Saturday Night Theologian
5 April 2009

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 11:1-11; 14:1-15:47 (first published 13 April 2003)

When Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls, he was hailed as a great leader. When he led his troops to victory in Britain, the Romans sang his praises. But when he crossed the Rubicon and entered Rome, many of the people turned on him. Suddenly he was making demands that would affect the average Roman, especially those in power, and they liked the status quo. When Caesar was assassinated on the Senate floor, many who shortly before had sung his praises were now rejoicing over the death of a tyrant. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover in the year 30 C.E., he encountered pilgrims on the road to the festival, singing songs of the season. One of the songs they sang was Psalm 118, which included the line, "O Lord, save us!" or "Hosanna!" After living for years under a repressive regime, they were looking for a deliverer, and they saw a possible savior in the person of Jesus. As they lay their palm branches and cloaks on the ground before him, perhaps they thought that this itinerant preacher would preach a message of revolution and lead troops into battle against the hated Romans. However, only a few days later, many of the same people hurled insults at Jesus as he hung on the cross. What caused the change of heart? Maybe, like Caesar a few decades earlier, Jesus demanded something that the crowd wasn't willing to give. The common people wanted revolution, and they were aware that it might cost them their lives, but Jesus demanded something more costly: a complete change of attitude toward life. Enemies were to be loved, not hated. God demanded not token sacrifice a few times a year, but total commitment every day. Jesus declared that the great legal structures that had developed over time were unimportant; what mattered was loving God with all one's heart, soul, strength, and mind, as well as loving one's neighbor. Those in power would have none if Jesus' words were followed literally. The common people would have to dedicate themselves to serving others if Jesus' law were implemented. So first the religious leaders turned on Jesus, then the common people, then his disciples, then finally, apparently, even God. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cried from the cross. It's a question that Jesus directs to his followers today, when we refuse to follow Jesus down the difficult roads of life. "I called you to love your enemies, the Iraqis--why have you forsaken me?" "I called you to be peacemakers--why have you forsaken me?" "I called you to abandon family, friends, and country to follow me--why have you forsaken me?" We all have forsaken Jesus, but like Peter, there's hope for redemption. Even Judas could have repented after his betrayal of Jesus, but he was too ashamed. As we reflect on how far our attitudes and actions are from those of Jesus, will we weep like Peter and return to Jesus? Or will we feel remorse like Judas, but refuse to ask forgiveness, abandoning Jesus forever? Or will we thump our chests with self-righteousness and say that we've been following Jesus all along? It is this last group that has betrayed Jesus in ways that Judas never could. God, cleanse us of self-righteousness, and give us the courage to seek forgiveness and find our way back to the path of the cross.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The U.S. has shed more than 2 million jobs already in 2009. When added to 2.6 million job losses in 2008, the job picture looks grim, especially when coupled with the news that the nation now has an 8.5% unemployment rate, the highest in 25 years. When people lose their jobs, they often feel unjustly singled out, and sometimes they are. Job cuts typically don't affect executives and average workers evenly. When the CEO of GM gets fired, he walks away with a cool $22 million. When the guy working on the GM assembly line loses his job, he gets next to nothing. And how often do executives actually get fired? At my school, three people--all with relatively low wages--were laid off, but the school maintains its full contingent of vice presidents. Sometimes layoffs are an understandable, if regrettable, necessity, but at other times they are an excuse for management to purge the rolls of those it considers undesirable for one reason or another (e.g., opposition to management incompetence). As a victim of such a RIF, I can identify at least a little bit with the words of the prophet: "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." The following verse, though, gives me hope: "The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame." Those who do their best to follow God's guidance can stand firm in the knowledge that God will not desert them. People often fail us, and for some reason, it's been my experience that the people who identify themselves most closely with God are often the ones whose actions are the most callous, discriminatory, or un-Christlike. When one encounters such people, the natural reaction is to lash out with anger and long for vengeance. However, the best course of action is simply to move forward with life, firm in the belief that God has something better in store. The economic crisis we're currently in means that tough times lie ahead for many people, especially those than have lost or will lose their jobs. In times like these, Christians who have lost their jobs need to continue on in faith that God will provide. And Christians who have not lost their jobs should do all they can to help their brothers and sisters find new employment.

Psalm 31:9-16 (first published 13 April 2003)

Everybody loves a winner. When a football team wins the Super Bowl, sales of the team's hats and jerseys increase overnight. When a figure skater wins a gold medal, sponsors line up to offer endorsement contracts for their products. When a political party takes control of the government, big businesses support that party's candidates in the next election at a higher rate than before they took the reins of power. Who remembers the losers? Jerry Seinfeld has a routine in which he compares the gold medal winner of the 100-meter dash to the silver and bronze medalists. The gold medalist crosses the finish line maybe a foot ahead of the silver medalist. The gold medalist receives all kinds of accolades. The silver medalist is just some guy who ran in the race. The psalmist complains that he is a scorn to his adversaries, a horror to his neighbors, an object of dread to his acquaintances. He is, in other words, a loser. No one wants to associate with him. Peter was gung-ho to stand with Jesus when he thought he was popular, but after Jesus was arrested, it was easier to disassociate himself from his master. All too often Christians, too, find it more convenient, or more acceptable, to stand with those who are popular, or to stand for causes that have widespread support. There is certainly no virtue in being contrary just for the sake of being different, but we need to base our decisions on what's right, not what's popular. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people, because he believed that it was used by those in power to solidify their social positions by causing the believing masses to look for justice in heaven rather than on earth. Many African Americans rejected Christianity and turned to Islam during the civil rights movement, in part because too many Christians were siding with racists and bigots against them. Christians throughout Latin America adopted the teachings of liberation theology, because they thought that their leaders in the church favored the wealthy and ignored their plight. Jesus was never one to base his positions on opinion polls. Ministering to lepers was unpopular, but Jesus did it. Cleansing the temple was unpopular, but Jesus did it. Associating with tax collectors was unpopular, but Jesus did it. Standing up for the civil rights of foreigners in the U.S. is unpopular--will we do it? Championing internationalism over nationalism is unpopular--will we do it? Saying no to elective wars is unpopular--will we do it? We are called to a life of principle, not popularity. Are we up to the challenge?

Philippians 2:5-11 (first published 13 April 2003)

In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Gregory Peck plays a character who is offered the opportunity for a promotion to a position of much greater responsibility, along with a higher salary. To get this promotion, however, he would have to spend a lot of time on the road away from his family. After struggling with the decision, he ultimately decides that his commitment to his family is more important than the extra money he would earn and the extra prestige that he would enjoy. He makes a sacrifice for the sake of his family. When Paul writes to the church at Philippi, he quotes a traditional hymn that expresses a view of the Incarnation known to scholars as the "kenosis theory," so-called because of the Greek word for "emptied" in verse 7. The preexistent Christ is pictured in heaven as emptying himself of his divinity in order to become human. This picture of Christ's self-sacrifice is among the most profound in the New Testament. Christ gives up his place with God in heaven, his immortality, his dignity, and ultimately even his life in order to accomplish God's will. One is reminded of Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, in which he says, "I just want to do God's will"; shortly after giving the speech, he was called to lay down his life. The world tells us, "Be all you can be!"; "Go for the glory!"; "Make the most of your life!" Most people understand that to mean, "Make as much money as you can" or "Achieve the highest position you can." Some even claim that Jesus followed this line of thinking, portraying him, for example, as a C.E.O. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whereas the world teaches pride and self-reliance, Jesus teaches humility and God-reliance. Rather than follow the advice of the world, Christians would do better to follow the example of Christ, as the old hymn suggests.