What was Jesus trying to do?

This post is not about the specifics of the Palm Sunday gospels. For that, read "Jesus rain on my parade." This post seeks to find what will inform my reading of the gospels for Palm Sunday and, indeed, the Easter gospels.

What was Jesus trying to do on Palm Sunday?

We are too quick if we answer that he was trying to say something about a different kind of kingship. I have preached that Palm Sunday is an acting out of his good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; that his entry into the city is the entry of peace, a king riding on a donkey rather than a war horse. I have suggested that kingdom is an unhelpful word because of all the masculine privilege bound up within it. I like kindom, which removes gender as an enduring sin within the Community of Divine Love, and which challenges all our notions of race, and other privilege.  

All that is there, but something else is happening: He is daring death. If we hasten past this, we miss...  nearly everything.

A person's motives are never transparent to us. (We scarcely understand our own!) It is difficult not to impose our own concerns upon someone else, and difficult not to end up constructing a reflection of ourselves: "The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well." (George Tyrell)

Yet if we take the witness of the gospels seriously, it is clear that Jesus knew he was on the road to death:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:32-33)


7Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’… 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:7-16)

He not only knew he was on the road to death, there was something deliberate about it.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. … 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:31-38) 

This is not some peripheral theme; the theme of Jesus deliberately, knowingly going to his death is central to the gospel narratives. Of course the church writes its gospels with hindsight. But it is the hindsight which John speaks about: "His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him." (12:16)

(The temptation for us, not wanting to be captive to the defensive theologies of fundamentalism which are so wilfully ignorant of literature and human nature, is to react too far in the other direction, and imagine a process where the early church rationalised the whole sorry mess of Jesus' death and, not that we like to be this blunt, made up a story about him; a story that he might not even have recognised as being his own. It escaped my notice for a long time that what I was really saying was that as a Christian, I was trusting scriptures which I knew, in fact, to be based on a lie about what really happened, a fabrication.)

"Regardless of how one reads [Palm Sunday], the salient fact is that the Romans had a low tolerance for even the slightest whiff of sedition, and would have dealt with it ruthlessly." (Michael Turton) Jesus deliberately set a course that would lead to retaliation.  On Palm Sunday, he is daring death.

This should leave us uncomfortable for at least three reasons.

First, deliberate martyrdom is a form of suicide, and often linked with religious extremism. Although it is now popular to point the finger at Muslim extremists, we Christians got there first. (A brief introduction to this can be seen in articles by Brian Palmer and Alan Wilson.)

Second, at best, this sort of martyrdom undervalues the blessing of the life we have been given, and puts all meaning into some hypothesised future life. Deliberate martyrdom not only undervalues the life we are given, but at its worst, suicide by martyrdom is a ploy by us, cleverly disguised from ourselves, to deal with our fear of death; it is a defensive theology. We "prove" we are not afraid by forcing the issue, too afraid, or too overwhelmed, to actually 'live long' with the fear which consumes us. Such an action is not a supreme trust; it is a lack of trust. It cannot trust God to be in the terrible pain of life,  and so seeks a short cut to certainty. The hidden rationale underlying such an action is, "If God will not save me now, what is there to live for, anyway? I might as well be dead."

Would you disciple yourself to a person who thinks like that!?

(To be clear: I am talking about deliberate martyrdom, not suicide generally. Secondly, I come to this conclusion from long deliberation about my own motives in all those cases where I set out to prove my faith; this is not a statement from theory. That said, I find that Terror Management Theory, and the Defensive Theology Scale  let me express my experience very well. There is a little more detail on DTS here.)

The third discomfort is that Jesus deliberately dares the thing which terrifies us all.

I'm approaching Palm Sunday from this direction because I have been re-reading Richard Beck's The Authenticity of Faith which in its first four chapters summarises how thoroughly we are formed by our fear of death.

What Becker is suggesting is that existential activity— the desire to answer Camus's question "Why is life worth living?" — is the engine of culture, the source of its origin, maintenance, evaluation, and elaboration. … existential defensiveness, while neurotic, becomes a powerful and creative force [to deal with the fact that] our higher cognitive and symbolic capacities [compared to other animals] make our workaday lives existentially unbearable.

society  is and always has been… a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behaviour, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism… It doesn't matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value… The hope and belief is that the things that man (sic) creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man (sic) and his products count. (Ernest Becker The Denial of Death pp 4-5)

… cultural heroics are fundamental attempts to cope with the terror of death… [using] the defense mechanisms of repression and sublimation, pushing our awareness of death out of consciousness or redirecting it into our creative life projects. … In this view, self-esteem, the bedrock of personality, is revealed to be a form of denial, an existential defense mechanism, an illusion to help us avoid the full force of our existential predicament. (Beck pp69-72)

We come to the point of my argument in all this. At Easter we say there is something unique about Jesus, and about the death he could have avoided, but which he precipitated by coming to Jerusalem. But if Jesus is fully human, then all that we have said applies to him, as well. He, too, has grown and been formed within a culture that tells what Becker called "a vital lie."

Character is lie as it is a fundamental dishonesty, in the moment, about our true existential situation. Yet such dishonesty is vital as this daily obfuscation is necessary for the human animal to continue on in the face of death. Again, the existential burden death places upon humans is impossible. (Beck pp73)

Beck continues by quoting at length from Becker (The Denial of Death pp55, 56, 60)

We called one's life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one's whole situation… We don't want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don't want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center.

It can't be overstressed, one final time, that to see the world as it really is is devastating and terrifying. It achieves the very result that the child has painfully built his character over the years to avoid: it makes routine, automatic, secure, self-confidant activity impossible. [Note that Beck has a typo in his quote] (The Denial of Death pp 60)

What is it which prevents Jesus from being one more 'vital liar' engaged in some kind of self-deception, enlisting us alongside for moral support, in an attempt to provide himself with a way of avoiding the pain of death? Why is it that the church is not merely a construction built to do the same thing; an obsessive keeper of rituals designed to ward off the consciousness of death by pretending it is saying something significant about freedom from death? If psychology teaches us anything, it is that we are masters of self-deception, which leads to one more question: Even if Jesus is not one more 'vital liar' how do we know that we are not using him to tell a lie to ourselves; that is, diverting the Faith to our own purposes?

I remember the wailing when someone died. White folks would nod sagely about the locals' fear of death, as though we were superior, real Christians, who knew better. I wonder. I wonder if we were simply deflecting our own fears. Perhaps the ad hoc town undertaker was more honest: hastily nailing down a coffin lid one freezing morning, he accidentally nailed down a corner of his coat. Rather than prise off the lid, he cut off the coat. Were we, in turn, cutting off our anxieties via our perceived superiority?

As an ordained minister the denial of death is of double significance to me. If I have no answers here, I am not merely enmeshed in my own lies, but deceiving you as well.

Graham Hughes said that presiding at the sacraments "means a great deal more than being able to say the words and perform the actions at the table or the font." In fact it is only "derivatively…  to do with presiding at the table of communion."

His more expansive understanding involves [t]he mystagogue. . .[a]s. . .someone able to lead her or his people relatively safely through the tremendous mystery which is the condition of our life and through the local mystery which is each Lord‘s Day worship. No one can successfully or responsibly undertake the latter who is not deeply acquainted with, yet not overwhelmed by, the former. (S. Burns "Limping Priests Ten Years Later: Formation for Ordained Ministry" pp 8)

Hughes also said

No one can break open the Word into people‘s lives (or conversely, open lives to the light of God‘s Word), nor can one safely lead the same people through the terror and ecstasy which await us at life‘s boundaries, if one does not know these people—deeply, intimately, ―carefully. (Ibid, my emphasis.)

How can the confrontation with death which we lead at the table not become a ritual of death denial? If it were, I would be abusing you, and using you for my own comfort; my 'safe leading' would merely be my self-deception.

I think Jesus had perceived that what we call death is a cultural mistake or misapprehension. We have "since forever" equated our life and being with having a live biological body, a not unreasonable assumption, and have not trusted our increasing understanding of the difference between "the meat we call the "brain," and the seemingly really real, actually factual but non-spatially locatable phenomenon we call the "mind." (David Ewart) But Jesus, in a culture which believed there was resurrection of the dead, was able to see past this fear. Oddly, there is not much which is unique about Jesus, except this insight, and his trust of it; he was a man of his time. Yet it is this insight, and his trust of it, which makes him "Son of God," the one who, if we have seen him, means we have "seen the Father."

There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death… Let's put this another way: for us "being alive "means "not being dead"; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death and cannot even be contrasted with death… Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was colored by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death. (James Alison Raising Abel pp38)

If we can see this, and if it is true, then death is no longer the thing which rules our reality.

Let me try to put all this together by asking, again, how it is that Jesus was not simply deceiving himself, and building a sophisticated camouflage for his own fear. And how is it that is he not playing the martyr?

Jesus dares death, rather than seeks martyrdom. His daring death trusts God rather than forcing God's hand. He lived compassion. Think what compassion does to us: compassion diverts our project of self-esteem, our scheme of self-deception and self-protection, and makes us vulnerable to the needs of others. Compassion diverts our heroism, removes our heroism, and makes us suffer the reality and diminishment of life lived in the full view of death, with death watching us, as it were. To live with those without power, which is compassion, is to become vulnerable.

When we are truly compassionate, the agenda is never our agenda. Our agenda is always taken from us, our self-deceptions are interrupted by the needs of another.

And so, on Palm Sunday Jesus abandons himself to the crowds in his compassion.  He trusts God for whatever comes. There is no certain outcome: invisibility, misunderstanding, triumph, scorn, arrest, or death; all these were possible outcomes. He trusts God in the unknown outcome. He forgoes certainty and walks the narrow line between terror and terror: he abandons the life of comfort through denial, and refuses the life which gains certainty by suicide.

What was Jesus trying to do on Palm Sunday? He was trying to trust God, to live out and model 'the Kindom of God,' the Community of Divine Love. He simply trusted God by loving others, wherever it lead him.

That trust killed him. But the event of the resurrection tells us his trust was correct. There is no death in God.

He called us to follow him, which means to walk the same fine line between the terrors; to face the reality  of death and give up the illusory comfort of all our little projects which make life bearable, and so to give up the great idol of our time, which is the idol of "routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity." And yet not cross over into the sin of certainty and hard doctrine, which is the beginning of suicide by martyrdom. For following his compassion forever removes our certainty. We become vulnerable, uncertain, always tasting little deaths on the air.

It exposes us to the full flood of despair (Becker pp57) and I doubt anyone can avoid this. But the despair does seem blunted. When life is not all about me— and none of us is able not to be in our own skin— I am able to live with death in my future, watching me. I can only trust that this is the beginning resurrection rather than an even deeper self-deception, and that I will find death is empty threat. This, I understand, is faith.

Andrew Prior (2018)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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Mark 11:1-11 - Jesus rain on my parade

The Gospels

Mark 11:1-11
When 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! 
10   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

11 Then 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.

John 12:12-16
 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!’ 
14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 
15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
   sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ 
16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written. 



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