Posts Tagged gospel

The Plight of the Pharisees (Rocking the Boat)

(I preached this sermon for Easter Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 20th 2014.)

Anthem: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” by Frank Loesser

Sermon: “The Plight of the Pharisees”

It doesn’t take long to figure out from those accounts of the life and death of Jesus known as the Four Gospels that there was no love lost when it came to the Pharisees.  The gospels mention them more than ninety times in all, and rarely is the purpose to say something good about them.

The gospel named Mark is the oldest of the four, and provides much of the material used by the later gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Just as is the case for those names, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the text itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, or four decades after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells them to keep quiet about what he did and who he is. Jesus uses many (often rather cryptic) parables, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark was written for people who already understood Jesus, so the gospel only needed to serve as a reminder, rather than as a text book that could be read by a beginner.  So it’s not surprising that Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

As Mark tells the stories, the Pharisees try to understand what Jesus is doing, particularly in terms of his disregard of ritual tradition.  Perhaps they’re even earnest in their attempts to understand.  Still, they clearly don’t approve of his eating in the company of people they consider to be unclean, and they definitely don’t approve of the way that Jesus and his followers ignore the laws regarding the Sabbath.

When Jesus gets angry at the Pharisees or calls them hypocrites, they don’t take it too well, of course, so they decide to test him, asking for proof of his divine authority in an attempt to destroy his credibility.  In response, Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees”, using yeast as a symbol of corruption that can spread.  As is typically the case with Mark, though, the disciples don’t understand him and they think he’s simply talking about the fact that they didn’t bring enough bread.

The Pharisees test him again, asking him questions about the legality of divorce or whether they should pay taxes to the Romans.  That earns them the famous response, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  And the Pharisees were amazed, Mark concludes, because Jesus neatly avoided their efforts to trap him into committing either treason or blasphemy, while forgetting that, according to their own theology, everything belongs to God.

In the final chapters of Mark, of course, Jesus is arrested, but that’s at the behest of the Jerusalem Temple’s priests and scribes, and it’s they who put him on trial for blasphemy before handing him over to the Romans for execution.  The Pharisees, who had formed a more pious faction of Jews by separating themselves from what they saw as the corrupt bureaucracy of the Temple, were not part of that, and Mark leaves them merely confused and outwitted by Jesus.

Matthew is not nearly so kind to them.

Matthew’s gospel is clearly based on Mark’s, but with a few differences.  Now Matthew was written a decade (or perhaps two) later, and incorporated much of Mark as well as some other material that also shows up in Luke.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, probably one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups, like the Pharisees, following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

As such, the Matthew goes to great lengths to connect the events of the life and death of Jesus back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, something that Jesus also did, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity existed as such, and when it came to fulfilling prophecy, the gospel writer went to great lengths to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

For instance, in describing the events of Palm Sunday, Matthew quotes the book of Zechariah in describing how the king of Jerusalem will enter the city by riding on a donkey.  Only Zechariah uses a poetic structure called parallelism, repeating the point for emphasis by also referring to the donkey as “a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Evidently Matthew didn’t understand that, because he takes Zechariah’s words literally, and has Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt at the same time, like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

When it comes to the Pharisees, Matthew repeats what Mark related, and adds to it.  The Pharisees accuse Jesus, for instance, of being in league with Satan in order to be able to cast out demons, to which Jesus responds with such memorable phrases as “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and “whoever is not with me is against me”.

The main addition to Matthew, though, is a scathing speech in which Jesus attacks the Pharisees at length.  It fills the whole of chapter 23, calling them bullies and cheats and liars and even murderers.  The phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” is used half a dozen times to preface some accusation of self-indulgence and false righteousness while neglecting the sick and the needy.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus denounces them.  “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

Following Mark, Matthew has the Temple’s leaders plot to have Jesus arrested, and tells much the same story through to the placing of Jesus’ body in its tomb.  The next day, though, Matthew has the Pharisees go with the priests to petition Roman governor Pilate for permission to seal up the tomb, in order to prevent anyone from stealing the body and then claiming that this proved that Jesus had risen from the dead.  This is the last time that Matthew mentions the Pharisees, and it’s one last reminder to Matthew’s Jewish readers that they should join those who claimed Jesus as Messiah rather than other Jewish factions that had got it all so badly wrong.

Luke, on the other hand, claims to be more objective in his presentation of the stories, and that may actually be the case.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.

We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the gospel as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

As with the first two gospels, Luke has the Pharisees question Jesus about his apparently deliberate lack of observance of Jewish law.  They also try to trick him into revealing himself as a false prophet, but there’s at least one Pharisee named Simon who seems willing to view Jesus as a teacher, even as Jesus criticizes Simon’s hospitality.  It’s when another Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner that triggers the “Woe to you Pharisees!” speech.  “For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

According to Luke, though, Jesus only gets part way through the list of woes before some Torah scholars who are present chime in, saying that the things that Jesus is saying against the Pharisees also insult them, at which point Jesus turns the rest of his speech into a condemnation of them instead.  So I guess the lesson is, don’t interrupt a Messiah in full-on rant-mode.  Luke’s final mention of the Pharisees is on Palm Sunday when, addressing Jesus as “teacher”, they ask him to keep his followers from proclaiming him king.

And that brings us to the fourth gospel, given the name John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, those three are known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be looked at in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and including instead a lot of unique material.  John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

John was written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  It is thought to have been written at least sixty years after the death of Jesus, meaning that two or three generations had passed since the events the gospel claims to describe had supposedly happened.

Part of what distinguishes John, however, is how it seems to have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society.  That community may have been experiencing particular difficulty with antagonistic Jewish leaders, and as a result John paints a picture of significant hostility between Jesus and other Jews, particularly the Pharisees.

Now remember that the Pharisees were a Jewish faction that sought to separate itself from, say, the Sadducees and the priests who emphasized the role of the Jerusalem Temple.  But according to John, it’s the priests and the Pharisees working together who plot to have Jesus arrested.  When the Temple police return without arresting him, it’s the Pharisees who take them to task for having failed.

John, more than the other gospel-writers, has the Pharisees take an active role in denying Jesus, rather than merely asking him questions or trying to trick him.  The Pharisees even bring in for questioning a man whose blindness Jesus had healed, going so far as to check with the man’s parents that he had actually been blind.  In one indication of John’s political agenda, the parents refer the Pharisees back to their son to answer further questions, because they were afraid of what might the Pharisees might do to them if they said that Jesus was the Messiah.

It is when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead that the plot to kill him emerges in full.  The Pharisees called a meeting with the priests, and according to John said, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many wonders.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”  The high priest then speaks for all of them, saying “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  And from then on they planned to have Jesus put to death, with both the priests and the Pharisees giving orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they could arrest him.

Of course, when the Pharisees see Jesus arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, they realize there’s little they can do with such a large crowd going with him, but they do manage to prevent some other Jewish leaders from going with him.  And finally, when Judas betrays Jesus by revealing his location, it’s a veritable mob of not only the Temple police under the supervision of the priests and the Pharisees but also a unit of Roman soldiers who go to arrest him.  Once his trial begins, John has Pilate alternate between questioning Jesus and speaking with the Jewish leaders, who are adamant that Jesus be put to death by the Romans, even going so far as to accuse Pilate of treason if he acquits Jesus.

So, to recap: Mark has the Pharisees mostly confused and outwitted by Jesus; Matthew has them trading insults with him, but in the end they’re just trying to keep him buried and forgotten; Luke has some of the Pharisees at least open to what Jesus is preaching, even as they worry about the unwanted attention he’s bringing from the Romans; and John has the Pharisees actively conspiring with the other Jewish factions to manipulate the Romans into killing Jesus in order to save themselves.

There’s clearly a progression in how the gospels treat the Pharisees, based on when they were written and what the gospel-writers wanted to achieve.  And it’s not surprising that a lot of anti-semitism has been blamed on the gospel of John.

The Jerusalem Temple was, of course, destroyed about forty years after Jesus was killed, when a large-scale Jewish rebellion against Roman rule brought the Imperial army to lay siege to the city.  That took care of the Sadducees and the Temple priesthood, because there was no more Temple.  The Essenes, the third Jewish faction mentioned by the gospel-writers’ contemporary, Josephus, were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and are thought to have removed themselves to the desert to wait for the apocalypse they expected.

So that left the Pharisees, who had not relied on the Temple for their religious identity but had instead organized themselves in the synagogues; unlike the elitist Sadducees, they had the support of the common people.  Rejecting the traditions and privileges of the priesthood, the Pharisees emphasized the study of Torah, not only as written down in the Bible but also the oral tradition that went along with it and that was essential for interpreting the written words.

And as they strove to teach those traditions to the surviving Jewish population, to answer questions of what it meant to be Jewish when there was no longer a Temple, they earned the title of Teacher, which in Hebrew is Rabbi.  And since there were no other Jewish authorities, this Judaism of the Rabbis simply became Judaism.

These developments were underway as the four gospels were being written, and at the same time that the Pharisees who separated themselves from other Jewish (particularly Temple) authorities were evolving into the Rabbis who were the only Jewish authorities, the followers of Jesus were evolving into an early form of Christianity as more non-Jews joined them.  These developments were more advanced for John than for the synoptics, of course, so it’s not surprising that, while the followers of Jesus had never seen eye-to-eye with them, the Pharisees became the targets of particular hostility from John.

Anything written in a book intended to strengthen one group that so strongly criticizes another, competing group obviously needs to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.  The term describing this in today’s information age is “filter bubble”, where the information given to someone is pre-selected based on their existing biases, reinforcing those biases rather than challenging them.   That doesn’t excuse two thousand years of anti-semitism, of course, much less the anti-Jewish violence that continues to break out in our own times, in places such as Kansas just one week ago.

Now outside of the Bible, there’s not much mention of Jesus by other ancient writers.  One place he is mentioned is in a book that Josephus wrote at the very end of the first century, entitled Antiquities of the Jews.

Josephus himself is thought to have been a Pharisee, or at least a high ranking Jew, and he led the Galilean forces of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans.  With the rebellion going badly, his garrison was defeated and Josephus surrendered.  He was made to act as an interpreter and a negotiator during the siege of Jerusalem, and for his services was granted not only Roman citizenship but also imperial patronage.  Settling down as a historian, Josephus first wrote about the rebellion in which he had played a part, before turning to everything that had led to it and writing Antiquities of the Jews.

It’s in that extensive work that Josephus refers to John the Baptist, to a Jesus who was condemned and crucified by the Roman authorities, and to a “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”.  Now Josephus was writing about people who lived a decade before he was born, and it’s believed that the passage about Jesus was embellished a few centuries later by a Christian historian, but it’s notable that Josephus never mentions any animosity between the Pharisees and those who followed Jesus.

We might expect that there was some animosity, of course.  Julius Caesar had granted Jews the right to follow their own religious practices, exempting them from having to worship the imperial gods, including the emperor himself.  So there was relative harmony with the empire, so long as the Jewish leaders didn’t make waves, and that meant being very careful of anybody who criticized the otherwise cruel empire that permitted them such freedom.  There were others who rocked the boat, but we know about two of them: John the Baptist and Jesus.  If anything, it was John who was more dangerous to the Empire, but as Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan summarizes the differences in how Josephus describes them — and explains how John’s movement disappeared with him while that of Jesus thrived — “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.”

There’s a lot in our culture that’s influenced, for good and for bad, but what’s in the Bible, so it’s better for us if we understand it ourselves rather than let others dictate to us what they think it says.  The Unitarian half of our heritage has long believed in the full humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a role model for resisting the forces of oppression and imperialism. But the Pharisees deserve some credit, and our sympathy, too, for they were doing what they thought was best, clinging to a boat amidst an all-powerful sea that had temporarily granted them life when it could so easily extinguish them.  We would do well to remember that, when someone comes along and starts rocking our boat.  But when it comes to seeking a better tomorrow, what will choose?  Will we tell them to sit down, or will we join them?

So may it be.

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Riding on a Donkey

(A sermon for Palm Sunday delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 24th 2013.)

As with the “nativity” story of the birth of Jesus, each gospel that starts the New Testament describes the events of Palm Sunday in different ways.  Just as the accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are blended together in the popular imagination to form the usual Christmas story, so are the four versions of Palm Sunday often combined into a single narrative.  Here is one way that might be done.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, they first reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.  Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you and, as soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone questions what you are doing, just say this, ‘The Lord needs it but will return it.’”  For as it was said by the prophet Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, for your king is coming to you!  Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

The disciples did not understand at first, but they went ahead and found a donkey tied in the street, near a door.  As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said, and the bystanders allowed them to take it.  Then the disciples brought the donkey to Jesus.  They threw their cloaks on its back and he sat on it.

Now many people had gathered for the festival.  Hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from palm trees and spread them on the road as well.  And as they took the path down from the Mount of Olives, all of the disciples began to speak loudly of the deeds of power that they had seen.  Soon the crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those who followed after him were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But he answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  And the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, we can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept for it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Then Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the whole city was in turmoil, with people asking, “Who is this man?”  Others from the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus went into the Temple.

Christian churches around the world are today celebrating Palm Sunday, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, and looking ahead to the unfolding of Easter in a week’s time.  In those churches there’s usually some sort of procession, whether that’s just the children or the clergy and other worship leaders or even the whole congregation, everyone holding palm branches and singing solemn music appropriate to the day.  Palm branches — or, in colder climates, branches from trees such as yew or willow — are also used to decorate church sanctuaries.  Having been blessed with holy water, the branches are then carefully stored until the next year, when they are burned to make ashes for use in services on Ash Wednesday.

The story that’s told on Palm Sunday comes from the Bible, of course, specifically from those four books at the start of the New Testament that are known as the gospels.  The word “gospel” comes from Old English, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”, and came to describe a particular form of early Christian writing that includes those first four books of the New Testament.  There were other gospels that weren’t chosen for inclusion in the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and though there was strong opinion within the early Christian community that there ought to be four and only four gospels, it took a few centuries for the list of books in the New Testament to be officially recognized by the Church.

Now each of the four official gospels tells more or less the same story.  It’s perhaps not that surprising that the gospel accounts are different from one another, of course, since each gospel was apparently written with different purposes in mind.  Some of those differences may surprise you, but in each case, the story is rich in symbolism, including signs that perhaps Jesus was not to be the kind of king the people were expecting.

The oldest of the four gospels is named Mark.  Like the other names attached to the gospels, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the book itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, which is thirty-some years after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity or his role as a messiah.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells the people he heals and the demons he drives out to keep quiet about what he did and who he is.  Jesus uses many parables in his preaching, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, it’s clear that they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark is really written for people who already understand who Jesus is, so the gospel only needs to serve as a reminder of certain details, rather than as a book that can be read by anyone.  It’s not surprising that, though the oldest gospel, Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is short and to the point.  Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey that’s never been ridden before, then he rides that donkey while people put their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of him, calling out “Hosanna!” and blessings on the coming kingdom.  This gospel’s account of Jesus’ arrival ends rather abruptly, though.  “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  All that fuss, and he just turns around and leaves again!  As I say, pretty mystifying.  The next day Jesus comes back to the city, stopping on the way to curse a fig tree for not having any figs on it before driving the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple.  The cursing of the fig tree — all the more bizarre because “it was not the season for figs” — is one of the few destructive miracles attributed to Jesus in the official gospels — the unofficial gospels have more — and is explained — to the extent that Mark explains anything — as foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew’s account is clearly based on Mark, but with a few differences.  Now this gospel was written a decade or two after Mark’s gospel, incorporating much of Mark as well as some other source material called “Q” that also shows up in Luke’s gospel.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, perhaps one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups following the destruction of the Temple.  As such, the gospel rarely explains Jewish customs but goes to great lengths to connect the events of Jesus’ life and death back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various Hebrew prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity as such existed, with the gospel’s purpose apparently being to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

As such, it’s not enough for Matthew that Jesus has the disciples run ahead to find a donkey that’s never been ridden before, a reference to Jewish sacramental practices that require clean and unblemished animals.  No, Matthew also needs to explain that this took place to specifically fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah.  The weird thing is that Matthew misunderstands those words.  You see, the actual lines from the book of Zechariah (9:9) are as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now there’s a structure in Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in a couple of slightly different ways for emphasis.  The prophet Amos, for instance, spoke of “justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” as two sides of the same coin describing a community based on fairness.  Zechariah was emphasizing the nature of the animal — a lowly donkey that had never before been ridden — an animal that in Eastern traditions represented peace, as opposed to the horse which represented war.  In the context of describing God’s inevitable victory over Israel’s warring neighbors, Zechariah really wanted to make clear that this would come about through peace and demilitarization, rather than through the escalation of violence, so the symbolism of the donkey as an animal of peace is really important.

Unfortunately, all of that is simply lost on Matthew, who only sees Zechariah’s words as a Nostradamus-like prognostication that just needs to be fulfilled in order to prove a point about Jesus.  Perhaps worse, Matthew fails to understand the poetic device of parallelism and instead takes Zechariah literally!  Matthew actually has Jesus send the disciple to find two animals, a donkey and a colt, which they do, and then he rides them both at the same time, presumably like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

Somehow Jesus makes it to Jerusalem without falling off and breaking a hip.  Matthew, unlike Mark, has people identify Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth, after which Matthew has him enter the Temple and immediately drive out the money-changers and the vendors.  Matthew has Jesus curse the poor fig tree the following day.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating the “Q” material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.  We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the book as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated, dedicating it and Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, to somebody called Theophilus.  That may have been the author’s patron or, since the name simply means “lover of god”, it may have been anybody looking for the sort of theologically sound, historically accurate account that Luke claimed to be.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem initially follows Mark’s very closely, and does not quote Zechariah.  As the people are calling out their blessings, though, Luke has the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop.   He refuses, saying that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out instead.

Then Luke includes an extensive lament by Jesus, weeping for the city of Jerusalem and its refusal to recognize the signs of peace, namely Jesus — the heir of King David — riding a donkey — the royal animal of peace.  Luke has Jesus speak of an assault on Jerusalem as punishment for its failure to recognize him as God’s emissary.  Jerusalem had, of course, fallen and its Temple destroyed by the time Luke was written.  Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus then immediately enter the Temple and drive out the vendors, but unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke does not include anything about the cursing of a fig tree.

Finally, we come to John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, they’re known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be seen together, or read in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and the exorcisms.

John is believed to have been written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  This gospel may have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society, having difficulty in particular with antagonistic synagogue authorities, given John’s portrayal of hostility between Jesus and other Jews.  Still, John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is preceded by his raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, a story that isn’t found at all in the other three gospels.  For John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most important signs that convinces people to follow Jesus.  John reports that, out of fear of what the Romans might do to them and the Temple, the priests and the Pharisees plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too.

John explicitly notes that it is a week before Passover when Jesus comes back to Bethany and then heads into Jerusalem.  John is the only gospel that specifically mentions palm branches, giving Palm Sunday its name.  Palm branches were traditionally used as a symbol of triumph and were probably meant to recall the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks a couple of centuries before, representing the people’s hopes that Jesus would similarly defeat the Romans.  Like Mark and Matthew, John has the people calling out “Hosanna!” which rather than meaning “Hooray!” is actually from the Hebrew for “Save us, we beg you!”

Now John has Jesus finding the donkey himself, and then quotes a simplified version of Zechariah that avoids confusion such as  Matthew’s over how many animals were actually involved.  Perhaps in subtle criticism of the earlier gospel-writers, John comments that the disciples didn’t understand this at first, but only figured out what it meant later on.  Then John has people speak about how they’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead, something that grows the crowd even more.  Finally, the Pharisees complain to one another in resignation that there’s nothing they can do.

John does describe how Jesus drove the vendors and the money-changers out of the Temple, by the way, only as an event very early on in his public ministry, around the time of a previous Passover.  Scholars debate such differences between the gospels, of course, and what they might mean for the chronology of Jesus’ life.

There are lots of questions that, without some sort of time machine, will never be answered when it comes to ancient texts such as the Bible.  Like it or not, though, it’s such a part of our culture in this society that it’s important for all of us to have some level of biblical literacy, whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or even Jewish.  Most Unitarian Universalists do not, of course, and have long since rejected the Bible as unhelpful or even untrue.

In a time when “religion” is all too easily used to oppress rather than to liberate, though, it’s particularly important to understand the Bible and what it says and where it came from so that others can’t use it against us in support of their own bigotry and small-mindedness.  The four stories about Palm Sunday are, I think, a good place to start, given the similarities and the differences between the stories as well as the important symbolism.

There’s the fact that all four gospels agree that Jesus was riding on a donkey, for instance, an animal of peace rather than an animal of war like the horse.  Given cultural traditions, including the writings attributed to Zechariah, the gospels agree that Jesus’ mission was all about peace.  This was not supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the victory of armed might, but a plea for peace, whether that’s between the world’s nations or between the various factions within Judaism itself.

Three of the gospels have the people calling out “Hosanna!” which comes from the Hebrew meaning “Please save us!”  Someone arriving in great power, with swords and other weapons, and certainly riding a big horse rather than a donkey, would have seemed a much better candidate for Messiah, I’m sure.  Perhaps the people were too wrapped up in their stories of how Judas Maccabæus had defeated the Greeks, driving them out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple as a Jewish holy site.  Perhaps they were thinking of how King David, who was said to be Jesus’ ancestor, had even as a young boy defeated much stronger soldiers like Goliath.

For me there are eerie parallels with some of the ways that, even in our modern world, we tend to pin our hopes on people we single out as special, casting them in the models of our heroes of the past and then, when they inevitably fail to deliver the miracles we demand of them, we crucify them.

By the end of that Passover week, of course, the Romans had executed Jesus, betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.  The triumph of Palm Sunday turns into the tragedy of Good Friday.  But let’s resist the urge to jump ahead to Easter.  Without that time machine, of course, we can’t know if any of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are remotely accurate accounts of actual events or are, as some people claim, complete fictions.  For me, it doesn’t really matter either way.

I can still learn something and find inspiration in the stories.  What I read in them is a message about the importance of loving one another and living in peace, or at least trying to.  Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things about Jesus, but we can at least think of him as someone who said some important things about being kind to one another, about treating one another fairly, about standing up for what we believe in without giving in to violence, and about the power of love to conquer everything, even death.

This Palm Sunday, may that be the “good news” we remember in the days and weeks ahead.

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