Friday, April 07, 2006

First and Only Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 11:1-11

These "passes" are designed to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, and anybody else who is interested, in preparing for weekend worship. This weekend brings us to Palm Sunday.

Our Bible Lesson: Mark 11:1-11
1When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
General Comments:
(1) In many churches, this weekend will bring the celebration of The Sunday of the Passion. After a procession featuring the reading of our passage from Mark, the Passion History, the account of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion from one of the four New Testament Gospels, will be read.

For years now, I have chosen to focus exclusively on Palm Sunday for several reasons:
  • As will become clear, the later repudiation of Jesus by the adoring throngs who called out to Him on the first Palm Sunday is foreshadowed by the very nature of their greeting. On Palm Sunday, it seems to me, it's important to deal with the question of why the crowds turned on Jesus.
  • We read the entire Passion History during the most solemn worship gathering of the Church Year, the one that happens on Good Friday, just before Easter Sunday.
(2) Each of the four New Testament Gospels tell this tale a bit differently. John is the only one who speaks of palm branches. Mark talks about leaves or leafy branches cut from the nearby fields. (In Mark, this procession happens outside the city walls, in the countryside.) Matthew has them cutting branches from trees. Luke doesn't mention any use of leaves or branches. (Stoffregen)

(3) Here's what Stoffregen has to say about those branches, something very helpful to understanding what happened on the first Palm Sunday:
One suggestion is that the actions described by John resemble one of the standard processions of Tabernacles where the people carried twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm. Originally these were used in the construction of booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later some of them, at least, were bound together into a sort of festal plume, called the lulab, to which a citron was also attached. The lulab was a symbol of rejoicing and was carried ceremonially during the daily singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

Another connection -- a stronger one, I think -- is with 1 & 2 Maccabees. I'll quote the appropriate sections from the Contemporary English Version (with my emphases in boldface)

1 Maccabees 13:49-52 -- Capture of the Pagan Fort in Jerusalem

The enemy troops in the Jerusalem fortress still could not go into the country to buy food, and many of them starved to death. Finally, the survivors begged Simon for peace. He agreed, then ordered them to leave the fortress, so he could remove everything that made it unclean according to their religion.

On the twenty-third day of the second month in the year 171 [141 BCE] of the Syrian Kingdom, Simon led his soldiers into the fortress. They carried palm branches [baion] and praised God with all kinds of songs and musical instruments. God had completely crushed their powerful enemy! Simon decided that a joyous festival should be held on this same day every year. He strengthened the wall on the side of the temple hill that faced the fortress. Then he and his troops made the fortress their headquarters.

2 Maccabees 10:1-8 -- The Rededication of the Temple [Hanukkah]

The Lord led Judas Maccabeus and our troops into battle, and they recaptured the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Then they destroyed the places where the foreigners had worshiped, including the altars they had built in the public market.

Judas and his followers made the temple an acceptable place of worship once again. They built a new altar for sacrifices and started a fire on it by rubbing flint rocks together. After this, they offered sacrifices for the first time in two years. They burned incense, then lit the lamps and brought out the sacred loaves of bread.

When all of this was done, the troops lay face down on the ground and prayed, "Our Lord, please don't let us suffer such terrible troubles again. If we should ever turn from you, don't correct us so harshly. And please, never again hand us over to these foreign savages, who insult you."

The dedication of the temple took place on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev -- the same day of the same month that the foreigners had made the temple unfit for worship. We celebrated a joyful festival for eight days, and it was just like the Festival of Shelters. In fact, while our people celebrated, they kept remembering the recent Festival of Shelters, when they were forced to roam the hills and live in caves like wild animals. But now they walked around carrying sticks [klados] decorated with twisted ivy and holding up branches, including some from palm trees [phoinix]. They sang hymns and thanked the Lord for making our holy temple clean again. Afterwards, everyone decided to make this a yearly festival for our whole nation.

The use of palm branches in Maccabees was related to military victories. Is that what the people were expecting from Jesus? When they shout "Hosanna" = "Save us" (not part of the shout in Luke); do they consider that "salvation" to be like that of the Maccabees -- driving out the occupying forces from Jerusalem? If so, then Jesus failed miserably to live up to their expectations.
This failure, in turn, would have led to the crowds turning on Jesus. They had placed short-term hope in Him and He instead had come to deal with the deeper and more significant problems of sin and death. This entailed not wagging a finger at others for their sins, but taking responsibility for one's own sin, turning from it, and turning in surrender to Jesus in order that we might die with Him and then, rise with Him.

Anyone familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous or any Twelve Step program knows well how difficult--and how essential--it is for an addict to admit that they have a problem they cannot overcome.

None of this is to say that the justice for which the Palm Sunday crowds yearned was unimportant. The Bible makes it clear that God hates oppression and that Christians are to be in the forefront of the fight for justice. But Jesus said that before we can remove the splinter from our brother's or sister's eye, we must first be willing to have the logs removed from our own. The Palm Sunday crowds were quite happy to maintain a firm hold on their addictions to sin and didn't want some Savior calling them to repentance and a new life!

[A note on First and Second Maccabees: Neither Jews or Protestants have ever accepted these two books or the others that make up The Apocrypha as part of the Biblical canon. However, looking at them can be helpful in considering the thoughts, customs, and expectations of those who surrounded Jesus during His time on earth.]

A Brief Verse-by-Verse Consideration:
v. 1: (1) The Mount of Olives sets northeast of Jerusalem. Bethphage is south of that; Bethany east of that, southeast of Jerusalem, almost to the Dead Sea.

(2) The two disciples aren't named.

(3) Jesus, as was true in the Mission of the 70 and in other instances, seemed in the habit of sending people by two's. (There's a lesson to be learned in that, I think.)

v. 2: (1) There's Mark's word immediately again. (For the significance of the word in Mark's Gospel, see here.)

(2) a colt: Usually referring to a horse, which fits with the crowds' expectations of a conquering hero.

v. 3: (1) There's immediately again!

(2) There's a lot of speculation about how Jesus' borrowing of the animal worked. Had Jesus arranged things earlier? Is this another example of Jesus' supernatural power? Are those who question the borrowing among those eagerly awaiting the arrival of the conquering hero?

Mark doesn't answer these questions. But several points can be made:
  • Positive answers to all of these questions aren't mutually exclusive.
  • The main point seems to be that Jesus is in control, even though others think they're controlling Him.
v. 7: The cloaks make a kind of saddle.

v. 9: (1) The cry of Hosanna is a way of crying for mercy. It literally means, Save, I pray. Mercy appears different from grace. Grace is God's undeserved favor. Mercy is generally regard for one whose cause is just.

(2) The crowds quote from Psalm 118:25-26 which, along with the leaves or branches, portrays the ambiguity of this moment. On the surface, the crowds seem to acquiesce to Jesus' kingship. But the leaves, replicating events of conquest or revenge from the intertestimental books of First and Second Maccebees, and the particular words quoted from the psalm indicate that Jesus is welcomed conditionally, "You're our king if you throw out the Romans and establish our material well-being."

Psalm 118:25 displays an incomplete parallel in its poetry:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
The verse is composed of two segments of two strophes each:
  • (1) a. Save us b. we beseech you, O Lord
  • (2) b. O Lord, we beseech you c. give us success.
Success is seen as a parallel, albeit an incomplete one, to salvation. But Jesus' version of salvation has nothing to do with success, whether in military or economic terms. In fact, Jesus promises that in this world we will have troubles. But He makes a grander promise:
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33, The New International Version)
In other words, Jesus has conquered the dominion of sin and death through His own death and resurrection, making it possible for all who turn from sin and death and turn to Him to be in His kingdom forever.

v. 11: (1) The slight difference in Mark's setting for this event is seen here: "Then, he entered Jerusalem..."

(2) Jesus simply observes how things are in the Temple. The cleansing happens the next day in Mark's Gospel.

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