To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (p. 158)
– Elizabeth A. Johnson (from the essay – The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us: Jesus Research and Christian Faith.)
You can find the Palm Sunday Gospel reading here.
The historian will tell you that the Romans occupied Judea during the Second Temple period, the time when Jesus lived. The Romans also used crucifixion as a death sentence for specific crimes. The Roman citizens were not subject to crucifixion but this penalty was meted out to slaves indiscriminately. According to jewishencyclopedia.com non-Roman citizens guilty of “piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery, false testimony, mutiny, high treason, rebellion”… and “soldiers that deserted to the enemy… were also punished by death on the cross.” While the Jewish leaders were prohibited from sentencing a person to crucifixion, the Romans could, and did, crucify many people.
This brings us to Palm Sunday which is often referred to as Passion Sunday because on this day we read about the passion of Jesus. We all know the basics of the passion story, from the arrest to the crucifixion. Every homily you are likely to hear this Sunday will be short, if there is a homily at all, because the readings are long and the takeaway from this passion story seems obvious. I mean, didn’t the evangelist Paul say it best “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” What more needs to be said? Stick with me here, I am going to say some things that should be discussed on Palm Sunday.
I will begin with a sports metaphor. In most sports there is a coined term “keep your eye on the ball” that I am sure everybody has heard. This term is widely used to refer to any situation where a person needs to focus their attention to the task at hand. Failing to keep your eye on the ball can have disastrous results, just ask Bill Buckner. In the run-up to Easter we spent a lot of time focused on the person and message of Jesus. Those lessons of community building, and how to listen to the voice of God in our lives, help to make us better spouses, parents and friends. We have been keeping our eye on the ball, so to speak, focusing our attention on the task of building the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Then we come to Palm Sunday and we have distractions creeping in and drawing our focus. There is this business of Christ’s redemptive death in God’s plan of salvation that draws our attention. We hear talk of “the Father who is in heaven,””the Son of God who came down from heaven,” and St. Rose of Lima taught us that “apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” All of this talk of heaven as someplace outside of the here and now threatens to take our eye off the ball.
Without attention to Jesus’ resurrection, it is difficult to avoid the judgement that Christian eschatology is nothing more than a strategy for talking people into embracing a vague (and perhaps unrealistic) hope for a future beyond the grave.
– ANNE M. CLIFFORD (Duquesne University)
The scripture scholar will tell you that the Gospel writers were leaning heavily on Isaiah 53 and the song of the suffering servant to find meaning in the death of Jesus. The verses of Isaiah tell us how the world will be when the Messiah comes to bring the reign of Yahweh. Therefore, the Gospel writers were alluding to the salvation of our world through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Theologians point to the kerygmatic approach that emphasizes God’s salvific plan, which unifies all the Gospels.
What does this all mean? Should I be more focused on heaven after I pass from this world? The reading of the passion does tend to shift our focus but if we remember that Jesus came to advance God’s salvation and teach us to live life to the fullest we can keep out eye on the ball.
“Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.”
– Sally McFague (The Body of God, p. 287)
The Catholic Church teaches that our salvation comes from the fact that Jesus gave his life for the ransom of many. Fr. Richard Rohr explains that “the Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. That is just when we started taking it seriously.” Our salvation lies in all of us being in communion with one another, here and now. We need to keep our eye on the ball and continue to promote God’s salvation by building the kingdom of heaven on Earth, just as Jesus taught us.
If you take one thing away from this homily it should be that our salvation does not lie in notions of life after death. Rather, our salvation began at the creation of the world and continues to be revealed as we follow the teachings of Jesus and build our community on Earth as it is in heaven.