Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

This morning it occurred to me that I should have posted my Palm Sunday story. Some of you have heard or read it, but it's one of my faves so here goes:

A Story for Palm Sunday
Matthew 22:34-46
That is Not Enough!

It was after that long discussion we had with Jesus in the temple that I began hearing voices. Actually, it was only one Voice. At first it was a tiny voice, a voice I was able to ignore. But then it so grew in volume and intensity that even when I covered my ears I could still hear it. I was sure I was going mad!
I am Phinehas ben Eleazar, Pharisee, lawyer by trade. I know the law of Moses and all the holiness codes that go with it; I know it like I know the back of my hand. It was my life, you understand. I was a man respected in my community, well known in the temple for my expertise, so you can see that I was of sound mind and no fool.
Along with the other Pharisees, I saw Jesus as nothing but trouble. True, he was a teacher with exceptional insights... But his radical new ideas would lead our people into chaos and confusion. If they listened to him, we reasoned, our position and our standing would be gone; our authority and our knowledge would be worthless. And if any of us - the chosen people of Israel - if any of us listened to him - we would become soft and unwilling to resist the forces of Rome. Jesus said to the people You have heard that it was said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Israel was our land, promised to us through Moses. We had lost it once long ago, but now we were back, even though the Roman forces occupied the territory and tried to govern us. We needed to fight so that we would not lose our homeland again! Do you see what would happen if we listened to Jesus and started to love our enemies -- the Romans? If we loved them, we would not be able to fight them. We would most certainly lose this land again forever. Can you see what a threat this man Jesus was to us and to our whole way of life?
On the day following the Sabbath before Passover, Jesus and his followers paraded into the city. What a spectacle! The people waved palm branches and threw their clothing on the road before the donkey upon which he rode. It was a mess! Some in the crowd were chanting Hosanna to the Son of David! Others became unruly, with everyone asking, “Who is this? Who is this?” The city was filled with many visitors because of the Holy Days and the Romans were touchy - they didn’t like all the uproar and commotion... And when the Romans didn’t like something, it made all of us in the temple nervous.
After all that, Jesus came into the temple and caused more trouble, tipping over the tables of the merchants and money changers. It was a riot, I tell you. Outside they were still chanting Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David, and inside was another mess. The blind and the lame in all their rags teemed around him, crying out and begging to be healed. It took us hours to get rid of them all and clean things up again.
Several days later, he came back. We tried to talk to him, find out just who he thought he was and what he was doing - he had to know that he’d put himself in grave danger. We debated back and forth and he told us stories - about two sons, about wicked tenants in a vineyard, about a wedding banquet where the invited guests refused to come. We asked him about paying taxes. We asked him about the resurrection. He gave us answers that we puzzled over, answers that we eventually realized were insults to us.
So we conspired together to test him, to see what he knew of the law. “Phinehas, you find a question that he will not be able to answer” they asked me. “He has not studied like you have, perhaps we can trip him up and get rid of him, prove he’s a fake.” After a few moments, I came up with the question: Which commandment in the law is the greatest? Certainly his answer would be incorrect, we thought, what with all the talk of loving one’s enemies.
At this, he astounded us. He had it right. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. Nothing about loving enemies! But then he said, And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Jesus told us what we already knew - that we are to love God with everything that is in us... But then he added what we’d ignored, what we had let slip away from our thinking, what we didn’t want to connect with loving God. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
We know that! I said, even though in the back of my mind I was considering the truth of it. We know that! I said, and that is when I first heard the Voice that would come to torment me. That is not enough, Phinehas!
Jesus went into a tirade against us, the scribes and the Pharisees. What he had to say stung, made us angry. The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach! He said we’d laid burdens and requirements upon others that we ourselves were unwilling to bear. My heart told me that was true; inwardly, I had to agree with him. But we needed to be more careful - why give charlatans like this anything else to say against us, true or not true? That’s when the Voice spoke again. That is not enough, Phinehas! I shook my head to rid myself of the bad feeling I was getting.
Woe to you! Jesus said. Woe to you about this and woe to you about that! And on and on he went, and we became angrier and angrier. Did he have a death wish or what? He probably would die if he wasn’t more careful!
And then he wept: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Jesus never returned to the Temple after that.//

We Pharisees were known for our devout prayer life. I stopped in the public square on my way home and remembering the talk about loving God with heart and soul and mind, I prayed that Israel would understand and live by that. Then I went on and on, saying all sorts of things to make myself look righteous and holy. I prayed so loud that the people couldn’t help but hear me. Satisfied, believing I’d done quite well at loving God with heart and soul and mind, I started for home, only to hear the Voice again, this time louder and angrier. That is not enough Phinehas! The evening meal was like sawdust in my mouth. I went to bed afraid of what else the Voice might say to me in my dreams.
The rest of that week was trying. Even as we made preparations for the Passover feast, we worried and wondered what to do about Jesus. Then one of his disciples came to us, offering to take us to him that very night. We agreed, though we were not really sure what we’d do with him.
I am ashamed to say that I was so caught up in all of this that I did not listen to the joyful chatter of my wife, Susannah as she scurried about cleaning and sweeping away any crumbs of the old leaven that hid in the house. She was lighter of heart than I had ever seen her, yet I didn’t bother to ask her why. Well, she had reason to be happy, since Passover represents new start, something we all needed. I did notice our home, though, so fresh, so clean... I glowed with pride when I thought of the fine rugs and things I’d been able to provide for Susannah! Then again the Voice. That is not enough, Phinehas!
I was barely there for our Passover meal, distracted and unsettled. I left as soon as I could. We arrested Jesus in the Garden, hauled him all over the city during the darkest hours of the night - you know the rest of the story, I don’t need to tell you. Some who had cheered him on a few days before were now begging for his death. The whole thing got way out of hand. I talked myself into believing that we were doing this for the love of God, for the good of Israel. Then the Voice began to berate me, and I heard it constantly... It is not enough, Phinehas, it is not enough, it is not enough...
We got the Romans to crucify Jesus. It was the worst of all possible ways to die. While he hung there, my cohorts and I sat in the temple, righteously praying, keeping ourselves from being defiled by that wretched scene on the hill, not knowing that we had just played the most despicable role in the drama of all times. It is said that Herod and Pilate became friends because of all this, so love your enemies became a reality that day. It had been the very teaching that we had worked so hard against.
Suddenly, midafternoon, under a darkened sky, the curtain in the temple was split from top to bottom with noise that made me think of the cracking of bone, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of a heart. There was deafening thunder, then a violent earthquake. We were terrified! Was God himself angry with us?
Evening was approaching, the Sabbath was about to begin, so we all set out for our homes, where we would do nothing for a whole day, according to the law. I will never forget the sight that greeted me when I arrived. Instead of finding Susannah waiting for me in the doorway, our home was a crumbled mass of rock and mortar. A wisp of smoke snaked its way out from the spaces between the debris, then suddenly the quiet poof of a fire igniting, then the whole mess was engulfed. The earthquake must have knocked over the oil lamps and the brazier that kept us warm at night. The oil and the charcoal must have been dumped all over our fine, imported rugs... Surely Susannah had enough sense not to try to put it out, for that would be to work on the Sabbath.//
Surely she gotten out...
Our whole district came alive with wailing and I saw for the first time that others had lost homes, too. I could not find Susannah among the weeping women. I called for her over and over, until our neighbor, Jacob, appeared at my side and said, “She’s still in there, Phinehas, we heard her call for you a few minutes ago.” I looked up and saw that the sun had set - it was, indeed the Sabbath.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” I remembered. If I was to love God, then I must obey his command not to work on the Sabbath... And then suddenly there was the Voice once again, crying out in agony. That is not enough, Phinehas!
Quickly I tucked the hems of my long robes into my belt and began pawing through the rocks and rubble to find her. I did not feel the burning of my hands or the wetness of my tears, I did not hear Jacob telling me to stop because it was too late, I did not know that I was breathing smoke, I did not see that it was hopeless. I did not realize that the fire had become hot enough to explode bricks - I remember a “pop” and then nothing else.
When I awoke, I was in Jacob’s house, which the earthquake had jostled and rearranged, but had left standing. I was in Jacob’s bed, Jacob’s wife was bringing in a jar of water, and there Jacob sat by my side. Bandages covered my hands and encircled my head, my legs and arms were covered with ointment that smelled of aloe. Patiently Jacob and his wife had cared for me day and night, taking turns sleeping out of doors in a makeshift tent, never leaving me alone for a moment.
After many days, I was well enough to leave the house and I saw the mess that Jacob still needed to take care of in his yard. I couldn’t believe his generous hospitality! They had given me the best bed that was left, and had waded through rubble and filth to bring water so I would not die. All this for someone who had always been too high and mighty to associate with them. Such wonderful neighbors!
There was that word. Neighbor. Hadn’t Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself? Was this what he meant? I wished that the Voice would speak to me again, but it remained silent.
Jacob finally agreed help me search through the rubble for Susannah. Do you know that the rocks were still warm? After several hours and much backbreaking labor, we found what was left of her, face down, buried beneath the blackened bricks and rocks. We paused and Jacob put his hand on my shoulder... I remembered that I would be defiled if I were to touch the dead - but for once I wasn’t worried about being holy. With my still tender hands, I carefully turned Susannah’s fragile remains, thus revealing the strangest and most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Clutched in her charred hands and held to her breast was the leaf of a date palm, soft and green and supple, as fresh as the day it was taken from the tree. It was not dried or scorched in the least! A miracle: life in the midst of death. Susannah now lies in the family tomb. She is still holding the palm leaf. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still green and full of life. //
But questions still remain. Was Susannah among that rabble when Jesus rode into the city? Is that where the palm leaf had come from? She had been so full of peace - and joy - what did she know that I could not understand? In all of our years together, this woman never had a wrong instinct. Was Jesus the Messiah? I think she believed it was true, and I... I helped kill him!
From that time, my life changed. Although I could not thank Jacob and his wife enough for all they did for me, I could not rebuild my house. I went to the temple less and less often; seldom was I called upon to settle disputes of the law. I admit that I was confused and riddled with guilt. Soon I left Jerusalem to live out my years in Bethany, where I was befriended by Mary, Martha and Lazarus, who told me many things about Jesus; stories of his compassion and forgiveness - and of his resurrection. I wish I’d known him like they did.
I studied in the synagogue there and tried to teach the law through the lens of the greatest commandment. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love is more important than any law of rule.
I admit that I continued to be a model of arrogance in many ways. One afternoon, a father and son came looking for me at the synagogue just as I was leaving. Their request was simple, but I tried to put them off until the next day, when, I said, I would have plenty of time for them. I was a tired old man and I wanted to go home. That was when I heard the Voice for the last time - now it sounded gentle but weary. That is not enough, Phinehas! Something in my soul smiled, it was like hearing from an old friend. I could see that the two had traveled some distance to see me. “Please excuse me,” I said to them, “won’t you come to my home for the night? We can talk there.”
I never heard that Voice again, although there were many times I wished that it would speak. Loving God and neighbor is a difficult thing! But I tell you Christians: You must do it! For we learn love by being loved - and you have been loved by the greatest Neighbor of them all, who gave his life for you. I tell you, if you do not love your neighbor and your children and your families as yourself, how will they ever learn how to love? More important - how will they ever learn how much God loves them?

Copyright© 1999/2008 Carol A. Peterson. All rights reserved.

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