Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Birth of an Era

The Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12.19)

What’s Happening

A bout of spring flu the past few days irritated me twice over by preventing me from posting on Palm Sunday. Opening Monday’s Lectionary to find John’s account of the event brought a sigh of relief, as he connects the dots between Lazarus’s resurrection and the impromptu coronation initiating Jesus's final week of mortal life. And it’s a rollercoaster by any standard, a white-knuckle frenzy of dazzling ascents and dizzying plummets held to the tracks by the centrifugal force of divine destiny propelled by human hatred.

At first, the brevity of John’s treatment surprises us—more for its abrupt departure in style than glossing over information the other Gospels highlight (procurement of the donkey Jesus rides into Jerusalem, His remark about “rocks and stones” singing His praises when Pharisees disdain the crowd’s exuberance). Up to now, John is to the rest what long-form maestros like Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag are to newspaper reporters. He’s a poet with a sharp eye for telling details that bring hidden nuances to light. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke outpace him in scope, their concise, linear approach primarily focuses on what happened. John’s episodic structure and specificity—time of day, social dynamics, personal histories, and so on—illuminate what’s happening. Subtext is everything to him, which is why we read him for truths that emerge in his lengthy scenes and metaphorical dialogue without burdening him with historical reliability. So it’s a bit startling when John squeezes this signal moment in Jesus’s story—the proverbial point of no return that flips everything upside-down—into seven verses offering little in the way of drama or history.

Full-Blown Crisis

It appears John condenses his narrative for dramatic effect, inferring by the time Jesus reaches the capitol, the conspiracy against Him and surge of adulation are at critical mass. Although He’s escaped assassination attempts before, Jesus can’t avoid what awaits Him in Jerusalem. Curiously, however, John back-times the genesis of this fateful moment to Lazarus’s resurrection in nearby Bethany. There Jesus’s indisputable authority over Death unleashes a tidal wave of new followers, on the eve of Passover no less, when Jerusalem will teem with excitable provincials sure to be swept up by the sudden furor. This Self-styled Rabbi from Nazareth has been a problem from the start. But now the powers that be realize the Lazarus feat has created a full-blown crisis.

To make matters worse, John tightens the screws by inserting a scene in which Mary, Lazarus’s sister, anoints Jesus with expensive perfume before the Triumphal Entry, thus setting Judas Iscariot’s betrayal in motion to coincide with Jesus’s enemies’ urgency to eliminate Him. (Matthew and Mark place the controversy later in the week, near the Last Supper; Luke puts it earlier in Jesus’s ministry with no mention of Judas; all three locate it in the home of another Bethany resident, Simon the Leper, and don’t identify the woman who honors Jesus with her costly gesture. Ergo, discrepancies abound across the board.) The chief priests essentially declare a state of emergency; in typical political overkill, they scheme to end the problem by murdering Jesus and Lazarus. Meanwhile, the Pharisees—those enthusiastic enforcers of religious order—toss in the towel. “This is getting us nowhere,” they concede. “Look how the whole world has gone after Him!” (John 12.19)

Not One Word

This being John’s version, we fully expect to hear from Jesus as the ominous storm coalesces around Him. Is this not the Gospel that defines Jesus as “the Word made flesh”? (John 1.14) Is Jesus not at His most eloquent, probing, and assertive in John’s narrative? Does He not consistently proclaim, “I am,” in these pages? “I am the Bread of Life” (6.35), “the Light of the World” (8.12), “the Gate” (10.9), “the Good Shepherd” (10.11), “the Resurrection and the Life” (11.25), “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14.6), and “the Vine” (15.5)—boldly (to many, heretically) declaring He is God, the I AM of Exodus, Who ordains Moses to liberate the Hebrews? What does Jesus say to His disciples, His fans, and His enemies while seated on a young donkey, making His way to Jerusalem on a road paved with palms of victory and garments of praise? As John tells it, not one word.

John takes Matthew’s lead, underscoring the Messianic import of Jesus’s mode of transportation: “See, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” (Zechariah 9.9) The donkey is a loaded symbol, signifying the wealth and nobility of its rider, whose shoes never graze the ground, while also a stark contrast to horses exclusively employed for warfare. The colt’s youth heightens the effect; it’s an untried, untamed beast, verifying Jesus’s docile strength as a gentle Master. And, still, the absence of Jesus’s voice in John pierces the majestic aura of Zechariah’s Sovereign to pinpoint Isaiah’s Sacrifice: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (53.7) The other Gospels will get there as well, when Jesus refuses to answer His accusers in Herod’s court. But John’s unusual decision to mute Jesus completely—withholding any comment about the crowd’s adulation or reproach for the Pharisees’ outrage at its raucous behavior—fairly explodes with bone-chilling subtext. This isn’t a coronation parade; it’s a funeral procession. These aren’t faithful adorers; they’re fickle adversaries. They will be the death of Him. Though they bellow, “Hosanna!”—“Save us!”—they’ll not spare His life. It’s a done deal before Jesus dismounts in Jerusalem. It’s over before it’s begun.

Life Now. Life Always.

For the first time in three-and-a-half years of constant bickering, Jesus and the Pharisees see eye-to-eye. Practically overnight, this thing has escalated in speed and scale until it’s bigger than all of them. Both He and His dogged detractors sense they’re witnessing the birth of an era, an irrevocable changing of the guard that will conclusively reverse humanity’s march into the abyss. Inescapable Death that ushers Jesus into Jerusalem will be met and answered by Indomitable Life—not the gossamer-and-pearly dream of Life Forever After, but Life Now, Indomitable Life Now. The resurrection of Lazarus was also a done deal when the Word Made Flesh declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” John couldn’t be more correct in citing that statement—Life Hereafter and Life Here—as the catalyst for this tumultuous week we commemorate.

The Pharisees couldn’t be more right in their resignation. As they watch what’s happening before their eyes, what else is there to say but, “This is getting us nowhere”? Peter’s already expressed their sentiment in John 6.68: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Of course, as the Pharisees observe, “The whole world has gone after Him!” Every step in Jesus’s natural existence has mounted to this pivotal event, when human lack acquiesces to divine longing: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

This week we quit Lent’s desert and proceed into Jerusalem, not as palm-waving fanatics, but as true disciples eternally grateful to live in the Era of Resurrection and Life. We go after Jesus with billions across the ages, knowing anything less gets us nowhere. He has the words of eternal life. Life Now. Life Always. Indomitable Life that meets and answers Inescapable Death.

By muting Jesus, John replaces Zechariah’s Sovereign with Isaiah’s Sacrifice. But the Inescapable Death ushering Jesus into Jerusalem will be met and answered by Indomitable Life.


Sherry Peyton said...

So glad you are back on your feet Tim.. I thought perhaps you were out of town on business. I have missed your posts. This one is especially wonderful. The breadth of knowledge you have simply astounds me, and you way of drawing forth imagey is magnificent. I'd never thought of anything regarding the donkey/colt before for instance, and you breathe such significance into it. I'm am priviledged to be able to read such a fine reflection. More please! lol...

Tim said...

I'm glad to back on my feet too, Sherry! Most of all because I'll be trundling back to your place and others I love to see what all I've missed.

The longer I live and the more I learn, the more amazed I am at the intricacies of Scripture. For a document that (to the natural eye) appears to have come together by happenstance, the clarity of purpose in the details is simply astounding. When I read passages now I'm always asking questions like "Why a donkey and not a horse or a cart?" in this one. And with a little investigation, there's always a rich reason. Nothing is by chance. God's Spirit prevails and illuminates God's Word, despite all the fumbling and futzing we've done with it down through the centuries.

I trust this Holy Week presents you an embarrassment of riches as we follow our Savior to the cross and await His triumphant exit from the tomb!