By Corrine Winter
This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word will take us on a very odd journey. We begin shouting “Hosanna!” and end up 15 or so minutes later shouting “Crucify him!” We are taking the role of unnamed people gathered in Jerusalem who are apparently caught between attraction to and fear of Jesus and his message. To me, it is always quite jolting; it feels almost schizophrenic. How does that change happen and why am I going along with it?
I am currently teaching a course on the person and work of Jesus and am blessed to be working with a group of very bright and thoughtful young people. In a discussion of ways in which our readings challenge the ideas they had before they started the course, several of them said they had never thought much about why some people would have reacted negatively to Jesus. Jesus had always seemed the perfect person, lovable and beloved by all — at least until the villains in the story came along.
Many of us have thought about Jesus’ death primarily from a soteriological perspective. Jesus died “for our sins,” that is, to save us from the power of sin and death. Sometimes we may even be tempted to think of those directly involved in his crucifixion as playing a necessary if terrible role in God’s own plan. But from a historical perspective, there must have been political reasons why Jesus was put to death. Something about what he said and did must have presented enough of a threat for people to want him out of the way.
The Gospels present a few hints. He healed on the Sabbath, which bothered some religious leaders. He drew a crowd, which would have been disturbing to military forces trying to maintain control over a conquered people. Then there was an incident with merchants and money changers in the temple. And let’s not overlook the fact that he associated with sinners. That would have flown in the face of any who thought of themselves as deserving recognition for their good works.
But the point is not to uncover the “real” reasons for the death of Jesus. I hear Bill O’Reilly has that all figured out anyway. It seems to me that Palm Sunday readings and indeed all of the readings of Holy Week as well as readings throughout the year call us to let ourselves be disturbed by Jesus Christ and his message.
We celebrate Lent as a season of repentance and conversion. But it seems to me that it can be too easy to assume that I know exactly what that means for me. I have an approved list of vices I ought to be avoiding more firmly and of virtues I ought to be cultivating. But I find it much more difficult to examine ways in which I ought to be changing my mind, my attitudes toward myself and others, toward the communities to which I belong and the principles on which they work.
What might cause people to line the streets on one day hailing Jesus as a teacher, perhaps as a savior, and a few days later to join a crowd in condemning him? Could it be just following the mood of the crowd — joining the latest “flash mob” because the energy feels good? Could it be that initial attraction is overcome by the real challenges presented by his teaching and his work? Could it be the rise of fear due to perceived threats to “law and order” or to a fragile feeling of peace? To what extent and in what ways do I also give in to those influences and others rather than remaining open to the call of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in my life?
Communities as well might ask these questions of themselves. Cities, states, various institutions and organizations and even the church itself must resist temptations to let go of key commitments under pressure to conform or when the challenges seem too great.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)