Saturday Night Theologian
28 March 2010

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 [2010 update: more than 4,000], more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians [2010 update: between 100,000 and 1,000,000], 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.

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

One measure of how seriously Christians take their commitment to Christ is their attitude toward people they disagree with, especially those they might consider (or who might consider them) enemies. Since the passage of health care reform earlier this week, a lot of heated rhetoric has lit up the airwaves. Some of it is legitimate political speech, expressing opposition to a bill with which some people disagree. Very troubling, however, has been the hate speech and the incitement to violence that has arisen in many quarters. A blogger living on government support in Alabama urged his readers to throw bricks through the windows of supporters of the bill. Protestors in Washington, DC, hurled racial epithets and other hate speech at members of Congress and even spat on them. After a few members of Congress who supported the bill were threatened or had their offices attacked, another member of Congress who opposed the bill falsely claimed that supporters of the bill purposely shot at his campaign office, an effort to shift the blame to his opponents in a move reminiscent of Kristallnacht. How did Jesus handle his opponents? He disagreed with them, to be sure, and he was not shy about expressing his differences of opinion openly. At the same time, though, he commanded his followers to love their enemies. Perhaps the greatest expression of that attitude is the statement attributed to Jesus from the cross, recorded only in manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." From a text-critical perspective, it is almost certain that this saying is not original to the Gospel of Luke but was added fairly early in the transmission history of the gospel, probably under the influence of Stephen's words in Acts 7:60. From a historical perspective, though, the words reflect the profound impact that Jesus' attitude toward his opponents had on many of his most ardent followers. And from a theological perspective, the call to forgive one's enemies, even in the midst of ongoing persecution, is central to the message and method of Christianity. It is easy to get caught up in inflammatory rhetoric against one's political or theological opponents, but those who call themselves Christian have no excuse for engaging in either speech or actions characterized by hate, or calling people to behave in threatening or violent ways.