Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11: Matthew 26:14-27:66
The first reading is the third of four poems called “The Songs of the Servant of the Lord.” All occur in the second part of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. These four poems had great influence on the formation of the four Passion Narratives in our four gospels. They should not be understood so much as predictions in 540 B.C. of what was to happen to the Servant of the Lord. They should rather be recognized as background, vocabulary, and expressions used by the authors of our gospels in the composition of the four gospels but also as used by St. Paul to form his theology of the life, death and exaltation of the Lord Jesus. These four poems are also influential in the formation of other New Testament documents. It is not clear who “the Servant” is in the mind of the author of Second Isaiah. Christian interpreters five or more centuries later identified Jesus as the Servant and interpreted the Songs of the Servant as predictive of what happened to him.
In the song selected as the first reading we can see the formation of the Passion Narratives. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” The vindication of the Servant by the Lord God, and the vindication of Jesus by his Father are also present. “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Along with early Christian interpreters we can also see the effective preaching of Jesus, “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary, a word that will rouse them.” We note the foundation of the insistence of the gospels and St. Paul that Jesus came to do his Father’s will, “Morning by morning he opens my ear that I may hear, and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.” Thus we see that these four songs are an example of what biblical scholars called “a trajectory” from Old to New Testament. Though the four songs have a quite different meaning in their time in the Old Testament, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have gained a new meaning in the New Testament.
The Responsorial Psalm 22, is just as formative of the theology of the Passion Narratives and of St. Paul’s Letters as are the Servant Songs. The response of the people says it clearly, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” The very words that Mark and Matthew placed on the lips of a dying Jesus, his final cry of abandonment! (Luke and John chose very different final words of Jesus on the cross.) Notice the formation of our Passion Narratives in other verses of this Psalm: scoffing at Jesus, mocking him on the cross, taunting him about his trust in God which did not seem to work, piercing of hands and feet, dividing his garments among the soldiers. What was a Song of Lament in the Old Testament became for Christian interpreters a foundation of the description of Jesus’ sufferings. Another trajectory!
The second reading is an early Christian hymn adapted to a particular situation with which Paul had to contend in a “parish” he founded in the city of Philippi in Macedonia (Greece). Some of his parishioners were lording it over others, pushing to be #1. Paul appeals for servanthood among them: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . . .” Though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not insist on it, but took on servanthood in obedience to his eternal Father, submitting even to a shameful death. Therefore, God exalted him even in his human nature. The lesson: if the humility of servanthood worked for Jesus, it might work for you.
The Passion Narrative of the Gospel of Mark, which Matthew used as his guide, is a story of total abandonment of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel the abandonment is not so total, and Jesus has more control over events than in Mark’s gospel. An interesting approach to Matthew is to compare with Mark and see what changes he made in Mark’s story. In Mark the chief priests of the temple promised to give Judas some money for the betrayal. In Matthew the price is thirty pieces of silver — an echo of Zechariah 11:12-13. Matthew always finds “predictions” for background to New Testament events. In Mark, the disciples never address Jesus as “Rabbi.” In Matthew only Judas does. We know from Matthew 23:8 of the author’s unyielding antipathy toward the great Jewish scribes he calls “scribes and Pharisees.” Towards the end of the first century, when Matthew composed his gospel, some scribes assumed this title. In Mark, after a disciple (unnamed) amputates the ear of the high priest’s slave, no response from Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus responds at length, proclaiming that he could still ask his Father for an army of angels for help, but the Scriptures had to be fulfilled. Matthew had to be thinking of the Servant Songs of Isaiah and Psalm 22, parts of today’s liturgy explained above. Jesus is not so abandoned after all.
In Mark, we find the incident of a young disciple of Jesus whom the mob tried to seize. He slipped out of the sheet in which he was wrapped and ran away naked. Matthew knows that Mark intended this story as an insult to the disciples who abandoned Jesus at the arrest. They had left all to follow him at the beginning of the gospel. Now they fled leaving even their clothes behind. In Matthew, the story disappears. Only Matthew gives us a version of the death and repentance of Judas. Only in Matthew does Pilate’s wife intervene, attempting to influence her husband to release Jesus, “that righteous man.” Only in Matthew does Pilate wash his hands, proclaiming himself innocent of the blood of Jesus. This leads to the statement of “all the people,” “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Thus Matthew has taken upon himself the burden of pogroms against the Jews throughout most of Christian history. There is little doubt what Matthew intended, but the Holy Spirit is not bound by Matthew’s prejudices. The best interpretation of those awesome words: the blood of Jesus atones for the sins of those responsible for his death.