Conversations often carry undertones. You think you understood what someone has said, then on reflection you realise something quite different was intended. These last days of national political manoeuvering have revealed quite a lot of double talk. The various media presenters have shaped their language to the ideological ends of each channel operator. Did Rudd mean what he was saying? And how might you interpret Abbott’s silence on whether he had correctly assessed the outcome? It has been fascinating to follow the commentary on each TV channel and watch the posturing of news presenters as they viewed events through the eyes of James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch, Kerry Stokes and, I suspect, John Singleton.
You as the viewer realised that there was much more at stake here than a change in Labor leadership. When you sat back from this event, you heard echoes of the mining tax, media control and that age-old question ‘what is truth’?
Hold this in mind as you reflect on today’s Gospel reading. It also is a commentary on an event, in this case one that had taken place forty years earlier. The writer in this instance was an outsider who had heard the stories from Mark and probably filled them out from reminiscences picked up on his journeys with Paul. And the whole was coloured by his own experiences of social and political change on the journey through eastern Europe to Rome. Luke is our ancient media man with a sharp glance at the past but with a primary focus on current affairs.
The story he recounted in today’s reading looks like a straightforward triumphal procession. The popular prophet had at last come to town and, despite the growing antagonism of enemies and detractors, had raised crowd hopes that here was a messianic figure who would bring freedom from oppression.
Yes, your long church attending tells you that there is a tragic ending to this story: in that sense something of its underlying meaning is already part of the way you understand this text. But for Luke this was an event with its own power for change and he told it in a distinctive way that was quite unlike his source material in Mark. The story here is more than a prelude to crucifixion.
Like the TV presenters of last week’s political upheavals, Mark, Matthew and Luke each shaped this story to suit their larger spiritual and social agendas. Mark and Matthew placed this event after the healing of a blind man, Matthew has more than one man healed. Their Palm Sunday stories are about seeing inner truth and grasping its essential meaning for a ‘kingdom’ within each individual.
Luke’s prelude offers a much more graphic story that few preachers ever wish to take to its conclusion. Jesus there told of a high-ranking official who had gone into a distant land to be made a provincial ruler. He left underlings in charge of his affairs, apportioning finance to each depending on the role they had been given. On his return he demanded accountability. One servant had done no more than protect the money and hand it back to the king. Many of Luke’s hearers and readers would have instantly grasped his intention. The story, without its harsh conclusion, was probably part of the early Christian communities’ moral stock in trade.
Much like many popular sermons it spoke about using your gifts, your abilities, wisely. It is easy to skip from here and then to moralise about the greater gift of humility described in the Luke’s Palm Sunday story. But the confusing sting is in the ruler’s final words to his servants and it controls the meaning of what follows:
‘To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in front of me.’”
I wonder are these strong words Luke’s commentary on events. Matthew, writing later still, has a derived form of them in his text.
What I have just quoted is an utterly shocking statement. If we are to be serious about the meaning of this Palm Sunday story as Luke recorded it we need to understand its drift. On first reading it looks as if we are dealing with a very angry God: look out how you use your gifts because the reckoning day could see you damned.
That is the sort of emphasis some preachers have offered after major natural catastrophes – the fault is sin, the fault is sexuality, the fault is civil disobedience. Our generation heard such sermons after the Bali bombing, the attack on the Twin Towers, gay rights marches and the prospect of changed marriage laws. If that is the meaning, then the Palm Sunday story is about judgment. I will leave to you to struggle with the sort of sermon and personal challenge that might follow this conclusion – and hasten to add I have a very different turn on the text.
Luke was an interpreter, not a bystander at these events. His text, as we read it earlier today, has quite another meaning. To comprehend its intention, it helps to understand something of the world in which Jesus lived and then much more something about the world in which Luke and his hearers lived. Maybe then we can take a meaning from it into our own world. Luke’s message came out of a generation of chaotic political struggle that would eventually destroy the Palestinian communities. Luke’s Palm Sunday contrast is about the quality of leadership.
Many of those who accompanied Jesus that day had already suffered at the hands of a high-ranking official who had become the local war-lord, or ‘king’ under contract to Rome. His name was Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. His control of Jerusalem at that time was ruthless and self-serving. Josephus, a Jewish historian living though these years, described in graphic detail the slaughter in the Temple of 3,000 people who had opposed Archelaus’ religious and political ambitions.
All this had taken place forty and more years before Luke wrote his Gospel. But the events and outrage that life could still be reduced to this sort of slavery to despotic government found their parallel in Luke’s world.
That first Palm Sunday, as Jesus in company with his followers, had approached Jerusalem seemed to the crowd as their moment of delivery. As if to emphasise the contrast with Archelaus, Luke stresses that Jesus rode not a war-horse but a donkey. Jesus was a prophetic figure announcing a ‘kingly rule’ that love and non-violence could change lives and societies (Zechariah 14: 4). It was a message for people languishing under the destructive rule of Nero.
For Luke, the underlying theme of this story would seem to be the fate of the city and its populace under Rome’s sometimes chaotic and despotic government and the prospect and possibility of redemption. How could these nascent Christian communities he was building with Paul become spiritually mature and at the same time be agents for social change?
Throughout Luke’s writings are the recurrent terms Saviour, save, salvation. We have reduced these to jargon words, but in Luke their power lies in his belief that the Gospel is about health, recovery and transformation. There will always be a personal application to these words, but their cutting edge lies in the women and men who show leadership that creates and sustains a widening community life.
Sellers of purple, community leaders, prison officials and soldiers right through to the Imperial court discover that leadership is about learning to cross the barriers of social and gender difference. Leadership is not about the self-assertion so praised by their contemporary society; leadership is to have a heart for justice that underscores their understanding of ‘salvation’. We are ‘saved’ to become members of a renewed society.
When you read the Palm Sunday story this way, you can no longer search only for moral advice. In Luke’s presentation this is larger than the account of one man’s humble action modelling all our actions in public and private life. Luke has re-cast the Palm Sunday event into a social and political challenge. It asks Jesus’ followers in that and this age about their responses to injustice. With whom should we side when circumstances drive so many to despair?
Luke had more reason for telling this story than merely events that took place under Archelaus 23 BCE to 18 CE. He wrote his Gospel in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies in 70 CE. This had followed a twelve-month encircling of the city till it was starved to submission, then an onslaught that killed the inhabitants and destroyed city and Temple. It marked the moment of division between Jew and Christian – you can read the emotion of this in chapter 8 and in the final chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Something else, more present and more dramatic, was unfolding around him. Persecution of the church by Roman authority was intense, brutal and degrading. Had he watched Paul die after a summary trial: non licet esse vos – it is not lawful for you to be a Christian. Steadily Christianity was outside legal protection: the hints of this are explored in the First Epistle of Peter. Here is his side glance at Caesar: ‘those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in front of me.’ In the face of such catastrophe – what must have seemed like the end of the age – what marks out a Christian? That is Luke’s ultimate question.
This week, Mary Hunt, a feminist writer published an essay critiquing the appointment of Pope Francis. My intention in noting this and in suggesting that you read her paper is not to raise old tensions and sectarian debate. I hope each of us will pray for Pope Francis and for our Roman Catholic friends as they work in their own ways for change. We need to stand together not apart.
Hunt challenges us to remain open to fresh ways of understanding the Gospel and engaging our world with its message. We need to see beyond the media focus on ceremony – there, the Pope in triumphant procession, yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury seeking enthronement. These events are no more than a celebration of power that has passed. Hunt, by contrast, spoke about the role liberation theology as the major turning point in theological reflection and social action. I am not as sure of the long-term impact as the writer was, but I want to emphasise that if the Palm Sunday message is about ‘liberation’ for leadership then that might well be a key theme in our own ministries.
Liberation means being able to let the past go and face the future with some optimism. In the worst days and with the most unlikely people around us, what is the best we can offer? Yes, humility as the text suggests – but that will mean a community that knows how to listen to others, how to enter the suffering of others and how to stand alongside each other without either the trappings of power or the sense of victimhood. This is true leadership.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter urges in the Harvard Business Review that:
Recent major systemic challenges (the financial crisis, health care reform, and climate change, among others) require new ideas significantly bigger than a mere box. The greatest future breakthroughs will come from leaders who encourage thinking outside a whole building full of boxes.
I am suggesting to you that the supreme quality of creative leadership is the willingness to listen to others and so work outside the ‘boxes’ of dogma and doing what we always did.
A new term is currently being invented to challenge growing churches. It is called ‘the Emerging Church’ movement. For many it is just another slogan, but at heart it asks us to step aside from our old dogmatic assertions and our histories of separation and isolation. What would this church look like if we simply opened ourselves to standing in the shoes of the other and listening more than we usually do to the needs and tragedies around us – without always feeling we have to give an answer?
You may properly reply that we would continue to look insignificant – none of our humility would feature in any media event. The change would be in us. We would learn the sort of leadership that does not bully the other or operate with some sense that we have a control of truth.
In the very act of listening, and in sensing the active presence of the other, we would be engaging all of God that we can discover. For God is relationship and is met in relationship. When we actually see the other, we have seen God in the bond we now share. Each of the three Gospels asks us to open our eyes to the chaotic, leaderless world around us. Luke’s special message is to know ourselves part of its tragedy and not to turn our face away. John, who seems not to know this story, says simply ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ – and in the body of life we sense the glory of life. Those who have grasped that reality have discovered the central quality of being a leader.
If that sounds too idealistic then listen as I close with this prayer of an Indigenous Australian poet:
It’s through the little sharings of ourselves
the taking of each other
into the intimate places of our lives
and sitting there
in risk and wonder for a while
that we grow in love of one another
and our world
and expand the universe. *
* Noel Davis, Campfire of the Heart: being there and sipping water from life’s cuppa, Shekinah Creative Ministry Co-Op: Sydney, 1994, 78.
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, Luke’s Gospel chapter 17, verses 28-40. The address was offered during Evening Prayers held at St George’s Church, Paddington, NSW, 24 March 2013.