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Introduction To The Scripture For The Sixth Sunday in Lent - Year A
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2,19-29; Matthew 21:1-22
Liturgy of the Passion
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Sixth Sunday in Lent - Year A
Palm - Passion Sunday


LITURGY OF THE PALMS
Psalm 118:1-2,19-20; Matthew 21:1-22

PSALM 118:1-2,19-29      This psalm may have begun as an individual hymn of
thanksgiving, but quickly became a congregational hymn for celebrating the
Feast of Tabernacles.  It is yet another of the Psalms given a messianic
interpretation by the Apostolic Church.  Several NT passages alluded to it. 


MATTHEW 21:1-22          Clearly, the narrative of the triumphal entry had
its basis in the prophecy of  Zechariah 9:9-10.  Matthew describes the
event as the deliberate attempt by Jesus to reveal himself the peaceful
Messiah.  Hence the choice of his mount, the humblest of beasts of burden. 
Though he had no intention of being king, his disciples and others thwarted
him by throwing their garments and branches before him as Jehu had been
hailed as king in 2 Kings 9:13.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

PSALM 118:1-2,19-29      This psalm may have begun as an individual hymn of
thanksgiving, but quickly became a congregational hymn for celebrating the
Feast of Tabernacles.  One of the six psalms of the Hallel (Pss. 113-118),
pilgrims sang it as they approached the temple on this and other high
holidays.  It is yet another of the Psalms given a messianic interpretation
by the Apostolic Church.  Several NT passages alluded to it.  

The person who originally sang this hymn (the "I" of the text) may have
been the king, but it soon was reinterpreted as the personification of the
nation and sung antiphonally with several parties singing allotted parts.  

The "gates of righteousness" (vs. 19) referred to the massive gates at the
entrance of the temple precincts representing the holy presence of Yahweh
at the centre of the nation.  The words would have been sung by the priest
at the head of the procession of pilgrims.

Although its use in Christian scriptures invariably refers to Jesus, "the
stone which the builders rejected " (vs. 22) may have come from an old
Hebrew proverb.  The psalmist used it to point out that Israel, though
despised by the Gentile world, had become an honourable people in Yahweh's
sight.  The day of rejoicing in vs. 24 is the day of the festival, but
which one is not identified.  This may well be the Feast of Tabernacles,
for in vs. 27 the festal procession to decorate "the horns of the altar"
probably best fits with that festival.  The horns were protrusions at each
corner of the altar possibly created for just such a decorative purpose or
on which the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled (cf. Lev. 4:7).

Vss. 28 and 29 given what appears to be a double ending to the psalm.  More
likely, vs. 28 is the original ending for the individual hymn of
thanksgiving, while vs. 29 is the ending to the congregation hymn. 
Alternatively, the first is sung by the celebrant priest while the second
is the antiphony sung by the congregation.


MATTHEW 21:1-22   Matthew describes the event as the deliberate attempt by
Jesus to reveal himself the peaceful Messiah.  He does this by quoting the
prophet directly as he so often does.  Matthew also alluding to it by the
choice of the mount Jesus made in sending two of his disciples into
Bethphage to bring him the humblest of beasts of burden.  Zechariah's
prophecy symbolized the peaceful choice of a victorious monarch selecting a
donkey as his mount instead of a conqueror's proud steed for his triumphal
entry into his capital city.  Inevitably the prophecy became attached to
the messianic vision of both Jews and Christians.  

One can presume that Jesus had friends in the village nearby.  If this was
Bethany, as some MSS of Mark's text attests, the friends referred to could
have been Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  But there was also a small village a
little further east named Bethphage.  The name refers to a late season
olive that never appears to ripen, but still are quite edible.  That too
could have symbolic meaning as an allusion to this being the opening of the
Passion narrative.  Today there is a Christian church and a mosque on the
eastern slope of the Mount of Olives marking the presumed place of this
village, long since disappeared.  The spires of both can be seen from a
lookout along the road entering Jerusalem from the west.

Though he had no intention of being king, Jesus' disciples and others
thwarted him by throwing their garments and branches before him as Jehu had
been hailed as king in 2 Kings 9:13.  According to the Mishnah of the 2nd
century CE, the custom had precedents in the celebration of the Feast of
Booths (Tabernacles) when pilgrims collected twigs or branches of myrtle,
willow or palm to be bound together in a festal plume, called a lulab to
symbolize rejoicing.  Waving these lulabs aloft, the pilgrims paraded into
the courts of the temple singing the Hallel (Pss. 113-118).  It is entirely
possible that narratives of the earliest apostolic tradition reflected this
practice.  The early Christians drew many of the narratives about the life
and ministry of Jesus from their Jewish background, no matter whether the
events so reported were historical or not.

Literally, "Hosanna!" means "Save now!" or "Help, I pray!"  But "Hosanna in
the highest" doesn't really make sense unless it means, "Up with your
hosannas!" signalling the moment the pilgrims should wave their lulabs. 
Matthew may have had Ps. 118:26 in mind, but may also have used it to
reflect Ps. 148:1.  The NEB version reads as if the latter was the intent:
"Hosanna in the heavens!"  Did strewing the ground with garments and
branches refer to Deutero-Isaiah's hailing the returning exiles with "a
voice that cries: prepare a road for the Lord through the wilderness" (Isa. 
40:3).  Or was it no more than a sign of honour and spontaneous enthusiasm
by those caught up in the excitement of the moment?

According to Luke, only the disciples participated in the celebration, but
the text also suggests that they crowd remained silent while the Pharisees
complained.  Matthew and Mark imply that the crowd turned the incident into
a messianic demonstration, which may have been precisely the opposite to
Jesus' intention.  Could it also have been Matthew's sense of the drama
about to unfold with tragic consequences?


LITURGY OF THE PASSION
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

ISAIAH 50:4 9a           This brief selection from the third of four
"Servant Songs" in Isaiah 40 55 declares a firm of confidence in God in the
face of great suffering.  It may be difficult for us to understand how one
person can suffer vicariously on behalf of many.  Here the Servant
represents the whole nation of Israel, a sole individual representing the
community.  The early church regarded this as a prophecy about the Messiah
fulfilled by Jesus on the cross, suffering innocent death as representative
for the whole of humanity.  


PSALM 31:9 16            Scholars regard this as one of three laments
combined in the one psalm.  It is the prayer of a person doubly afflicted. 
His wasting disease is no more the cause of suffering than rejection by
friends and malicious gossip by adversaries.  How like the suffering of
those dying of AIDS right now!


PHILIPPIANS 2:5 11       Perhaps one of the greatest of texts from Paul's
letters, this may actually be an early Christian hymn.  He may have picked
it up somewhere on his travels or have written it himself.  Like all good
hymns it contains sound Christian doctrine.  It proclaims faith in the
divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ revealed in his life, death and
resurrection.


MATTHEW 26:14-27:66      Not the triumphant entry into Jerusalem told in
Matthew 21, but the betrayal, trial and crucifixion story in chapters 26 27
form this week's gospel.  The good news is in the confession of the
centurion, "Truly this man was God's Son." (27:54)  To get its full impact,
the whole story should be read  at one sitting.  At worship we rarely read
more than a few verses or paragraphs and so lose much of its impact. 
Written 50 to 60 years after the event, this passage is deliberately
modeled on the vicarious suffering of the "Servant Song" of Isaiah
52:13-53:12.  The climax of the story comes in God's affirmation of the
death of Jesus in his resurrection.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ISAIAH 50:4-9a   Being Jews primarily and having only the Hebrew Scriptures
to read, it was inevitable that the Apostolic Church would search for
references with messianic implications.  The many visions of a savior
figure and other oracles of the book of Isaiah immediately met this need. 
Especially appropriate were the four Servant Songs in the poetry of the
unknown prophet of the Babylonian Exile scholars have named Second Isaiah
(42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12).  These four songs tell the story
of an individual who heals and redeems through vicarious suffering.  This
brief selection from the third of the four songs declares the Servant's
firm confidence in Yahweh in the face of great abuse by his adversaries.
  
The exact length of the poem is a matter for scholarly debate.  It is
likely, however, that it extends for the whole 11 verses as a poem of four
strophes in a series of questions and answers (vss.1-2;8;9;10).  This
segment contains the two middle strophes dealing with the suffering and
vindication of the Servant.

It may be difficult for us to understand how one person can suffer
vicariously on behalf of many.  It may be more helpful to regard him as the
representative of the whole nation.  Here the Servant is described as a
teacher who listens to Yahweh every morning.  Then as one who is himself a
learner (vs. 4), he receives the strength to bear the insults and injuries
heaped upon him.  This suffering equips him with the moral authority to
challenge his adversaries and be found innocent.  

The poem conveys the image of a devout Israelite who spends much time in
reflective contemplation and prayer.  Unlike other prophets, however, his
communication with Yahweh results not so much in divinely inspired oracles
as in personal fellowship bringing an inner conviction that Yahweh will not
only protect him but defend and vindicate his cause.
     
The setting for this contemplative experience is found in vss. 1-2a where
Yahweh accuses the whole nation of impenitence in a sharply stated series
of questions about divorce.  In Jewish law a woman had no right to separate
from her husband and could only be divorced if her husband gave her a writ
to that effect.  No more had Israel the right to separate itself from its
covenant relationship with Yahweh.  A stern rebuke follows in vss. 2b-3
where violent upheavals in nature demonstrate the power of Yahweh to punish
in judgment.
     
In some interpretations the Servant represents the whole nation of Israel. 
In so doing he fulfills the role of a representative of the whole nation in
a way similar to a modern head of state.  Here the emphasis appears to be
upon the individual prophet.  On the other hand, there is the concept of a
corporate personality where the Servant represents the faithful covenant
people suffering the hostility of an unbelieving world and thus vindicates
the purposes of Yahweh to redeem that world.  

Half a century after the Holocaust, the recreation of the nation state of
Israel, and several wars between Arabs and Jews, is it still possible to
view the suffering of Israel in the same light?  Historic explosions of
anti-Semitism and other violent forms of racism, often initiated by the
Christian church, do seem to point to our need to learn more about God's
ways of achieving God's redemptive purpose.  


PSALM 31:9-16   Scholars regard this as one of three laments combined in
the one psalm (vss. 1-8;9-12;13-18).  This reading actually consists of the
second and part of the third.  The final segment  (vss. 19-24) forms a
liturgical hymn of thanksgiving for divine help sung antiphonally by a
chorus and the supplicant.  Much of the thought of this composition have
been drawn from other parts of the Psalter.  There is also a striking
similarity between vss. 13-18 and Jeremiah 20:10-12.  All of this points to
a late, post-exilic date when the liturgy for worship of the temple was
being carefully structured by the Levitical priesthood.
     
The content of this reading may be regarded as the prayer of a person
doubly afflicted.  His wasting disease gives no greater cause for suffering
than rejection by friends and malicious gossip by adversaries.  How like
the suffering of those infected with HIV or dying of AIDS!

Out of this distress comes as singularly effective declaration of trust. 
Great sermons could be based - and no doubt many have been - on the text in
vs. 15: "My times are in your hand."  The contrast between the protective
hand of God and the hostile hands of enemies portrays a vivid image like
that of Jesus in Gethsemane confronting Judas Iscariot and the high priests
guards.  The plea in vs. 16: "Let your face shine..." is found in several
other psalms (67:1; 80:3,7,19; 119:135) as well as the well-known Hebrew
blessing in Numbers 6:24-26.  


PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11   Perhaps one of the greatest of texts from Paul's
letters, this may actually be an early Christian hymn.  He may have picked
it up somewhere on his travels or have written it himself.  A.N.  Wilson in
his biography of Paul (*Paul: The Mind of the Apostle*, New York: W.W. 
Norton, 1997) suggests that he may have learned it from Hellenists with
whom he associated in Antioch before beginning his missionary journeys
(Acts 11:26).
     
Like all good hymns this one contains sound Christian doctrine.  It
proclaims faith in the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ revealed in
his life, death and resurrection.  This, of course, was the crucial issue
in the hostile confrontation Paul had with his fellow Jews.  What is more,
as Wilson points out, "even though Paul's own mission to bring about the
state in which 'every tongue will confess' the truth of the Gospel may
fail, Paul believes that God will somehow bring his purposes to pass, and
that 'at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.' (p. 220)
     
The hymn also shows Paul as the supreme poet of personal ethical and
religious commitment.  He sets the hymn in the context of a very direct
appeal to his Philippian friends: "Let the same mind be in you that was in
Christ Jesus...."  Were the Philippians rich? Apparently some of them were. 
Acts 16:13-15 makes it clear that one of its founding families, the
household of Lydia, had considerable wealth.  The Philippian community also
contributed generously for the relief of the Jerusalem community (Rom. 
15:26).  But they also had some severe internal conflicts which Paul tried
to sort out (4:2-3).  This hymn set before them the example of Christ
urging them to pursue the humble selflessness which had been the essence of
his life in following Christ.
     
Nowhere else in Paul's writing do we find such a clear definition of the
divinity of Christ as the opening words of vs. 6: "though he was in the
form of God...." The Greek word translated *form* is *morph‚* which refers
to the essential nature of something.  This essence never changes as does
the "form" represented by the Greek word *schema.*  In other words, as
William Barclay wrote: "However (Jesus') outward *schema* might alter, he
remained in essence and in being divine." (*Daily Bible Readings:
Philippians, Colossians and Philemon*, Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1957. 
p. 44)
     
Barclay comments on another meaningful Greek word *harpagmos* which has
given translators trouble.  He uses "snatched at," as does the NEV, where
the KJV used "robbery" and the NSRV uses less pejorative "exploited" while
others paraphrase the word.  Barclay proposes that the idea so conveyed has
two possible meanings:  a) Jesus did not need to snatch at equality with
God because it was already his by right;  and b) he did not clutch at
equality with God for himself, but willingly relinquished it for our sake. 
Later theologians would debate this contrast in terms of how the two
persons of the Trinity are identical and yet distinct.  Paul may well have
been thinking in similar terms for he goes on to describe the *kenosis*
("emptying") as the means of the Incarnation.

In ancient civilization, no one was so poor and humble as were the slaves. 
They were the lowest class of all, and of all the most despised.  Like
slaves in more recent centuries, they were the property of their masters
along with household goods and chattels.  Yet this was the *morph‚* Jesus
chose to reveal his humanity.  So his likeness was not a role he assumed
for a brief period, but his real self, his permanent state, just like us. 
What is more, his humiliation extended to the point of death, the most
ignominious death any human could suffer in those days, execution as a
criminal by public crucifixion.
     
At the point of death, the action was all in God's hands.  For Paul, that
meant only one thing - resurrection, which was the heart and soul of Paul's
preaching.  Yet how quickly the hymn passes over this most important of all
events in the NT.  Paul seems to be saying with John that the death,
resurrection and ascension of Christ were his all part of the same event
which John described as his "glorification."  And so it will be for us who
are "in Christ."

An interesting linkage in the closing lines of this hymn connects the words
*name* and *Lord* (vss.9 & 11).  The latter is so common in our usage that
it may have lost much of its strength and meaning.  Some have rejected it
entirely as patriarchal and patronizing.  Not so for the Philippians.  In
those days, the only person with the absolute right to the title *kurios*
was the emperor.  The similar term *adonai* was also used by the Jews as
their name for God to avoid using the holy Hebrew name of *JHWH.*  The
Hellenic Jews translated *adonai* as *kurios*.  According to the Passion
stories in the Gospels, Jesus was executed for sedition against Caesar, i.e
he claimed to be *kurios*,  By the time Paul wrote to the Philippians
nearly thirty years after the crucifixion, the Apostolic Church had claimed
that title for Jesus alone.  For Jews it defined the divinity of Christ;
for Greeks it described him as greater than Caesar.  In Paul's vision, he
would receive what all that Rome's vaunted power could never achieve, the
homage of every human being.


MATTHEW 26:14-27:66   The whole story of the betrayal, trial and
crucifixion story in chapters 26-27 form the gospel for the Passion
Liturgy.  The RCL also lists a shorter gospel lesson 27:11-54.  To get its
full impact, the whole story should be read all at once.  Sadly, at worship
we rarely read more than a few verses and so lose much of its force.  Or we
read it piecemeal at poorly attended services throughout Holy Week.  The
Good News is in the confession of the centurion, "Truly this man was God's
Son." (27:54)
     
Written 50 to 60 years after the event, the passage is deliberately modeled
on the vicarious suffering of the "Servant Song" of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. 
The climax of the story comes in God's affirmation of the Passion of Jesus
in his resurrection told in the following chapter, to which this is only
the prelude.
     
Alan Richardson has stated that "there are good reasons for thinking that
the Passion story is the oldest part of the Gospel tradition to receive its
definite shape." (*An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament*,
London: SCM Press, 1958.)  He cites as his authorities several 20th century
British and German scholars.  Another British scholar, C.E.P. Cox, has
stated that it was used for liturgical purposes in the celebration of the
Eucharist.  (*Twentieth Century Bible Commentary*, Revised Edition. New
York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.)  There is evidence too that the story was
based on carefully selected psalms, especially Ps. 22.  It is also probable
that the saga of Joseph setting forth the OT epitome of vicarious suffering
in Genesis 37-50 informed the tradition which we have before us in this
passage.
     
Through the centuries, wartime destruction and peacetime reconstruction
have changed the face of Jerusalem forever.  The various sites where the
Passion story took place have been obliterated.  Add to this greedy
exploitation for monetary purposes and purely imaginative hypotheses for
devout religious purposes.  Yet it is still a memorable experience to walk
through the various parts of the city where all this happened nearly two
millennia ago.  The Upper Room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Palace of
Caiaphas, Gordon's Golgotha and the Garden Tomb (as distinct from the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the end of the Stations of the Cross along
the Via Dolorosa) remain forever etched in the tourist's mind.  No one can
truthfully say how valid are the claims made for each site.  

One marvels that with nothing more than the bare words of the story on
paper before them, great hymn writers like Isaac Watts could pen such lines
as: "Were the whole realm of nature mind, that were a present far too
small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."  So
it has been from the time the story was first told to the earliest
converts.  The story, read with faith, still moves the soul to worship.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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