Palm Sunday 2021
Series: Holy Week
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Third graders don’t ask rhetorical questions. If they ask a reasonable question, they expect an answer. Exhibit A: this question left in my office mailbox several years ago by a confounded Sunday school teacher: “How does Jesus dying relieve our sins?” One of her third graders had drawn a cross and wrote this question on top. The child expected more than silence in return. My teacher didn’t know what to say, so she pivoted to me.
Children aren’t alone in their unanswered questions. All sorts of questions are met with silence in today’s Gospel, including the most haunting of them all: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Let’s be honest – if the Passion is nothing more than the story of a misunderstood hero meant to stir up our compassion – while it might be instructive in an Amnesty International kind of way, it doesn’t bring salvation. If all it does is reacquaint us with our loneliness and pain – while it might be cathartic, it doesn’t bring hope. If all it does is confirm our complicity in state-sanctioned violence, our own silence and paralysis in the face of torture – while it might force honesty, it doesn’t bring forgiveness. I guess my question, and I suspect yours, is the same as that of my 3rd grader. How does Jesus dying bring us any kind of relief, much less salvation or forgiveness or even hope?
The only one who appears to be saved, in this text anyway, is Barabbas, the violent felon who was set free in Jesus’ place. Maybe that’s a clue to what is going on here. Perhaps it’s more than just an outrageous miscarriage of justice, although it is that too. There’s no evidence outside of the Bible for such a seemingly ridiculous practice – the releasing of a known criminal in the middle of a festival. Perhaps the very ridiculousness of it could be part of the point.
Earlier in Mark, Jesus told his disciples: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In Jesus’ day, one was expected to rescue relatives from debtor’s prison by offering a price or a ransom for their freedom. Usually, it was money that was given, but it was only expected from members of your family. Who else would care that much? Here Jesus breaks any reasonable definition of family, and any question of deserving or reciprocity is thrown out the window.
In his silence, in his refusal to define his goodness at another’s expense, he ends up giving what cannot be paid back – his life, and because of him, someone who does not deserve it is set free and given hope for a different future. Barabbas, whose name means “son of the father,” is no longer held captive by his very evident failures. He’s now released to live a different life. At the end of any kind of human love, beyond the realistic limits of our forgiveness, beyond what is reasonable or even just, in the cross – we have Jesus setting another son of the Father free.
Any other clues we’re given at this point are hidden at best. Mark won’t give our 3rd grader easy answers. Here we have no open tombs as in Matthew, no spoken promises of forgiveness as in Luke. The only signs we’re given are darkness and a torn curtain. It’s not much to go on, but it’s something. The sun goes dark at noon, and for three hours, Jesus’ identification with us is complete. Whatever else the cross might mean (and, yes, it means more than we can say right now on this side of Easter), it means that we have the relief of knowing that we will never be truly alone again. In the Passion, Jesus experiences what we think God can’t possibly know – the horror of a body this fragile; the loneliness of someone who needs his friends and family close and has lost them; the grief of one whose work has seemingly come to naught, and most troubling of all, the utter silence of the One who was never supposed to leave or forsake him. (Of course, silence is not the same thing as absence; it’s just hard to know that at the time.) It’s said that compassion is entering into the suffering of another for the sake of relieving it. If Jesus is who he says he is, then he’s just revealed to us in his Passion the very heartbeat of God – namely, boundless, unreserved, unmeasured, unreasonable compassion.
And then there’s the Temple curtain – that barrier separating us from the Holy of Holies. It’s ripped open once and for all. That means we have unmediated access to God, and God, even despite us, has access to us. So, we can stop trying to protect God from our most painful questions. We can stop bargaining with God for favors with our paltry faithfulness and the weight of our sacrifices. We can stop looking for scapegoats and act like the responsible followers we’re called to be, admitting the depth of our sin and brokenness, our need to be forgiven. Because in the cross, Jesus has thrown all questions of deserving and reciprocity out the window. Through the love and integrity displayed on the cross, we are set free and given hope for a different future – a future that’s not dependent on the depths of our compassion or the limits of our forgiveness, but on a God in Christ who has truly loved us to the end and given us a love worth living for. And if that’s not at least a relief, I don’t know what is. Amen.