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 The Peace Pulpit:  Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI.  Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive.  You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted.  From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week.
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Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion
April 13, 2003

Thomas J. Gumbleton

Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *

This week's readings **

Isaiah 50:4-7

The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words the weary. Morning by morning, the Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, neither have I turned away. I gave my back to the strikers, and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair; I didn't hide my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord Yahweh will help me; therefore I have not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be disappointed. 

Philipians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Mark 11:1-10

Gospel for the 
Procession of Palms

When they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethsphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, "Go your way into the village that is opposite you. Immediately as you enter into it, you will find a young donkey tied, on which no one has sat. Untie him, and bring him. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord needs him;' and immediately he will send him back here."

They went away, and found a young donkey tied at the door outside in the open street, and they untied him. Some of those who stood there asked them, "What are you doing, untying the young donkey?"  They said to them just as Jesus had said, and they let them go.

They brought the young donkey to Jesus, and threw their garments on it, and Jesus sat on it. Many spread their garments on the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees, and spreading them on the road.  Those who went in front, and those who followed, cried out, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published numerous articles and reports.

* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.

For your convenience, the Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC).

** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.

I know that many of you have heard me quote a couple of sentences from a book called The New Testament Without Illusions by scripture scholar John McKenzie.

The sentences that I have quoted are:  “If Jesus did not reject violence for any reason whatsoever, then we know nothing about Jesus.”  “If Jesus did not reject violence for any reason whatsoever, then we know nothing about Jesus.”  In other words, it is so clear in the Scriptures that if we can’t say that about Jesus Christ we may as well say nothing about Jesus.

The other sentence, John McKenzie goes on to challenge us:  “Jesus taught us how to die, not how to kill.”

I admit, the first time I read those sentences quite a few years ago, I was really stunned by it because I had not truly accepted the fact that Jesus rejected all violence and expected his followers to do the same, reject violence.  Jesus taught us how to die loving and forgiving even the ones putting you to death, not how to kill. 

Maybe many of us are still surprised to hear that Jesus rejected all violence and wanted his followers to do the same and that the first Christian community for hundreds of years rejected violence, refused to kill in war or in any other way.

But the reason we’d be surprised or find it difficult to accept this reality about Jesus is that we never really listened carefully to what Jesus said and we never watched with real understanding how he acted. Today’s scriptures are totally clear in declaring this truth about Jesus.

Before we began our celebration of the Eucharist, we re-enacted the scene that took place 2,000 years ago, right toward the end of the public life of Jesus when huge crowds of people were following him. He had come to Jerusalem for the festival -- the great Passover feast -- and these crowds were waiting there to greet him and to acclaim him as their Messiah. So they went out and got these palm branches and they were ready to wave those as a sign of the recognition of Jesus as their Messiah, as the one who would replace King David, be the new king of the people and who would restore the glory of the kingdom of Israel.  They were coming to lead Him into his city.

But Jesus rejected what they were doing, because getting those palms and waving them was a sign of their nationalistic spirit and their desire to restore the earthly kingdom of David and to make Israel a great kingdom once more. They were seeing Jesus as an earthly Messiah who would lead armies to a victory over the Romans -- overthrow the occupying army through violence and force. 

Jesus recognized what they were doing, because he understood where this idea of waving palms came from.  It was a custom that was about 200 years old at the time.  It goes back to when the Jewish people, the chosen people were under occupation by the Assyrian ruler, Antiochus IV who was a tyrant. He was destroying the people and the Maccabees rose up in a violent revolution and overthrew Antiochus, threw out the Assyrian army and proclaimed their independence once more. 

One of the signs of their independence was the waving of the palm branches.  They had organized a huge procession to show what had been their victory through violence. Jesus was aware of that because that had become a custom celebrated yearly because Antiochus was thrown out. They rededicated the temple and they had these huge celebration. Waving of palm braches became a sign of the strength of their nation and the power of their army.

And so, what does Jesus do?  As we heard in the Gospel before our procession, Jesus remembers another prophecy from Zechariah recorded by Mark, John, Matthew and Luke when they talk about this procession into Jerusalem. They cite the prophecy of Zechariah: 

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion.  Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem.  For your king is coming, just and victorious but humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  No more chariots in Ephraheim!  No more horses in Jerusalem!  For he will do away with them.  The warrior’s bow shall be broken when he dictates peace to the nations.  He will reign from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.

What Zechariah was foretelling was one who would come in a totally different way.  A soldier doesn’t ride on a tiny donkey.  That’s a beast of burden.  A soldier would ride on a horse, he would be armed. A great emperor would come into the city riding with horses, and would be armed and ready to battle. 

But Zechariah saw one that would come to be their King but in a different way; rejecting violence, rejecting war, riding humbly on a donkey without any arms. He would be the one who would bring true peace to the chosen people and to the world.  And so when Jesus was confronted by those crowds with their palm branches, looking for a messiah who would lead them to a warrior’s victory, He said: “No! I will enter only on the terms described by Zechariah.  And I will bring true peace.”

He rejected violence.  It is so clear in this incident. Then when you listen to the other lessons today, it is so very clear: Isaiah speaking about the servant who is Jesus, who listens deeply to God’s Word every morning and who is ready to follow that word.

When you hear what Isaiah says in our first lesson today about the servant who was afflicted with suffering, accepted those sufferings, you hear the echoing of the words of Dr. King, if you listen:  “We will surpass your capacity to afflict us with sufferings with our capacity to endure suffering.”  Dr. King understood the non-violence of Jesus, the servant who rejected any retaliation for suffering accepted suffering rather than inflicting suffering.  This is Jesus.  This is the way of non-violence, a very difficult way.

Or the second lesson today, that great song of St. Paul. “Jesus who knew He was God, did not think his divinity something to be clung to but emptied himself, became human, one of us, and even to the point of being a slave among us,” Paul says.  No power. No armies. A slave. And He gave himself over to death accepting death, rather than inflicting death, even the ignominious death of the cross. Paul says, “This is Jesus, our Messiah and our King.”

And so today as we reflect on these Scriptures and on these extraordinary events that took place on that first day of the week of what we now call Holy Week, we must reflect on who Jesus really is, how he really acted, what he taught. Then perhaps we will come to a very firm conviction. Jesus rejected violence for any reason whatsoever. And then we can accept as a framework for our lives, the real reign of God as manifested in Jesus. The reign of God that rejects violence but can bring genuine peace into our hearts and into our world. 

During this Holy Week, I hope each one of us will continue to reflect deeply, prayerfully, on what Jesus said, how he acted, so that perhaps by the end of this week we will be more deeply converted to the way of Jesus, the way of non-violence or active love and that we will begin to change our lives as Jesus asks of us at the very beginning of Lent:  “The reign of God is at hand.  Change your lives.”

And not only will we begin to change our lives more deeply but work for the change of our whole culture so that our nation will reject violence and war as a supposed way to bring peace to the world and that we will influence the people of our nation to follow the way of Jesus and to work, then, for a true and lasting peace.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  AMEN. 

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