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Passion / Palm Sunday, Cycle A

God’s love shines through the Cross and changes us. This is a Sunday for reflection on the Atonement, the love of God and its implications (Justification and Sanctification by Grace), along with some reflection on our Sin.

Psalm 31:9-16
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate not to contend that the song is only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief (v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel, and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved by God’s steadfast love. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God (vv. 14-16).

Application: On a Sunday when we observe our sinfulness in contributing to Christ’s death and the tragic condition of our sinful plight, the text celebrates the conquest of God’s love (Justification by Grace). The idea of our whole life being in God and so in Christ has rich implications for living the Christian life (Sanctification).

Isaiah 50:4-9a
This lesson probably has its origins in the second oldest of the three distinct historical strands of prophecy that comprise the book. It seems quite clearly not to have been the work of the eighth century BC prophet Isaiah who worked in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) but to have emerged soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and so during the Babylonian captivity. The text is taken from the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. It is the so-called Third Servant Song. There is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed that the referent of these texts is an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.

The servant says that God made him a teacher, to sustain the weary (exiled Israelites) (v. 4). The servant is said to do the Lord’s bidding and accepts the insults received (vv. 5-6). Using a law-court image, the servant expresses unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him (vv. 7-9).

Application: If this text is read as referring to Jesus, it suggests the Easter event of Christ accepting the insults that he received in going to the Cross in anticipation of his Easter vindication, all to sustain the weariness of the faithful (Atonement and Justification by Grace). The theme of what makes us weary in American life (Sin) could first be developed. Another possibility would be to interpret the faithful or the church (the New Israel) as the servant, who accepts insults for God but proceeds with confidence of God’s vindication (Sanctification).

Philippians 2:5-11
This letter was written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (for an early theologian of the church named Polycarp spoke of several of Paul’s letters written to Philippi [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33]). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Paul’s coworker Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30), the church member who had brought these gifts to Paul. The main purpose of the apostle is to urge persistence in faith in the face of opposition.

After urging the faithful to love and be concerned with the interests of others (vv. 2-4), Paul exhorts them to have the mind of Christ Jesus (v. 5). Christ is depicted (in hymn form) as divine (in the form of God), but also as one emptying himself into humanity and on the Cross (vv. 6-8). In turn, God has exalted him (vv. 9-11). It is possible that the hymn is inspired by the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13–53:12).

Application: Several options are suggested by the text. It might occasion a sermon to the sacrifice of Christ, his emptying himself for us for our sakes (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But it could also inspire a sermon on living the Christian life (Sanctification), urging the faithful to live like Christ (having his mind as a result of being united to him in faith), and so committing to empty ourselves in order to serve in love the interests of others.

Matthew 26:14–27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
In this detailed account of the Passion we consider the version of the most Jewish of all the gospels. Likely not written by the apostle who bears the gospel’s name, its Jewish character is likely a function of the original audience addressed — Jewish Christians in Antioch no longer in full communion with Judaism (23:25-32; 24:20). As a result a lot of attention is given in the gospel (and in this text) to presenting Jesus as the messianic fulfillment of Torah.

The account begins with Judas Iscariot’s initiation of efforts to betray Jesus to the chief priest (26:14-16). New Testament scholarship increasingly understands Judas to have been a Zealot trying to press Jesus into starting a revolution. The name Iscariot is related to the Latin word sicarius [knife-man], a common Roman reference to Zealots. At least one other disciple, Simon the Cananean, has a name from the Aramaic qan’an, meaning “the Zealot” (10:4). The thirty pieces of silver given to Judas were probably about 120 days’ wages. Then we read of the successful efforts of Jesus to find a host for him and his disciples for the Passover meal (26:17-20). During the meal, he indicates that one of the disciples will try to betray him (26:21). They become greatly distressed. With reference to Psalm 41:9, he speaks of woe to the one who betrays him. Judas protests, but Jesus says, “You have said so” (26:22-25).

After initiating the Lord’s Supper, Jesus claims he will never drink of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in his Father’s kingdom (26:26-29). After singing a hymn they go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells them that they will all become deserters because of him. Quoting Zechariah 13:7 and its reference to striking the shepherd and then the flock will be scattered, he adds that after he is raised up he will go ahead of the disciples to Galilee (26:30-32). Peter objects, claiming that he will never desert Jesus, and the Lord in turn prophesies that Peter will deny him three times that night (26:33-35).

The account continues with Jesus going to Gethsemane (an unknown site somewhere on the west side of the Mount of Olives) and withdrawing from the disciples to pray (22:36). He takes Peter and the son of Zebedee with him, then gets agitated and throws himself on the ground, asking the Father to let the cup pass while being determined to submit to God’s will (26:37-39). He finds the disciples asleep, has them pray, and notes that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (26:40-41). Two more times Jesus prays that the cup he is to drink pass from him, and the disciples sleep. The third time he notes that the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is to be betrayed for the betrayer is at hand (26:40-46). Jesus often refers to himself as “Son of Man” in connection with prophecies about his death or as a way of referring to his humility. The betrayal by Judas’ infamous kiss to an armed crowd is reported (26:47-49). Kissing a rabbi as a greeting was a common sign of respect in this era.

Jesus’ arrest is reported, as well as his role in putting an end to violence when one of his followers takes action against a high priest’s slave. He claims that he could appeal to protection from the angels (12 legions was about 74,500 solders), but then the scriptures would not be fulfilled (26:50-54). He then addresses the crowd, asking why they have come to arrest him as though he were a bandit when they did not arrest him while he was teaching in the temple. He again notes that this takes place to fulfill the scriptures of the prophets. All the disciples desert him and flee (26:55-56). Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas the high priest and the whole council [Sanhedrin] follows. It is reported that Peter followed at a distance (26:57-58). Seeking false testimony in order to put him to death, the council finds none, though false witnesses come forward accusing Jesus of claiming he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (26:59-61). Jesus refuses to answer the high priest’s questions, but to the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, he responds that the high priest has said so. He then cites a compilation of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 concerning how the Son of Man is seated at the hand of power (26:62-64). The high priest tears his clothes (a gesture of distress), accusing Jesus of blasphemy. Those assembled claim Jesus deserves death, and he is mocked as a false messiah (26:65-68).

Meanwhile when confronted by two female servants and some bystanders, Peter denies Jesus again. The cock crows and he remembers Jesus’ prophecy of his denial, leading to weeping (26:69-75). After Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin who turn him over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (27:1-2), Judas repents and returns the thirty pieces of silver he had received for the betrayal back to the chief priests and elders, but they say that that is his problem. In despair Judas throws down the pieces of silver in the temple and hangs himself (27:3-5). The chief priests find it unlawful to return the pieces of silver to the treasury since they represent blood money. They buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. It is said to be called to this day the field of blood, a place to bury foreigners. This fulfills Jeremiah (18:1-3; 32:6-15; cf. Zechariah 11:12-13) referring to the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, giving them for the potter’s field (27:6-10). This story of Judas’ remorse is only told in Matthew.

The text next reports Jesus’ appearance before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It is noted how he refuses to respond to charges that he is king of the Jews, which amazes Pilate. The crowd’s choice of the notorious prisoner Jesus Barabbas over Jesus himself, as a result of the prodding of chief priests is noted. Pilate’s wife is reported as warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus since he is innocent (27:11-23). With a riot likely to develop, Pilate washes his hands claiming innocence of Jesus’ blood, contending that responsibility is on the crowd and their children; Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion. The flogging Jesus is said to have endured was typical of Roman efforts to weaken a prisoner prior to his crucifixion (27:24-26). Only the Roman government, not local rulers, had the authority of capital punishment in its empire.

The soldiers’ actions in bringing Jesus to crucifixion and the mocking of the crowd are reported. Simon, from the African district of Cyrene (a region with a large Jewish population), is made to bear Jesus’ cross to the crucifixion site Golgotha (Place of the Skull). There Jesus receives wine mixed with gall (though he refuses to drink it), his clothes are divided by lot, and the charge “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” is affixed to the cross (27:27-37). It is noted how bandits are crucified on each side of Jesus, and how he is mocked by the crowd regarding the charge of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, but now cannot save himself (27:38-44). Darkness covers the land from noon until 3:00 p.m., perhaps a reference to Amos 8:9-10 where mourning for an only son is related to the sun going down in daylight (27:45). When Jesus cries out to God about being forsaken, bystanders claim he is crying out for Elijah. His cry is a transliteration in the Aramaic language which he spoke of Psalm 22:1 (27:46-47). Popular belief at the time regarded Elijah as a helper of the oppressed. Another witness to the crucifixion provides Jesus with a sponge filled with sour wine for him to drink. Others mock him by saying that they will wait to see whether Elijah will save him. Jesus cries out with a loud voice and dies (27:48-50).

At the moment of his death the curtain of the temple is reported to have been torn (perhaps symbolizing the possibility of direct access to God), the earth shook, tombs were opened, and the bodies of saints were raised (27:51-52). After Jesus’ resurrection, the text notes, these saints came out of the tombs and appeared to many in Jerusalem. The centurion at the site of the crucifixion sees the earthquake and what happens then confesses Jesus as God’s Son (25:53-54). Many women (especially Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee) are watching at a distance (27:55-56). James and Joseph are likely not Jesus’ brothers, and so the Mary referred to here is probably not his mother. The text continues to report on the rich man Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, who asks Pilate for his body. After Pilate allows this, Joseph wraps the body in his own tomb, rolling a stone before it. This is witnessed by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (27:57-61). The next day the chief priests and Pharisees meet with Pilate, reminding him of Jesus’ apparent claim that he would rise in three days. (They refer to the allegation that he would rebuild the temple in three days [26:61; 27:40].) They ask Pilate to secure the tomb, lest his followers steal the body and claim he rose (27:62-64). Pilate tells the Jewish leaders that they must do it themselves, and they proceed to secure the tomb with a stone (27:65-66).

Application: A lesson this long offers numerous possibilities. One option is to focus on how politics (crowd pressure) led to Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate. This affords an opportunity to assess present American and global social trends that crucify Jesus (Social Ethics and Sin). Peter’s lack of courage as embodying our lack of courage is another insight that could be developed (Sin). But the good news is that God and Christ still go to the Cross for us (Justification by Grace), and how Christ and the ways of God are a threat to all the political maneuverings (Social Ethics). The power of Jesus’ persona continues to haunt the Jewish leaders even in death (as they fear his body might be stolen and a resurrection claimed). This point might be developed later on Easter Sunday to deal with skeptics of Easter and also to suggest God’s power over even those who do not believe (Providence).

Other possible avenues for sermon development include attention to Jesus’ suffering. He knows our suffering and despair and through him God does also. We have a God who can identify with us. The events that transpired in the Jerusalem Temple at his death (the tearing of the curtain barring access of all to the holy place of the temple [Exodus 26:31-35]) and also the opening of tombs remind us both of the saving significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, and also that we now have direct access to God and do not need a priest as our mediator or representative (Justification by Grace, Worship, and Theological Method).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen