Palm Sunday: It Is Not a Pretty Picture

Palm Sunday: It Is Not a Pretty Picture

Sermon by The Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson, April 13, 2003
Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ

Reading: The Passion according to St. Mark

It is not a pretty picture; but it is one we must look at today.

The humiliation is complete. The person on the cross becomes a non-person. Let all take notice: this is what will happen to anyone who threatens the current domination system. This is what crucifixion is all about.

The service, today, that begins with the hollow parade of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem ends with a slow and silent recession that brings us face to face with a rough hewed cross, adorned only with a barbed wire crown of thorns. That cross stands in the middle of the aisle and blocks our way. It forces us to look at it head on. It is a picture of terror. This cross is a statement of what people do to each other when they feel threatened.

The horror of the crucifixion is that it is the total humiliation of a human being. The victim becomes a non-person. Crucifixions are public events intended to serve as a deterrent. They are conducted at a high point of the city where vertical posts permanently stand in place. Victims carry their own crossbars to the site. They are publicly beaten, stripped naked and then fastened to the crossbar, always with rope and sometimes additionally with nails to increase the suffering. The cross bar is raised up and attached to the vertical pole leaving the victim hanging there to die slowly.

Biblical scholar John Dominick Crossan tells us that in the Roman world the final humiliation of crucifixion is that the victim is left on the cross after death for the vultures to eat. Or, if the body is taken down, it is thrown on the ground as a meal for wild dogs and scavengers. Guards remain in place lest a family member come to remove the body. Destruction of the body is an essential part of the punishment. To deny burial in the ancient world is to blot out a person's identity. It is the complete humiliation. The victim becomes a non-person.

The three supreme Roman penalties are crucifixion, burning, and death by wild beast. What makes them supreme, besides their cruelty, is that nothing is left for burial at the end. This is what the Roman domination system does when it feels most threatened. It turns the one who is threatening it into a non-person. This is the obscenity of the cross that we view head-on today.

The picture of Jesus rotting on the cross, flesh picked off by vultures is abhorrent. It is in stark contrast to all the pictures from Sunday School days in our heads of a cleaned-up Jesus buried in white robes in a cave on the side of a hill set in a lovely garden. Ancient writings, anthropological digs and modern scholarship tell us that the probability of Jesus' burial in such a hillside cave is extremely low. The whole purpose of crucifixion is to turn the victim into a non-person. It is what Rome does when it feels threatened.

The truth is that we all can feel threatened. We all can find ourselves on the defensive. It can happen almost automatically for reasons that we cannot begin to understand. Once we feel threatened we are forced to wrestle with how we are to react to the person or people we feel are threatening us. The temptation is to turn that person into a non-person. The cross is the extreme end of a very human temptation we all face. To look at the cross, today, is to look at the temptation that lives within each of us. It is a temptation that can express itself in the most subtle of ways.

How do we turn someone into a non-person? All we need do is to ignore them, refuse to engage them, act as if they did not exist. Family members and former friends no longer speak. People pass each other on the street and do not even see each other. In a room full of people, it is as if certain people were not even there. No, it is not the same as hanging someone on a cross, but we are on the same continuum that ends up at the cross.

How do we turn someone into a non-person? We gently turn them into a category and identify them as "those people." Once in a category, be it Jewish, gay, fundamentalist, conservative, female, aged or working class, we then begin to assume and anticipate and identify behaviors that support our definition of the category. As much as we fight our tendency to do this, still we do it all the time. It is just too much work to relate to people who have unlimited ways to respond to us. It is just easier to relate out of our assumptions. Still, no one is getting a nail driven through hands and feet, but, rest assured, we are on the same continuum that ends up at the cross.

How do we turn someone into a non-person? We judge their motives. We assume their behavior is intentional. We slide down the slippery slope of passing judgment on the entire person because of specific behaviors of that person. Bad behavior becomes indistinguishable from a person who is bad and such people must be stopped. And, the more threatening we feel the person to be, the more physical, the more violent the stopping can be. We are moving in the direction of the cross.

How do we turn someone into a non-person? You begin to see the world in terms of good and evil, made up of good and bad people. Sure, we are much too sophisticated to use such primitive description. Our preference is to see the divisions in the world between the civilized and uncivilized, the industrial and non-industrial, the 1st and 3rd worlds, between governments that are democratic and dictatorial, enlightened and unenlightened, fanatical and moderate. The world thus divided we begin to feel superior which quickly turns into arrogance. We have civilization and good taste on our side. We have all that is right and holy on our side. Such are the attitudes of Rome, the domination system of its day. Rome is the pinnacle of culture, law, commerce, world unity and civilization. Jesus, clearly, is a non-person, from a race of non-persons. He therefore deserves the punishment of a non-person for threatening the Roman state. When you threaten the will of the gods, no punishment is too extreme.

The point of Palm Sunday is that we look directly at the cross with all of its ugliness. It is time to put away the crosses of polished brass and shiny silver. It is time to look at the temptation that lives within each of us to turn the one who threatens us into a non-person. We are not evil people because we are threatened. We are only human. The Romans are not evil people. We are not evil people because we react in ways to diminish the humanity of those threatening us. We are only human. We get scared. When we get scared, all we can think about is self-protection.

What the cross does today is simply to make us look at the ultimate consequences of these impulses that live within each of us when those impulses are left unchecked. It is not a pretty picture; but it is one we must look at today. Amen


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