Indifference is Rejection
Palm Sunday 2007
A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother. His father returned from church holding a palm branch. The little boy was curious and asked, “Why do you have that palm branch, dad?” “You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved Palm Branches to honor him, so we got Palm Branches today.” The little boy replied, “Aw Shucks! The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!”
Jesus did show up that first Palm Sunday. As we sang,
“All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King! to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!” There was a feeling of victory in the air. Jesus rode in with the words of Zechariah on everyone’s minds: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; he is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey!” We know the story–things go sour rather quickly.
The Narrative we have this morning is vast. We have all week to consider more details and I hope that this week’s gospel will be your companion. Take this week’s bulletin with you and keep the readings close by. As Moses said in Deuteronomy: ‘these words…teach them diligently to your children…talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise..bind them as a sign on your hand…write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’
The gospel of Luke is a study in contrasts. There are pictures and snapshots of who ‘gets it’ and who doesn’t throughout the gospel. The narrative of the passion in no exception. I want to look at how key characters respond to Jesus throughout the story and we can see where we ourselves fall.
First, there is the road to Jerusalem and the triumphal entry. And triumphal it was. The crowd on hand was big because there were many pilgrims in the city for the Passover celebration. The quote from Psalm 118 is very important. What does the term ‘Hosanna’ mean? It is a political term–“Lord save us!” It is a request for Jesus–the messiah to deliver the people. This kind of language was a direct threat to Pilate, Herod, the chief priests, everyone in power at the time. The reception Jesus received was reception of a king.
I haven’t seen the movie ‘300,’ but a friend of mine told me the gist of the story. It is, in part, about King Xerxes, (who may have been the king in the book of Esther) who was the emperor of Persia in about 485 BC. There is a scene in the movie that is striking. As Xerxes processes among the people they work themselves into a frenzy and they use the same phrase that we see in Jesus’ triumphal entry ‘Lord save us,’ and ‘behold the king of kings and the lord of lords.’ What the people in Jerusalem did that day was similar to the emperor worship in the ancient world. ‘Hosanna’ ‘Lord save us.’
Nothing the people said that day was untrue. You may not have noticed how Jesus describes the colt that he requests the disciples get for him. He says to get a colt, ‘who has never been ridden.’ The lowly animal does show the humility of Jesus and that this is a fulfillment of prophecy. But, this is the important point–who can ride a donkey ‘that has never been ridden?’ That small thing shows the power of Jesus over nature in and of itself. The crowd was right.
But the crowd turned on Jesus when things did not go their way. When they learned that Jesus was not going to meet their expectations, they said, ‘Crucify him!’
What about the crowds? These are the first characters in the story. The crowds remind me of those who have a view that Jesus is there to fix everything. They might have a smiling Jesus picture at home and like the ‘idea’ of Jesus. They might ‘pray’ to Jesus in a similar way they might wish upon a star. This might be the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ kind of person–not that that is all bad–but when things don’t go their way, they are gone. ‘I tried Jesus, didn’t work for me, in fact, he let me down.’ But they still have the smiling Jesus on their wall.
Who else is in the story? There are those who are absolutely hostile to Jesus, the chief priests and the scribes. They are bent on keeping the trial of Jesus going no matter how it gets bogged down and no matter how many secular authorities they have to see. When religious reasons don’t work, they bring up political reasons for Jesus’ guilt. They say he perverts the nation, that he opposes paying taxes to the emperor and that he claims to be a king over and against the emperor.
They are filled with rage and are outright hostile to Jesus. There are few that respond these days with outright hostility to Jesus in our land, though there are others in many places in the world who are more obvious, the KGB of recent times and radical Islam are exceptions. We might find a subtle hostility in our context and there are outright atheists, but few are openly hostile. Few are willing to reject him so thoroughly. But, as we shall see, rejection need not be hostile or violent to be rejection.
That brings us to two characters that are very similar to each other, Pilate and Herod. They do not really see any reason to charge Jesus. Herod is more mocking, but they are both just as willing to pass him on to the other. They just don’t want to get involved. In a word, they are ‘indifferent.’ In Pilate’s case, especially, Jesus seems to be more of an imposition on his time, than a real threat to the throne of Caesar. This is not hostility to Jesus, but as one writer has said, ‘some [are] decidedly hostile [to Jesus], while others [are] more disinterested…but both constitute rejection.’
I think the majority of folks fall into the category of Pilate and Herod. They simply do not have the time to consider the claims of Jesus. It is interesting when Pilate asks Jesus, ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answers in his own non-committal kind of way, ‘it is as you say.’ He is basically saying, ‘is that what you think?’ or ‘whatever you say.’ He knows that Pilate is not really seeking information but is indifferent to Jesus.
This is truly the most popular response to Jesus in our world. Even many who mark off the ‘Christian’ box on medical or other forms don’t really want to be bothered with Jesus. They may even be like the crowd who shouted ‘hosanna.’ It is a lot easier to remember Jesus or to respect him than to follow him. And in the eyes of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as all of the other New Testament writers to refuse to follow him is indifference no matter how dramatic the remembering looks like. And indifference is rejection.
We want the triumph. We want the hosannas. We do not want the cross. We want to remember but we do not want to follow. But if we are not willing to follow then it shows we are indifferent and according to Jesus himself–indifference is rejection.
We know that Pilate was indifferent because when he had to face the crowds, he had no mind of his own. His gut told him Jesus was innocent but his heart was hard. Ultimately he washed his hands of Jesus. Worse, he released a murderer instead. Curious? Maybe. Sympathetic? Maybe. But ultimately Pilate just did not care.
So who gets it? I told you that Luke is a study in contrasts. The women of Jerusalem get it. Simon of Cyrene will get it. The centurion gets it. We know from the other gospels that others got it too. But there is one in the story who Luke goes out of his way to portray. Who is that? It is the thief that is hanging next to Jesus. The soldiers mock Jesus. One of the two thieves mock him. But the one thief, who is nameless in the gospel says this, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
This is a familiar scene. But we often take it in the wrong way. Yes, it shows that God’s mercy extends even to the moment of death. We often think about it as a deathbed conversion.
But look at the irony of the scene. Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross and follow him. Here’s a guy on a cross–albeit a cross of his own guilt, but a cross nonetheless. Here he has literally followed Jesus to a cross.
The man is the ultimate symbol of discipleship–not a picture of faithfulness but a picture of humility. Not a saint but a sinner who does what? Asks for mercy
The crowds betrayed him. They say, ‘crucify him!’ The chief priests and scribes hated him. They said, ‘crucify him!’ Pilate was indifferent. He said, ‘crucify him!’ The first thief, rather than say “Lord save us!” says, ‘save yourself and us’–an ironic play on words from ‘hosanna.’
But what does the other thief say? ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’
You may be in a place today where Jesus is a curiosity. You may be in a place where you have lived a life of indifference to Christ. Less likely, but still possible, you may be in an openly hostile relationship with Jesus. And today, regardless of where you are at, you want a change.
What does he call you to? He calls you to the same place as the thief. He calls you to a posture of humility. There’s only one way to go, there’s only one hope and that is the cross of Jesus for the thief, for you, for me, for everyone. ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’