Hysteria & Self Interest

Sunday 16th March 2008
Year A, Palm Sunday
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 26:14-75
Matthew 27:1-66

Today we are privileged to hear two passages from Matthew's Gospel which take us from the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to his tragic exit from this earthly life; we begin with "Hosanna!" and mark the beginning of the end with "Crucify him!".

This change of mood is usually attributed, in a rather glib way, to the fickleness of the Jewish crowd but matters are not that simple. First of all, there is no evidence that the people who greeted Jesus were the same as those who condemned him although there is a high probability that many of the religious leaders who were worried at his entry connived at his downfall.

Secondly, there were very good reasons why people should have changed their minds between Sunday and Thursday because during that time Jesus, depending on the different chronologies of the Gospels: overturned the tables in the temple and attacked the merchants; taunted the religious leaders as hypocrites; attacked the Sadducees; publicly advocated paying Imperial taxes; and made an obscure but serious threat against the Temple. There might have been strong suspicions of him before he arrived but this was a lot to swallow in an environment of political precariousness and doctrinal preciousness.

We need to ask ourselves, as we stand in the crowd on Palm Sunday and, again, early on Friday morning, whether we would have behaved differently. How far would we have been able to free ourselves from the heady mixture of political hysteria and self interest? Would we have found a way to be generous to the man who rode on a donkey when the political climate worsened?

Our track record is not good. As citizens we have become so ungenerous and suspicious of everything that we have even become suspicious of generosity; our civic virtue of scepticism has become the vice of cynicism; our civic virtue of prudence has become the vice of selfishness; our civic virtue of generosity has become the vice of calculation.

As trust ebbs, regulation flows; instead of building trust through generosity we call for ever more regulation, control, codes, audits and enquiries. And then we carp about what we have imposed, accusing everyone else of imposing "red tape" which shackles our freedom. I wonder how many enquiries, investigations and writs would result from Jesus riding through the streets today; at the very least, Health and Safety would have something to say about the unauthorised use of a donkey! But behind this flippant observation there is a much deeper truth; we are losing

the capacity to give anybody or anything the benefit of the doubt, the very smallest facet of the jewel of generosity.

At a deeper level we have become almost incapable of honouring difference and this has spilled over disastrously into the life of our Church. The secular passion for combat rather than collaboration has overwhelmed us; we are even contemplating bringing in external facilitators to help us to talk to each other; we have lost the patience to listen and the creativity to be constructive. Some of our Bishops are using their shepherd's crooks as offensive weapons. Theology is no longer a kind of careful mine clearing operation to give us space to consider the mystery and meaning of God, it is an arsenal of offensive weapons.

At the level of personal Discipleship we need to ask ourselves whether we are generous to Jesus; do we make space for him to be himself and be with us or have we closed him down so that he can fit into the human-shaped space that we have grudgingly made for him? Are we as rigid as the Pharisaic legalists who saw the radical Jesus as a threat?

As Christians standing on a Jerusalem street, we have the incalculable advantage of knowing what is going to happen at the end of the story. We are children of the Resurrection which has freed us from the salvation history of calculation which paralysed Judaism. Because the Resurrection underwrites the promise of salvation for everyone forever, we are required to take the risks that love necessarily involves. And so, as we take our journey, re-living the story of the passion and death of Jesus in different ways, through different eyes, the question we need to ask ourselves is not: "Would I have done any better?", although this is a good starting point, but: "Given what I know of God's love for me, why am I not doing better?"

One answer is that we have pulled back from the generosity of difference into the compromise of what contemporary commentators call bricolage, the art of taking fragments from a variety of places and putting them together. WE do not honour difference by letting it roam free in our space, we accommodate it by emasculating it. Instead of learning to love each other's otherness we live our lives as a permanent diplomatic corps, taking a little of this and a little of that, turning the wholesome individuality of vegetables into disgusting, characterless reddish-brown soup. Instead of being free to grow we are ground down into lifeless symbolism.

But Jesus did not die symbolically and did not die for symbolism. He died for difference, for the infinite variety of humanity, for the unique way each of us possesses for exercising our choice to love each other and, through each other, our choice to love God. The transformation which took place during the last days of the earthly life of Jesus was the result of realpolitik; but the Resurrection made a nonsense of realpolitik and, through our generosity, so must we.