Palm Sunday Homily 2023

Before we begin the Passion Gospel, I want to say something about one of the verses we’re going to hear. After Jesus is arrested, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, holds a public appearance where he offers to free one of the prisoners the Romans are holding, as a goodwill gesture because it’s the Passover, the great Jewish feast of freedom. Pilate offers them a man named Barabbas, or Jesus himself. 

Luke’s Gospel says that Barabbas was wanted for insurrection agains the Romans – that he was a freedom fighter, of the violent variety. He may have been popular with the crowd for that reason – or Jesus may have been unpopular. We are in Jerusalem here, in Judea, where many people have never really taken to Jesus’ message. They see him as a strange outsider who talks down about the Great Temple and the version of Jewish faith centered on the Temple. 

Whatever the reason – and there’s much to explore and wonder about – the crowd that gathers for Pilate’s prisoner release stunt demands that Barabbas be freed, and Jesus be executed. Please note, this is not the same crowd that greeted Jesus on his arrival in the city! Some of the people could have been the same, but this is five days later and in a different place. It’s not like a thousand people loved Jesus one minute and hated him the next. 

As Matthew sees it, Pilate doesn’t really want to have Jesus executed, but he has to do it because the crowd is demanding it – and as the Roman governor, his job is to keep the peace. A riot at Passover could get messy. So, even though it is the Roman government that has the power to perform executions, even though Jesus will be crucified by Roman soldiers, Pilate tries to excuse himself, saying,“I am innocent of this man’s blood.” 

And Matthew has the people respond – “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

In fact the text says that the PEOPLE AS A WHOLE say that. It’s not a particular crowd, this particular thousand people, but the entire Jewish people. And that is what Matthew means. 

This line – “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” – is only in Matthew’s Gospel. I believe, quite strongly, that this line is something Matthew has ADDED to the account of these events that he received – in order to explicitly blame the Jewish people for Jesus’ death.

And Matthew does that because he has seen terrible, terrible things. In the year 66, there’s a revolt against the Romans in Judea. The Romans have massively superior military force, and they crush the revolt. Jerusalem burns. The Great Temple is torn down. Countless people die. Matthew sees this. I suspect he was an eyewitness; I suspect he lost people – just because his rage and grief burn so hot. 

And Matthew – writing his account of the Gospel; struggling to make sense of horror – comes to an explanation. He doesn’t say, Well, this is what empires do: they hold territory by force, against the will of many of the locals, and now and then the locals revolt, and the empire, if it’s strong enough, crushes the revolt so they can keep holding the territory and extracting wealth from it. 

Instead Matthew says: This is God’s punishment on the Jews for rejecting Jesus. 

And the terrible thing, beloveds, is this:

Matthew thought that punishment was accomplished. Done. 

But as Christianity became a religion with political and social power in the subsequent centuries, Christian leaders used this text to justify persecuting Jews. 

This idea – that the Jewish people as a whole carry blood guilt for Jesus’ death – has a body count in the millions. And it’s not dead yet. 

I always encourage us to read Scripture with a thoughtful eye. With respect, with love, with curiosity, but also with an awareness that texts speak in complicated ways, and that there’s much to wonder about what we receive in this book we call holy. 

In this case, beloveds, I encourage us to actively resist this part of Matthew’s telling of this story.

And I’ve asked the Narrator to give us time to pause after that line. Among the other pauses and moments we’ll take to just breathe through everything that’s hard and sad and terrible about the story the church tells today, we will take a moment of stillness for the weight of all the violence that this text has justified. 

In sharing all this, it’s not my intention to deflect our attention from Jesus – the central figure in this story, the central figure in our faith. Accepting this death, Jesus takes on all the ways humans hurt each other… the burden of our capacity to hate, condemn, destroy. Surely it must have been one of the most difficult aspects of our humanity for God to take on fully. 

But he does take it on – and it kills him. 

That’s the part of the story we tell today, and again on Friday. It’s a hard part of the story. But it’s not the end of the story. In some ways it’s just the beginning. 

We’ll continue in the Passion Gospel booklet. You may need to share with a neighbor. 

Those reading the parts of the Narrator and Jesus should come to microphones. Other readers are asked to stay in your place, and STAND and USE YOUR BIG VOICE when it’s time to speak your lines. 

The rest of us will sit for the first part of the Passion Gospel. We will be invited to stand, later.