palm sunday The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Fickle Hearts; Firm Faith

ISAIAH 50:4-7
MARK 14:1-15:47

In most areas of the world, a visit from the Roman Pontiff, an Eastern Patriarch or the Archbishop of Canterbury would be received with great anticipation. As soon as the scheduled visit is announced, elaborate preparations begin, sometimes as early as one or two years in advance. Certain cities have chosen to build a vast meeting center to accommodate the thousands who will come to acknowledge the visit of one so important. Roads are repaired, landscapes are refurbished with fresh plantings of flowering trees, bushes and plants. In Africa and some areas of Central and South America, preparations are less complex, but no less lavish.

For example, when Pope Paul VI visited Uganda, the roadways were edged with freshly cut matoke or banana plants. Considering the fact that matoke is the main staple of the daily diet in Uganda, the people had paid great tribute to the Pope in cutting down and offering their “very sustenance” to welcome him. Colorful flower petals arranged in various designs decorated the pathways and the people, turned out in their Sunday best, stood along both sides of the roads shouting their welcome in each place the Pope visited. When the Anglican archbishop visited, the situation was no less festive.

However, in the course of most official visits, there comes a time when the mood must necessarily shift from adulation and celebration to a serious consideration of Christian commitment and life-style. As the spiritual pastor of the people, the visiting dignitary must broach the real, hard issues and discuss these openly; failures must be pointed out and shortcomings acknowledged. Recall the papal plea to the members of the United Nations, to give, not only of their surplus, but of their substance. Remember the instances in which nations have been cited by religious leaders for human rights violations. Recall the numerous times the believing community has been challenged to be more authentically committed to the gospel by actively feeding the poor, clothing the needy and sheltering the homeless, not just seasonally (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) but daily and devotedly.

Unfortunately, and because correction is much more difficult to accept than congratulations, the attitude of the people occasionally becomes surly. No longer is the distinguished visitor the man or woman of the hour; harsh but necessary words have made him/her the object of resentment and derision. So it was with Jesus; people were ready to hear him and make him welcome when the signs and wonders he worked fed their messianic fascinations. But when he supplemented his cures with chastisement and challenges, the popular opinion turned against him.

As this, the holiest week of the Christian calendar unfolds, believers will be led through the full gamut of human emotions from the hosannas of Palm-Passion Sunday to the shouts of “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. What accounts for the shifting mood from acceptance to rejection? From adulation to aggression? How does a welcome and honored guest become a pariah? It would appear that the answer lies within the human heart; created for greatness, yet, in its freedom, the human heart is also capable of grievous words and works. Each of us could just as readily have been a voice among the rabid crowd calling for Jesus’ death as on the road to Jerusalem shouting acceptance of his leadership.

Today’s readings and all the saving events that will be remembered this week prompt us to consider the fickleness of the human heart and to recall the frequent Lenten admonition, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” So it is that we enter these holy days, in humble awareness that hearts, both faint and fickle, are called to firmer, fuller faith. To remain faithful to the Christian challenge will necessitate hearing words of correction as well as comfort. Only a listening, welcoming heart will be able to accept responsibility for the cross as well as to revel gratefully in the blessedness of the resurrection. Such is the message of this week and the daily challenge of Christian discipleship.

ISAIAH 50:4-7

When Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi attempted to redeem his government from what he believed to be a foolish, misguided path toward destruction, he took it upon himself to fast until such time as people came to their senses and the situation was ameliorated. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray, Gandhi’s physical deterioration reflected the moral disintegration of his society. Finally, when it seemed as if the holy man was about to breathe his last, the word came through, he had succeeded in changing the hearts and minds of his fellow Indian citizens. Gandhi’s willingness to suffer innocently and vicariously for the sake of others had its precedent in the Suffering Servant described by Deutero-Isaiah.

Featured in a series of four songs or poems (Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-7, 50:4-11, 52:13-53:12), the Servant was portrayed as one called by God, endowed with the Spirit of God and appointed as light to the nations by teaching of the truth and justice of God. Scorned by those to whom he was sent to minister, the Servant endured terrible suffering and, eventually, death; sacrificed for the sins of the fickle, the Servant’s faith-filled redemptive death issued forth in a new covenant between God and humankind.

Scholars have suggested that Deutero-Isaiah (an exilic prophet) may have had himself in mind as the featured servant. Others believe that the prophet was prompting his contemporaries in exile to shoulder the burden of servanthood themselves for the sake of the rest of Israel and the nations. Still others would have us understand that Jeremiah was the guiltless one, charged with the sins of the people and made to endure insult, injustice and persecution. Certainly, there is evidence of such suffering in the prophet’s own words (Jeremiah 11:19; 13:1-11; 15:10-21; 16:1-13; 18:18-25; 20:7-18).

However, as the early Christian writers pointed out so clearly, it was not until the appearance of Jesus, and through the exercise of his ministry, that the Servant so described by Detero-Isaiah came to life.

Mark, in his account of Jesus’ baptism cast him as the favored Servant-Son (Mark 1:11). Matthew emphasized the humility of Jesus in Servant-terms (Matthew 12:18-21; Isaiah 42:1-3; 53:6, 12) and similarly underscored the healings Jesus effected (Matthew 8:16; Isaiah 53:4-5). Perhaps the most unmistakeable references to the Servant songs rested in the church’s understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death as a fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation (Acts 3:13-26; 4:25-30; Isaiah 53:5, 6, 9, 12; Mark 10:45; 1 Corinthians 11:24; Isaiah 53:5).

As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque have noted, Jesus may have found in Deutero-Isaiah’s doctrine of expiatory sacrifice, the strength necessary to accept his own passion and death. He, the just and innocent one would expiate the sins of others. Therefore, death could no longer seem a meaningless end; it was an integral part of his mission (Guide For the Christian Assembly, Fides Publishers, Inc., Notre Dame IN: 1969).

Not only does Jesus’ death reveal the depth of his commitment to God and the selflessness of his love for humanity; through the Christ-event, that we celebrate this week, God is also more perfectly revealed. “The God, who was not content to be the absolute all powerful, of myth and metaphysics is revealed as the ‘God for others’” (Maertens, Frisque, op. cit.).

Nor may the process of revelation stop there; those who believe in this God and follow the Servant-Son are called to reveal themselves as similarly “for others”, through love, care and service and, when the situation warrants it, through suffering and death.


As I write this commentary, it is mid-November; the air is brisk and the leaves on the trees outside my window are giving their last hurrah for the season. Colors of gold, red, orange and brown make vivid remarks against the blue sky. Some leaves are already carpeting the lawn in lovely, carefree patterns. If memory serves me well, it is only in the process of dying that the leaves show forth their true colors. During spring and summer, photosynthesis produces chlorophyll and gives the leaves their usual green hues. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, to encourage their progress in the faith, he offered them the example of Jesus, who, like these brilliant autumn leaves, showed forth his authentic colors and true identity in the process of his saving death. Today, Paul advises his readers to do the same, by making their own, the heart and mind of Christ.

To teach believers the attitude or mind-set of Christ, Paul drew upon an early Christian hymn which was perhaps already known to the Philippians. Some scholars have called this hymn the fifth Servant song because of its similarities with Deutero-Isaiah portrait of the suffering innocent one. All through his life, Jesus exhibited the characteristics of the Servant, by bringing light, truth, justice and healing to those who accepted him in faith. But, it was in his death that the fullest extent of his mission was finally made known.

Jesus, who shared the same morphe (v. 6, Greek for form, state, condition, image) as God, did not cling to, or grasp at, (harpagmon, v. 6) what was an essential, inalienable right but willingly took on the morphe (v. 7) of the human condition in order to bring humankind back to the morphe (image) of God, in whom each person has been created. So complete was Jesus’ embrace of the human experience that he chose to experience it in all its limitations, even the ultimate limitation of death. Scholars have portrayed Jesus’ total divestiture of his rights and position as a kenosis or self-emptying. In this he has shown his true colors and the depth of God’s love.

Notice that Paul’s description of Jesus’ saving mission traces a discernible pattern; from his rightful place as God’s equal, Jesus’ loving self-emptying took him downward, to the very depths of human tragedy, to the cross. Then, lifted up in death, Jesus was also lifted up in resurrected glory and returned to the status of the God who sent him. Because of Jesus’ dying and rising, those who had previously been dead in sin are also lifted up and invited to share in the glory of Jesus’ victory.

As we celebrate yet again the downward and upward moments of our redemption, those who are baptized in Jesus’ name are called to show their true colors by living authentically committed and faith-driven lives.

MARK 14:1-15:47

First to originate the literary genre of the gospel, Mark was also the first to detail the last events of Jesus’ life, leading up to and including his death. Although the briefest of all the passion accounts, Mark’s version is replete with specific details which make the telling of this saving story come alive with a fresh revelation of God’s love and a renewed invitation to replace fickle ways with firmer faith. Since Mark related the events like sequential acts in an unfolding drama, it may be beneficial to consider them in that way.

Human Plots; Divine Plans (14:1-11)

One of Mark’s literary techniques is in evidence in this pericope. Frequently, throughout the gospel, the evangelist injected pathos and contrast into his narrative by interweaving his themes. Here, the evangelist sandwiches the messianic significance of Jesus’ coming death (vv. 3-9) between passages concerning the plotting against his life (vv. 1-2; 10-11). Through the ministrations of the woman with the costly oil (vv. 3-9) Mark recalled the practice whereby Israel’s kings were anointed and hailed as God’s messiah (anointed one) by the people. But by referring her actions and the oil to his burial (15:46, 16:1), Jesus indicated that his messianic reign would be accomplished, not by earthly powers, but through suffering. His awareness and acceptance of his imminent demise underscored the fact that divine planning, and not human plotting, was guiding his course.

Parting Words and Gifts (14:12-25)

In the context of Jewish Passover, which yearly remembered Israel’s passage from slavery to freedom, Jesus taught his disciples that he was about to embark on his own passover, from death to life, a passage which would effect the freedom from sin and death of all peoples. As the sign and remembrance of his saving death on the cross Jesus left with his own the gift of his presence in the broken bread and shared cup.

Fickle Hearted Friends (14:26-15:15)

Quoting Zechariah (13:7) Mark sets the tone for the series of events and disappointments which follow. Jesus had come to be pastor to the houses of Judah and Israel, but those whom he wished to shepherd were soon to scatter, abandoning him, rejecting his leadership. Alone, except for the close communion with God that sustained him all during the ministry, Jesus’ real human anguish is evident in the garden of Gethsemane. Throughout Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, the disciples have been portrayed as confused and lacking in understanding of his purpose and true identity; here when human support was most wanting, Jesus had none.

Mark informs his readers that, at the time of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, a young man (neaniskos), wearing a linen cloth (sindon), was seized and fled the scene naked, leaving his cloth behind. Some have suggested that the young man was the evangelist, because only Mark included this rather embarrassing incident in his passion narrative. But the fact that the young man appears again later, in the gospel, to explain the significance of the empty tomb (16:5) and the fact that the term sindon was also used to describe the burial cloth Jesus had left behind (15:46) suggests further significance. By special words associated with him and by his presence at both events (arrest, tomb), the young man functions as an interpreter for Mark’s readers. Although betrayed, arrested and condemned, Jesus was not to be seized by death; he would leave his burial cloth (sindon) and rise from the dead.

Peter’s denials of Jesus are sandwiched in between the Jewish and Roman proceedings against Jesus. Whereas Jesus was loyal to the end to his mission, Peter wavered, and while Jesus acknowledged his role as messiah, despite the consequences he knew would ensue (14:62, 15:2), Peter denied even having knowledge of Jesus.

Finally, Full Revelation

Through his gospel, Mark has preserved what scholars have identified as his messianic secret. Whenever Jesus cured someone or when he was acclaimed as Messiah-king, the Marcan Jesus repeatedly called for silence. “Tell no one!” As reasons for this secrecy, some have proposed that it was Mark’s way of explaining why Jesus was not universally recognized as messiah during his ministry. The demand for silence may also have been used as a preventative against those who misconstrued Jesus’ messianism. Until it was understood that his reign would be established through personal suffering and death rather than through military prowess and force, Jesus wished to “keep the lid” on the enthusiasm of the masses. That the old order had ended and his reign had begun was signaled in the tearing of the temple curtain (15:38). With his death on the cross, the ban of secrecy is lifted and Jesus is publicly proclaimed as “Son of God” (15:39).

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