Plunging into Evil

Here’s a lengthy quote that really gripped me this morning: “The problem upon which Jesus has turned the spotlight, the problem which they didn’t want to acknowledge and which we don’t want to acknowledge, so that Palm Sunday is always in danger of collapsing into sentimental kitsch with its donkey and its palm branches — the problem is that evil isn’t something ‘out there,’ it’s something which has infected all of us, God’s people included; so that if we knew our business we would turn all the more quickly from shouting ‘Hosanna’ to praying for mercy…… There is as yet no atonement theology in this parable, except insofar as the parable makes it plain, with its echoes of the scriptures and it evocation of the power of God, that somehow this violent death will itself be part of the plan, the plan not to tell everyone that everything is all right after all but to come to the heart of the place where it’s all wrong and to allow the full force of that wrongness to be worked out, hammered out, in his own body.

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I’m reading NT Wright’s The Scriptures, The Cross and the Power of God during Holy Week. It is a series of sermons he gave during Holy Week in 2005.

The first sermon he gives expounds the Parable of the Son and the Stone in Matthew 21:33-46. Here’s a lengthy quote that really gripped me this morning:

“The problem upon which Jesus has turned the spotlight, the problem which they didn’t want to acknowledge and which we don’t want to acknowledge, so that Palm Sunday is always in danger of collapsing into sentimental kitsch with its donkey and its palm branches — the problem is that evil isn’t something ‘out there,’ it’s something which has infected all of us, God’s people included; so that if we knew our business we would turn all the more quickly from shouting ‘Hosanna’ to praying for mercy…

This parable is one of the most explicit statements anywhere on Jesus’ lips of his own unique status as one doing the job of a prophet but himself being far more than a prophet, of his own unique role as the one after whom the father has no one else he can send, and of his own unique and shocking vocation to bear in himself the hostility and violence of those to whom he has sent. There is as yet no atonement theology in this parable, except insofar as the parable makes it plain, with its echoes of the scriptures and it evocation of the power of God, that somehow this violent death will itself be part of the plan, the plan not to tell everyone that everything is all right after all but to come to the heart of the place where it’s all wrong and to allow the full force of that wrongness to be worked out, hammered out, in his own body. Somehow, the parable is saying, things must all go horribly wrong in order that things ultimately may be put to rights. The son of God will come himself to the place where evil is doing its worst, even when that place is not out there in the pagan world but in here within the people of God, and takes its violent fury upon himself.”

The place where evil is doing its worst is within the people of God. And our blindness to that evil causes us to shout “Hosanna!” when we should be crying out, “Lord, have mercy!” Surely there IS radical evil in the world. But we can’t simply point a blaming finger at a single political party or a single nation or a single religion. Evil cuts through all of us. And where it does its greatest damage is in God’s people who are blind to this reality. We dupe ourselves when we believe that because we’re on God’s side we are also either immune to evil or have had it purged from us. Or even worse, that it doesn’t matter because Jesus’ righteousness covers up our evil. So we continue to act in destructive ways while singing “Hosanna!” We are no different today than God’s people on that first Palm Sunday.

Here’s Wright’s concluding remarks:

“When Jesus comes to his church, and to his people, today, he comes with the same message, and with the same warning. He comes seeking fruit, the fruit which belongs to his father. And those of us who decide to make the journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday can never therefore do so in anything other than fear and trembling. We are, says St. Paul, the temples of the living God. God forbid that when the Lord whom we seek comes once again to his temple he should find it necessary once more to come with stories of judgment. May we hear the word, so live within the story, that we find ourselves in six days’ time at the foot of the cross, and in eight days at the empty tomb, and find ourselves saying, ‘This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.'”

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