Saturday Night Theologian
17 April 2011

Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (first published 20 March 2005)

Does God exist? If God does exist, does God have a plan for history, or do events just unfold randomly while God sits idly by? For the author of the gospel of Matthew the answer is clear. God has a plan, and God is working through ordinary events to ensure that the plan is carried out. Both of the other Synoptic Gospels include the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, but only Matthew cites the passage in Zechariah 9:9 as providing the prophetic backdrop for the Triumphal Entry. Matthew's rendering of the passage from Zechariah more closely reflects the Hebrew text than that of the Greek, including the parallelism reflected in the phrases "humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden." This parallelism leads to the very strange picture in verse 7 of the disciples putting their clothes on both the donkey and its colt and Jesus riding on both (side by side? one at a time?). It may be that the author misunderstood the nature of Hebrew poetic parallelism, which repeats an idea in different words, giving "sense rhyme" rather than "auditory rhyme." On the other hand, the author may have pushed his narration almost to the edge of common sense (he doesn't explicitly say how Jesus rode the two animals) in order to emphasize the parallels between prophecy and fulfillment in the life of Jesus. In either case, the main point of the passage, and others like it throughout Matthew, is that God has a plan of redemption for the world at whose center is Jesus Christ. It is this Jesus whose life and teachings we rehearse and try to emulate week in and week out throughout the Christian year, and it is this Jesus whose ultimate sacrifice we remember during Holy Week with a mix of awe, gratitude, and introspection.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16

When faced with calamity, we can respond in one of three ways. First, we can surrender to our difficulties, succumbing to the onslaught of opposition, bowing to the pressure, abandoning all hope, as the sign over the door to Dante's Inferno advocates. Second, we can summon our own strength, pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, and face our enemies--concrete or abstract, real or imagined, personal or inanimate--through our own willpower. Captain Ahab is the quintessential exemplar of this approach, as he maniacally pursues the white whale "round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames." He has no fear, for his hatred has driven it out, but it has likewise driven out all rationality, as he proclaims, "Talk to me not of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." Third, we can face our problems with an awareness of our own personal resources, the help of our friends, and the guidance of the divine. In today's reading from Isaiah, the prophet has suffered for his commitment to proclaim God's message, yet he persists because, like Job, he has confidence that his vindicator is near. Similarly the psalmist, though he suffers greatly and is shunned and even abhorred by his neighbors because of his maladies, puts his trust in God, confiding in God's covenant love. We all face stressful, even overwhelming circumstances from time to time in our lives. Giving up might seem the easy way out, but there is no reason to abandon hope. Remember that the pilgrim Dante walked under the sign that robbed him of hope, only to emerge in Purgatory and eventually make his way to Paradise. Fighting our battles in our own strength, lashing out at our troubles with energetic rage, may make us feel better for awhile, but it rarely accomplishes our goal. Only when we approach our difficulties with the strength God gives us, and with the support of true friends, can we successfully maneuver through the ragged shoals of life's waters. Will we always be able to overcome our problems? Unfortunately no, but even when we suffer defeat, when we stand with other people and with God, we have the strength to pick ourselves up and continue on life's journey.

Philippians 2:5-11 (first published 20 March 2005)

The church in the first two centuries struggled to defend itself from external attack and to define itself in the midst of internal contention. Once Christianity became a legal religion and external attacks were no more, Christians turned with enthusiasm to the question of defining itself. The question that most often captured the minds of early Christians seems to have been, "What is the relationship between the divine and the human in Jesus Christ?" The Council of Nicea insisted that Jesus was of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father. Those who disagreed were excommunicated from the Great Church (eventually; first, there was a decades-long struggle between Niceans, Arians, semi-Arians, etc.). Later councils debated whether Christ had one nature or two, whether Christ's natures were combined or separate, and whether he had one will or two. Official positions were decided, and those who had different opinions were browbeaten into changing their beliefs or they were expelled from the church. The problem with all these decisions is that the were based on prevailing philosophical or theological beliefs, not the clear teaching of either scripture or tradition. Each was reasonable in itself, but the result of the lot was to create a set of doctrines that made little rational sense but that were imposed upon Christians at large as "orthodoxy." Our reading from Philippians calls us to look once again at the issue from the standpoint of Christ's role as a servant. Though both the divinity and humanity of Jesus are hinted at (he was in "the form or God" or "the form of a slave" or "the likeness of humans"), the detailed relationship between the divine and human is not spelled out. The point of the hymn being quoted is Christ's obedience to God, not the relationship between his divine and human characteristics. God calls us today to obedience, and God also calls us to abandon useless arguments that divide Christians from one another. We are called to be united in Christ, not united in doctrine; united in service, not united in philosophy. The mind of Christ which we are to imitate is one that focuses on following God, not on excluding others for differing with us on debatable matters of insignificant import.

Matthew 26:14-27:66 (first published 20 March 2005)

How much does it cost to buy a politician? What price can a rich celebrity pay to be assured of victory in court? How much money in campaign contributions does a corporation or an entire industry have to give to purchase legislation to its liking? I don't know the exact price, but I do know that it happens all the time. Money talks. Big-time polluters make large donations to a political campaign, and the Clear Skies Initiative emerges. Wealthy donors lobby state lawmakers, and a new tax plan is released that reduces the amount the richest 10% have to pay in taxes, while keeping the total revenue the same. Guess who pays the difference? Wall Street pushes various plans to get the government to invest Social Security money in the stock market; some investors will win, others will lose, but Wall Street will make out like a bandit. Like a bandit? Sometime in the week following Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Judas went to the religious leaders and asked them, "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" Sometimes I think that Judas rather than Jesus has become the contemporary role model for Christianity. Judas' motto may well have been "Show me the money!" but isn't that true for many Christians today as well? We work for corporations and industries that engage in legal (sometimes) bribery of public officials, i.e., campaign contributions. We support politicians and policies that we think will benefit us, regardless of whom it hurts. We support foreign wars in places where oil is abundant or where our nation wants to get a monopoly on trade. We deny children health insurance because it might cost us an extra couple of dollars a month out of our paychecks (money that we could immediately recover if we scaled back out of control military spending). Our economic model says "Let the buyer beware." Our representatives are currently in the process of gutting bankruptcy laws to favor the already incredibly wealthy financial institutions that own the credit card companies. The amazing thing about the whole process is that we think we're actually getting something positive out of the deal, when all we're really doing is hurting ourselves and hurting others. Judas made a cool thirty pieces of silver, but he didn't live long enough to spend it, and his life ended in remorse and tragedy. We mortgage our air and water and other natural resources for a short-term fix of lower taxes. We are heating up the planet at an alarming rate, knowing that that the long-term prospects of flooding, disease, crop failure, and species extinction are devastating, all because we don't want to give up our oil-based economy. Yes, we're like Judas in many ways, yet we fool ourselves into believing that we're really imitating Jesus. Maybe we need to step out of the Christian tradition for a moment and listen to the words of the Buddha, who, when he met a man on the road who asked who he was, answered, "I am awake." It's time for Christians to wake up!