by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
At Trinity, we are spending two weeks thinking about the Palm Sunday text:
During the first week of study of this text, we talked about Jesus riding on a donkey, about the disciples who had gotten to do cool stuff like casting out demons being sent to get that donkey, about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, which would be like cleaning feet that had walked through sewers.
We talked, in short, about humility and what it means to humble ourselves.
I immediately thought about Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite 20th century theologians. He wrote many books while teaching at the top universities in the U.S. However he spent the last few years of his life living in an intentional L'Arche community with a group of Christians who live with extremely disabled people. For years, Nouwen was the personal assistant for a man with severe disabilities, which meant he helped with bathing and bathroom duties, while also serving as pastor for the Daybreak community.
Does the Palm Sunday narrative call us to that kind of loving sacrifice?
I've been thinking about other kinds of loving sacrifice this week, a different kind of humility. I was working on two essays, one about Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed March 24, 1980 in El Salvador and one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed April 9, 1945. Both men could have turned away from the suffering of the poor and oppressed. Both men could have chosen not to speak up about the government forces doing that oppressing. They could have lived comfortable lives.
But they chose to speak up for the plight of the people whom others were ignoring. And for this unceasing call to be better, the empires which ruled the land killed them.
It's important when thinking about Jesus that we not get so focused on his humility that we forget the ways he was not humble. In his book Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eugene H. Peterson reminds us, "Nothing is more rudely dismissive of Jesus than to treat him as a Sunday school teacher who shows up on Sundays to teach us about God and how to stay out of trouble. If that is the role we assign to Jesus, we will badly misunderstand who he is and what he is about" (page 135).
Jesus showed us the fullness of a life lived in love. The love he showed went far beyond washing feet and healing the sick. Jesus called for a change to the very structure of society, a society that was a brutal and dehumanizing experience for all but the ones at the very top.
Jesus spent part of the time leading up to his crucifixion, after all, by pointing out the oppressive power structures that surrounded him and by criticizing those who had made themselves very cozy with the ruling Roman empire. Think, for example, of Jesus throwing the sellers and moneychangers out of the temple. The Roman empire put him to death and rather swiftly.
But the Easter story reminds us that God can use even the most abject situations, the darkest times, to move the world towards redemption and resurrection. At times it may seem that evil has the final word, but the Passion story shows us that even the violence wrought by unjust earthly systems can be changed into a force for redemption and resurrection. Humans may not be able to force that change--but God can.