Saturday Night Theologian
1 April 2007

Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (first published 4 April 2004)

At a hearing regarding his testimony concerning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton defended his earlier statements by saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Clinton emphasized the present tense of the verb is in order to argue that his affair was a thing of the past. Bush attributed the false statement about the attempt to purchase uranium to the British so that he could later shift culpability if the truth ever emerged. Skilled speakers and writers often use words in greatly nuanced ways in order to make subtle points. The evangelist who authored the Gospel of Luke did so in his account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Whereas the text of the Mark, to which he had access, says that Jesus "took his seat" on the donkey, in Luke Jesus' disciples "set him" on the donkey. Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this particular Greek word (he also uses it in Luke 10:34 and Acts 23:24), but his predilection for using Septuagintal terminology (i.e., words and style characteristic of the Greek Old Testament) makes it likely that he had in mind four Old Testament passages, all of which use the same Greek word. In 1 Kings 1:33, David's servants set Solomon on his royal mule so that he can be led through the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed king. In 2 Chronicles 23:20, the priest Jehoiada has the people of Jerusalem set the young Joash on the royal throne, after marching with him from the temple to the palace. The other two Old Testament passages that use the word in conjunction with kings have a decidedly more somber tone. In both 2 Kings 9:28 and 23:30, the body of the king (Ahaziah and Josiah), who has been slain in battle, is placed in the royal chariot and driven back to Jerusalem for burial. What is Luke's point in making this subtle change to the text of Mark? First, Luke stresses the role of Jesus' disciples more strongly in this section than Mark does, so he seems to be saying that the disciples put Jesus on the donkey specifically because they recognized the symbolism of the event, particularly its connection with Solomon's coronation. Second, Luke alludes to the passages in which the body of the king is brought into the city for burial (perhaps there is also an allusion to the Samaritan putting the wounded Jew on his mount in 10:34--whether a horse or a donkey is not specified). What Luke and his readers knew was that, yes, Jesus entered the city as a triumphant king, but he also came for burial. As we celebrate the procession of Jesus in the glory of the palms, we remember too the passion of Jesus and the shame--and glory--of the cross.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16 (first published 4 April 2004)

When we read about Palestinians who strap bombs on their bodies and blow themselves up on crowded buses or in crowded streets in Israel, we reel with horror. When we learn that some Muslim religious leaders teach that such "martyrs" earn a place in heaven for their despicable deeds, we are shocked. However, if we knew the history of Christianity, we wouldn't be quite as astonished. In 1095 Pope Urban II called on Christians throughout Europe to go to Jerusalem and take it from the Turks, promising all who participated in this "crusade" (i.e., a war undertaken in the name of the Cross) forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven. The suicide bombers of today are a reflection of the crusaders of yesterday. Suffering while engaged in deeds of hatred and revenge is useless; suffering while showing love and promoting the welfare of others is redemptive. The four Christian missionaries who were killed in Iraq recently are martyrs in the real sense of the word: witnesses (the original meaning of the Greek word) of God's love for the whole world. So is Rachel Corrie, who was killed a year ago by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to defend Palestinian civilians from harm. So are countless others throughout the Middle East--Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others--who have suffered and died in the cause of peace. Countless others in the region have suffered innocently, victims of bombs, missiles, or bullets from combatants of various nationalities. The readings from Isaiah and the Psalms describe people who suffer innocently and who hope for vindication from God. At this time a year ago, many who favored going to war in Iraq were proclaiming victory, and some even suggested that those who opposed the war owed the (U.S.) nation an apology. Today, with 600 American soldiers, more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians, and many, many others dead, and with no end to the violence in Iraq in sight, it's time to reconsider the message of today's readings. Suffering in and of itself is bad, but voluntary suffering for the sake of peace and love can be redemptive. There is nothing positive about the deaths of the innocent, yet their loved ones who survive can bring meaning to their deaths when they respond to their enemies not with hatred but with love.

[Editor's note: Unbelievably, four years after the initial invasion, the U.S. still has a major military presence in Iraq. The official U.S. death toll as of Friday, 30 March 2007, is 3245, and at least 60,000 civilians--perhaps over 100,000--have been killed, including several hundred in the past week. The financial cost of the war to the U.S. is over $412 billion, and both the House and the Senate passed bills within the past week dedicating another $124 billion to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Philippians 2:5-11 (first published 4 April 2004)

At about the same time as the Protestant Reformation, another major movement in Christianity was taking place that was much more radical in nature. The beliefs of the Christians who were part of the Radical Reformation were varied, but many were pacifists, believed in "gathered" churches (as opposed to state churches), and believer's baptism. Because of this last tenet, their opponents pejoratively labeled them Anabaptists, those who baptize again (after infant baptism). Although they preferred to call themselves by other names, such as Brethren, many soon accepted the name Anabaptist with pride, because they saw in the name an acknowledgement of one of their most cherished beliefs. When the earliest believers were first called Christians (at Antioch, according to Acts 11:26), the word was probably something that their detractors coined. However, before long believers were calling themselves Christians as well, because they were proud to be identified with Christ. Paul encourages believers, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." In other words, he says, if you call yourselves Christians, you should approach life the same way that Jesus did. Every generation of Christians needs to examine its beliefs and practices in the light of their understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus. The radical reformers understood that accepting the beliefs of the previous generation was unacceptable. Old beliefs and practices need to be challenged and reexamined. Furthermore, we shouldn't just accept what our forebears taught us about Jesus. There is value in tradition, but Christianity is a radical religion, and a radical approach demands continued reflection on both the teachings of Christ and their proper application in the modern world. If we are to live in such a way as to exhibit the mind of Christ, every believer must be a radical believer.

Luke 22:14-23:56

Several years ago my daughter was a member of a pee-wee league baseball team. The team didn't win many games that season, and they were seeded last in the postseason tournament, which included every team in the league. Miraculously, they won their first game, then their second, and eventually they advanced to play the number one team in the league, and they beat that team, too. It was a classic example of going from worst to first. If anyone had asked me before the tournament started what I thought the team's chances were to win it all, I would probably have said "a million to one," but I would have been wrong. The team understood that the had a chance for victory, and they played hard and won, against all the odds. The night before Jesus' crucifixion, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus' told his disciples something extraordinary. "I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." At a time when Jesus' disciples knew of the government's opposition to Jesus and they may have even heard rumors that leaders were seeking to arrest him, Jesus told them something entirely improbable. You will inherit a kingdom, in which you will have fellowship with one another and you will be leaders. In the light of their present circumstances, these words must have seemed hollow, yet Jesus knew something his disciples didn't. Crucifixion wasn't the end of the story. The disciples went on to be leaders in the new Christian movement, and many of them became martyrs as well. Today God calls us to be heirs to the kingdom. It is a kingdom in which we can have communion with other people of faith and with God, but it is also a kingdom in which we are called to be leaders. As leaders in God's kingdom, we must stand up to injustice, war, prejudice, slander, dishonesty, and hate. The odds may seem stacked against us at times, but we have the tools to prevail, with the help and guidance of God. Stand up for the poor. Stand against a culture of consumerism. Oppose racial, cultural, and sexual discrimination. Speak the truth in love, even in the face of opposition. Jesus has given us a kingdom. Let's make it a kingdom worthy of his name.