Sunday Scripture: Palm Sunday


Welcome to this, the thirty-fifth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.

  • First Reading: Isaiah 50: 4-7.
  • Psalm 21: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Response: v. 2. 
  • Second Reading: Philippians: 2: 6-11.
  • Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:56.
Although in Ireland you will be celebrating the Liturgy of Saint Patrick.

First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

This week: the reading is from the Third Song of the Suffering Servant (50:4-11): The Disciple's Submission. The servant who proclaims the good news, announcing peace (52:7) experiences affliction on account of the word he preaches (50:5-6; cf Jer 20:7-13). His capacity to accept suffering stems from his training as a prophet in the school of Isaiah. By his obedience, he contradicts the rebellious who refuse to listen to the Law (50:4-11, cf. 30:8-14). In him, we contemplate an intimate connection between suffering and God's word both in listening and in speaking. For one whose heart is set on God, affliction can be a means of purification leading to a deeper hearing of the divine word. The Lord does not neglect but speaks most deeply to the afflicted. This truth is in opposition to the traditionally held view that suffering is God's punishment for sin (Gn 3:14-19; 12:17; 42:21; Jos 7:6-13; Jb 33:19-30). In this Song, however, the servant provides the axiom for apostolic preaching when he testifies that God's word releases a life-giving power for "the weary" as his prophet speaks from his tribulation (50:4; cf. 40: 29-30; cf. 2 Cor 4:7-5:10; 11:21-12:10). Even as he suffers, the Lord's servant has a boldness to confront his adversaries in court to prove righteousness (50:8-10). This righteousness comes from trust in the Lord (50:10; cf. 30:15). Here we can see more prophetic echoes: the servant facing Israel herself in court before the Lord who is close to the servant and gives him His vindication.

I think with this understanding, and in prayerful reflection and solemn consideration, the reading takes on a scarily prophetic mantle, it foretells clearly the Passion as explained in Matthew's Gospel. The key verse perhaps being Matthew 26:67 "Then they spat in His face, and struck Him; and some slapped Him,".

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week: The psalm is as quoted by Jesus Himself from the Cross (interestingly) again in Matthew 27:46. Many scholars consider that when Christ used these words He was not saying that He was forsaken by God, but by quoting the opening words of this psalm, He was in fact saying that He was experiencing what this psalm expresses. Namely, the depth of human misery. The psalm depicts the plight of the righteous sufferer. Although innocent, he is mocked and abused by the ungodly. He thus turns to God in his distress and petitions for deliverance. The entire plot of Psalm 21 is evoked by Jesus' cry from the Cross which expresses His agony at the full experience of rejection. It is the sufferer's humiliation which gives way to his vindication. Thus Jesus does not consider His Passion meaningless or a mark of failure; still less does He succumb to a sin of despair. Rather He "trusts in God" (Mt 27:43) and surrenders His spirit to the Father (Lk 23:46). Like the innocent sufferer of the Psalm, He is confident that God will turn His misery into victory (cf. Lk 23:43).

The Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians was written by St. Paul in A.D. 54 from Ephesus while he was on his second missionary journey. It's style and theology are typically Pauline, although the letter does show a friendlier side to the Apostle which is more often hidden in his more polemical and formal writings. Philippians is referred to as one of the "captivity epistles" because Paul composed it whilst in prison (1:13). Given this fact, it is remarkably up beat in tone. The letter is almost entirely positive, with only brief warnings and almost no polemics.

This week: We are treated to the great Christological Hymn of 2:5-11 the Carmen Christi, a description of Christ as a servant to be imitated which forms the most famous passage of Philippians. It is a liturgical hymn on the Lordship of Jesus written within the first three decades of the Church's existence.

After it describes the pre-existent Jesus' self-emptying, the hymn also declares His exaltation. It does not mean that Jesus divested Himself of divinity when He united Himself with humanity, but that He restricted His rightful exercise of certain divine abilities during His earthly life and accepted certain limitations of the human condition. In effect, the Son of God made Himself poor in order to make us rich with His grace (2 Cor 8:9, CCC 472).

The hymn is a concise and conceptually undeveloped form of the full christological confession of the Church. The bestowal of the "name above every name" upon the risen Christ clearly means the bestowal of the unspeakable divine name YHWH expressed by the term "LORD"—just as the Jewish liturgy addressed YHWH by this title. The Isaian text (45:23) that had originally referred to the universal dominion of YHWH and to His right to the worship of all humankind is enlarged and applied to exalted Christ. He rules the whole cosmos (the angelic world, the human race and those in the nether-world) and all owe Him worship. Again here we see the theme of the Suffering Servant (2:7) and the hymn is extremely rich in theological as well as moral content, as they articulate the mystery of Christ and set Him forth as the model for Christian living. Reflection on Christ ("The Servant") inspires us to be servants to one another (2:4, CCC 411, CCC 713).


The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: The Gospel begins with the Last Supper narrative from Luke, which is twice as long as the Marcan or Matthean accounts. Jesus' earnest desire to eat this Passover meal with His Apostles catches the warmth of the relationship, especially now that His hour has come (22:14-15, cf. Jn 13:1). The clauses about Jesus not eating or drinking again "until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" or "until the kingdom of God comes" (22:16, 18) enhance the eschatological symbolism of the Supper, but are obscure in their precise reference. We can see the anamnesis motif evident in the Passover feast: "remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life" (Deut 16:3) a further Old Testament echo which is brought into solid reality in Christ.

After the Supper, Luke has no dialogue as the group move to the mount opposite Jerusalem where Jesus prays and is arrested (22:39-53). Luke simplifies Mark's dramatic account of the alienation of Jesus from the disciples and does not have a description of Jesus' emotions or falling to the ground. The Lucan Jesus kneels with composure to pray and finds the disciples sleeping only once "out of sorrow". The extreme distress of Jesus' soul becomes manifest through His body and His sweat becomes "like great drops of blood falling to the ground". Although Jesus is a divine person, the human nature He has assumed gives Him the full capacity to suffer and die as a man (Heb 2:14-15).

When He is arrested, Jesus shows that He understands the evil intention behind Judas' kiss (22:48). This contortion of a symbol of affection into one of betrayal speaks to another human reality consistent with our common experience; that human frailty is primarily manifest in the most intimate relationships and wounds most deeply those whom we are to love most fully. The disciples demonstrate their continuing misunderstanding (following the discussion of swords at the Supper) by asking about striking with the sword. This question prompts Jesus to tell them to desist, advice that Luke is passing on to Christians facing arrest and persecution in their time.

As the chief priests arrive on the scene, Luke sets the theological scene for Satan's final attack on Jesus (22:53) although even in this desperate moment, Jesus still stops to heal the man who's ear is struck off. Peter betrays Jesus and there is a poignant moment when the Lord turns and looks at Peter, recalling the promise at the Last Supper that Jesus would pray for Simon Peter so that his faith would not fail. The apostle's bitter weeping (22:62) marks the beginning of his restoration.

The Jewish trial parallels the Old Testament episode of Jeremiah & King Zedekiah (Jer 38:2-14) where Jeremiah is accused as a false prophet for announcing Jerusalem's doom, abused by the head princes of he city who sought his death, and stood trial before the Judean ruler.

The Roman trial dramatises Jesus' innocence as Pilate states three times that he can find no guilt in Him. Luke also observes that Jesus presence before Pilate and Herod healed the enmity between them (23:12). Jesus who healed so many during His public ministry continues to heal throughout the Passion.

Luke elevates the way of the cross (23:26-32) beyond the transitional sentence found in the other Gospels and immediately before Jesus is crucified, groups together Simon the Cyrenian, a large multitude of people, and the "daughters of Jerusalem". In 23:47-49 immediately after Jesus dies on the cross, he groups the Roman Centurion, the crowds, and the women from Galilee—a triptych with the crucifixion in the centre and a group of three parties favourable to Jesus on either side. Echoing the OT, the warnings of Jesus to the weeping women of Jerusalem (23:28-32) represent a continuation of the theme whereby Jesus reluctantly proclaimed the fate of the city to be sealed (19:41-44)—despite the presence of some who are sympathetic. Of course this prophecy came to pass in AD 70 just has Jesus had foretold.

At the end the people are separated out as simple observers and Luke describes Jesus as being mocked in triplicate, by the rulers, the soldiers and one of the co-crucified. The generosity of Jesus in 23:40-43 goes far beyond what the criminal asks for and Jesus last words on the cross are confident and trusting of the Father. The Gospel ends with the recounting of the reaction of the three parties to the death of Jesus, followed by the burial. The Roman centurion joins his testimony to those of Herod, Pilate and the one co-crucified wrongdoer that Jesus was a just man and did no wrong. The crowds express great sorrow. The women followers stand at a distance looking on; and they will be the connective to the future, for they will also look on at the burial and come to the tomb. The final touch is to tell us that the women observed the Sabbath law. Luke was very insistent to report that at the birth of Jesus everything was done according to the Law; from one end of His life to the other, Jesus had lived within the confines of Judaism.

Drawing them all together...

At the beginning of Lent we reflected on the temptation in the desert and wondered why Jesus had to be tempted. Now at the beginning of Holy Week we wonder why He had to suffer. The depth of His obedience and cooperation, indeed His oneness with His Father, is the answer to some of this mystery, a deepening of our understanding of how and why God saves us. The whole contour of Easter is presented to us in compression, like an overture that tells the story of an opera in advance, but in powerful, symbolic interpretation.

The evangelist shows us the glory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; He came to lay down the final challenge to His people: here I am; this is what I am like; I am for you; are you for me? He knew that this would mean His rejection and death, but it is the nature of God to love us, and to expect a response in return: this is crucial. So He comes in glory, although this is a different glory from that of the conquering military ruler on horseback so longed for and expected by the people. Jesus embodies a humble, penetrating love that the people struggle to comprehend, and it is art of the mystery of love that there should be rejection. The praise and the glory of Easter will be attained, but by entering into the dark and terrifying reality of cosmic evil, of sin, and of death.

The prophetic ministry of the Old Testament foresaw this mystery and gave voice to it in Isaiah's vision of the Suffering Servant, the one who represents the love of God which is rejected, and who must suffer for the people. He is the Word who speaks, who brings comfort to those who are weary. He knows what will happen, but he has the fortitude and conviction to move forward nonetheless—and he is vindicated.

In the Psalm, we learn that there is no easy, obvious or crass solution to suffering: the whole issue of innocent suffering is confronted, and again we are confronted by a response which is uplifting and married to a promise of redemption.

Perhaps it is in the carmen Christi that this finds ultimate expression. Here Jesus is identified as the Suffering Servant and the Man of Sorrows, the one who in His life and death recapitulated al human experience, and in recapitulating it went into the darkness of death, transforming it into exaltation. The key lies in His total obedience to His Father, the sacrificial opening of His heart in love, even in the midst of rejection and death, the emptying of Himself so that God could fill Him with His love, a love that would overflow, and touch the loves of everyone else. "See where Christ's blood streams in the firmament," says Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play. So the king goes to be crowned: His crown is of thorns, and His throne a cross. But His power lies in the totality of love, His revelation of this deepest of mysteries. The answer to all suffering and sin is found in this creating and saving love that opens Paradise for us today.

The Crucified Christ—Peter Paul Rubens (1610-1611).


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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