(It is the tradition of St. John’s not to have a homily on Palm Sunday. This is fine with me because I needed a break for my brain. However, I wanted to post something. This is a sermon I delivered about 5 years ago.)
Palm Sunday, Year B The Passion of Mark
Until about age 18, my understanding of Holy Week was shaped primarily by frequent viewings of the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical was written in the 1970’s and to this day, when I think of the disciples, I picture hippies and Jesus has a high whiny voice when he breaks into song. While I still love the musical and the movie, I realize now that some of its interpretations were a little off. Pilate was depicted as a pawn of the Jewish and Roman authorities who simply got caught in the middle of it all. This interpretation is not completely unfounded. Some of this comes from the Gospels. Luke has one of the most sympathetic views of Pilate. He actually has Pilate arguing on behalf of Jesus when he addressed the crowd. Matthew has Pilate wash his hands and proclaim himself, “innocent of this man’s blood.” Mark on the other hand, does not feel the need to hide his weaknesses or faults. Of all the Gospel writers, Mark is the one who seems to catch people at their worst. I suspect that this was because Mark was the first Gospel written. The rest of the Gospel writers had more time to make the life of Jesus seem a little more polished, a little less gritty.
All of the Gospels agree that Jesus is brought to Pilate by the Jewish leaders. Pilate did not arrest Jesus. It was the Jewish leaders who found him, held their own trial, and then brought him to Pilate to be condemned to death. Pilate was the Governor of Jerusalem and Judea. It was his job to make sure that the Jewish people did not revolt against the Romans. He was the keeper of the peace. Apparently he was not very good at this job because during his 10 year reign, there were 33 riots of the Jews. The Jewish leaders knew that Pilate was probably desperate to avoid another riot. They preyed on this fear by labeling Jesus as a disturber of the peace. The person who we now call the Prince of Peace, was killed for being a disturber of the peace.
While Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of them all, it includes some interesting details that are not in the other Gospels. In his description of Pilate’s interaction with the crowd, Mark writes, “Pilate, in his desire to satisfy the mob, released Barabbas to them; and he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.” Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought up against him. He was aware that the chief priests had brought Jesus to him out of malice and jealousy. He even knew that the crowd was not even speaking for themselves, they were being provoked by the chief priests and other Jewish leaders. Knowing all of this, Pilate succumbed to the will of the mob and killed an innocent man. He did this because it was more important to keep peace than carry out justice. In the end, it was no peace at all.
It is very easy to read this story that we heard today and believe that we would never have been part of the mob that demanded his crucifixion. We would never have spit on him, or flogged him. We would not have betrayed him, or denied him. These things are all dramatic gestures that seem almost incomprehensible to us now. Yet how often have you gone against your better judgment, your conscience, maybe even your faith, to satisfy or please others? I often find myself saying to others, and to myself, “You’ve just got to choose your battles.” You can’t always get your own way, and sometimes you shouldn’t. Compromise can be a good thing.
However, what I have found is that sometimes it is less about compromise and more about fear. You want people to like you, so you let something slide. It starts small, but then all of a sudden you realize you are not fighting for anything anymore. You’re just trying not to rock the boat. That is why of all the characters in this story, I can identify most with Pilate. I can see myself wanting so badly to maintain peace, that I would allow the crucifixion of our only chance at peace. He probably even convinced himself that one death would actually save many lives. Ironically, he was right. Jesus’ death saved us all.
Some people think that the important thing about being a Christian is being nice and not offending people. Jesus died because he offended the wrong people. He was not mean spirited or cruel. But he refused to conform to what society and the religious establishment of the day expected out of its leaders. Being Christian is not about being nice, it is about loving and sacrificing. And sometimes loving means speaking a truth that people do not want to hear. The way I see it, if the church isn’t offending someone, it’s probably not doing its job.