that follows.
Then we have Pilate, another politician, a man who also weighs his choices carefully. It is easy to sympathize with Pilate — so much is pulling him one way and another — even his wife chimes in to warn him off. And so Pilate makes the interesting choice not to choose. Like many a politician before and since, rather than take a position — he takes a poll. Pilate is one of those leaders who leads from behind, safely insulated from having to take responsibility should things not work out, sheltered from the consequences of his inaction, able to wash his hands of the whole matter — a perfect biblical example of “plausible deniability.”
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All of these choices, all of these lives, swirling in the mix of options and opportunities! And step by step, each one of them choice by choice, each life hardens into reality as each choice is made, all the fuzzy options fading away as each choice becomes concrete, and the path is taken. And amidst this cloud of options, the most important choice, the one that is the eye of the storm around which all of these other possibilities swirl, is the one that Jesus makes, and he keeps right on making it through to the end.
It begins in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus appeals to his Father for another option — another way for salvation to be accomplished without his having to drink the cup of suffering set before him. Matthew portrays this scene with only one side of the conversation: it is as if we were witnessing a telephone call — we hear what Jesus says, but not the response.
Is God truly silent? Is this the beginning of the terrible silence of God that will lead Jesus to cry out from the cross those words of agony: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus has a choice, there in the garden, and throughout the rest of the suffering that would follow. There in the garden it is perhaps clearest: even though Judas and the guards are on their way, it is still not too late for Jesus to escape, to leave the city and head on back to the safety of Bethany, to flee to far-off Galilee. But he doesn’t.
That same choice is available to Jesus right on up to the end. When they bring him before Caiaphas, he could choose to deny himself and his mission as God’s holy one, the Messiah. But he doesn’t. When brought before Pilate, he could play on Pilate’s weakness, and work out a deal. But he doesn’t. Even when they nail him to the cross, he could indeed — as the taunters say — choose to come down now from the cross. But he doesn’t.
For he knows at any one of these steps that for him to do so would be to disobey his heavenly Father, to deny the very purpose for which he was born. To choose not to die on the cross — that is the most tempting option, but it is one that he refuses.
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In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, author Nikos Kazantzakis explores what it might have been like if Jesus had given in to this last temptation, this option to refuse God’s will: to be a disobedient son and cast it all aside; to refuse the cup of suffering. In a flash, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus envisions what it would mean to come down from the cross. He sees himself return to Galilee as an ordinary man, to get married, to run his carpenter shop — and to leave the world unredeemed.
But he doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t do this, in the novel or the Gospel. He rejects that dreamlike fantasy of an untroubled, ordinary life; he doesn’t give in to that tempting choice, that seductive option to live instead of dying. He gives himself to death on the cross, knowing that in the options market of Calvary, all of the conniving deals and bartering in human souls are turned upside down. He lays down his life because he knows that this is the only investment that will bring a return — and what a return it will be! What had he said? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his life?” Jesus took that risk, as only he could do. His gift of himself, his one sacrifice of himself once offered, would bring redemption to the whole world. His act of obedience unto death, even death on the cross, will lead to his exaltation above all earthly things, and the sanctification of all things, in him.
This is the path the Son of God chose on our behalf, for our salvation. It meant pain and suffering and death for him — but life for us. At the cost of his life he gained the whole world.
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We are offered a similar choice each day of our lives: we too are offered the option to take up our cross day by day, and follow him? Or will we follow Judas’ choice to betray, Peter’s choice to deny, Caiaphas’ choice to victimize, or Pilate’s choice to abdicate?
Will we bend our knee at the name of Jesus, or bow to other earthly gods of wealth and comfort, or act like we don’t know who he is, or take advantage of our sisters and brothers, or act as if this all has nothing to do with us? Sisters and brothers, how we choose each day of our lives, how we play the stakes in this options market, will determine our fate for all eternity. As we sow, so shall we reap.
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You may remember that line from Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge asks Marley’s ghost about the heavy chain that binds him. The unhappy ghost responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link... I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas’s ago, and you have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”
Such are the choices we make, my friends, day by day: the things we do and refuse to do — “things done and left undone.” The life and death of our Savior is set before us to show us how to free ourselves from the ponderous chain of self-interest that binds us to betrayal, and victimization, fear, and evasion of responsibility.
God is calling us to follow him, my sisters and brothers, and he will give us the strength to do so. So let us choose then, and choose wisely, to follow him, through whom alone we find the way to eternal life.+