Palm Sunday, 2 April 23
We spend a lot of time thinking - perhaps worrying - about what people think of us. This might be subconscious and I suspect it is instilled in us from a very early age. I remember being told not to shout in the garden because, I was told, what would Mrs Paul next door think? (I remember thinking at the time she was quite old so I didn’t think her hearing could have been that good!). There are legendary stories too on my mum’s side of the family of her mum on the beaches of the north west of England decades ago. The swimming costume apparently covered more of her than the outfit she was wearing the rest of the time and there was a dance of many towels to cover her up when she changed in and out of it. All, presumably, lest others thought she was being indecent. There were stories of too of my grandfather putting a coat on when he answered the vicarage door and people assumed he was going out but it was actually to cover the holes in his trousers! For good or ill we are social beings and part of that is to explore what people think of us.
I’m not a psychologist but I suggest this is something we learn as young children. We wonder what will make people smile, what will make them laugh, what will make them go ‘ouch.’ We explore what effect we have on people and this will eventually turn in to a sense of what people think of us. I want then to explore what Jesus’ reputation was in this Holy Week and I hope we will appreciate that we will prove what it is we think of Him during this week of such drama and grace.
Some people thought Jesus was a political revolutionary. This is probably behind the term we hear translated as “brigand” in the Passion Narrative we’ve just heard read (St Matthew 26:55) where Jesus says, “Am I a brigand, that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs?” We mustn’t forget the busyness of Jerusalem at this time of the Festival. We should perhaps think of the crowds we see at a Tottenham home game. This was in no small part why the authorities in Jerusalem were so worried (St Matthew 26:5): this could easily become a brawl. The Garden of Gethsemane was not a deserted place for private prayer, it would have been filled with folk camping out, there being no room at the inn as on another occasion in the Lord’s life. This political aspect was behind the sign placed on the Cross: which said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,’ often seen on Crucifixes abbreviated to INRI from the Latin.
Others were more concerned by their belief that our Lord was a religious heretic, a blasphemer. The irony here is that they say He is saying He is God and, of course, He is. They just don’t believe Jesus! And we know He’s precisely that: true God and true Man, raising the dead man Lazarus, as we heard last Sunday, and healing a man born blind, which had never been done before, as we heard on Lent IV. Moreover, the crowds who welcomed Christ on Palm Sunday believed Him to be a religious figure, waving palm branches and scattering garments, but we mustn’t read in to the realities of the first century our own assumptions: there was no such division between religion and politics. We see this friction continuing when our Lord is before the chief priests and the Sanhedrin in the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus is shouted at: “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Much of the brutality of the soldiers in these scenes is that these are crimes which we would describe in our own day as religiously motivated: “Play the prophet, Christ! Who hit you then?” If he’s so close to God, He’ll know. It’s a cruel bullying which the Prince of Peace encounters.
So, what of our Lord’s response? What is most startling in all this is the little weight Jesus puts on what people think of Him. Jesus could have stopped them arresting Him, as He makes clear, and indeed would have were He worried about His public image and reputation according to the standards of the world. This continues when He is silent at His trials and St Matthews gives His only words before the High Priests as being “The words are your own. Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of Heaven.” The silence continues onto the Cross apart from, in St Matthew’s Gospel, the words translated as ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ (St Matthew 27:46), being the words of the psalmist we heard earlier.
We cannot believe, however, that Jesus is completely unconcerned with what people think of Him. Indeed right from the start of his Gospel, St Matthew has contrasted the different responses people have to the Lord’s coming among us: Herod wishing to kill (St Matthew 2:16-18) and the Wise Men wishing to kneel down and worship (2:1-11). The star leads folk from afar to worship Him and crowds gather during Jesus’ earthly ministry while He sits down at the top of the Mount in true Moses-style and gives the fulfilment of the Law. Jesus Himself completes the law and prophets as seen on the Cross when the veil of the Temple is torn in two, revealing the breaking down of the barrier between God and humanity which had previously existed. Yes, who Jesus is and how we respond to Him and what we think of Him is indeed important. This is a principle challenge in the community St John wrote to in his first letter, as we’ve been discovering in the Tuesday Study Groups for the past five weeks. The heretics did not believe Jesus is God (I John 2:22).
But our Lord knows it has to be up to us to decide. We’re wonderfully made in the image of God and so we make decisions whether to accept and work on the gift of faith or not. Or we decide to be prisoners of circumstance and fortune and fate, rather than the free people God calls us to be. Joseph of Arimathea overcomes His fear to show His love for the Lord by offering Him his tomb. Mary, the Mother of God, St Mary Magdalene and others had kept faith with the Lord. They know who He is and they know their love for Him, and His even greater love for them. And Jesus has given them at the Last Supper the means by which they are to keep on proclaiming who Jesus is: “This is my Body … This is my Blood … Do this in memory of me.”When Jesus says He knows someone is going to betray Him, Jesus is making clear that He is in charge, He is still God, though all this is happening.
We see here then, I hope, the difficult balance we are to walk of on the one hand having a concern for what people think of us and yet not allowing that to lead us astray. A big institutional problem for the Church of our own day is that often there is too much concern about what others think of us on some issues prevalent in twenty first century British society and not enough time spent considering what people think of us when it comes to the love of God in our hearts. We’re not to be anxious about such matters but we are to be diligent in seeking to proclaim our faith and to make sure our following of Him is evident in the way we live our lives, the words we use and the thoughts we form in the secret of our hearts. May this Holy Week be an opportunity we grasp to commit ourselves to the Lord and make our following of Him visible - not through preparing upper rooms and finding donkeys as with the twelve disciples on this day in centuries gone - but through being in the Lord’s House this Holy Week and encouraging others to do likewise.