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Palm Sunday and four direct, confounding questions

On the Readings for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Detail from "The Entry into Jerusalem" (c. 1305) by Giotto. [WikiArt.org]

Readings
• Mt. 21:1-11
• Isa. 50:4-7
• Psa. 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
• Phil. 2:6-11
• Mt. 26:14-27:66

When hearing a passage as dramatic as today’s Gospel, what do you focus on? What catches your attention? The answers depend on several factors, some of which are unique to each reader. The beauty of sacred Scripture is that it reveals greater depths and poses new challenges every time we hear it with faith and humility.

Re-reading today’s Gospel, I was drawn to certain questions asked by three people: Judas as he betrays, Jesus as he prays, Pilate as he strategizes, and Jesus again as he gives up his spirit on the Cross. These four questions are both simple and surprising; the answers are both direct and confounding.

“What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” Judas finally realized he could not shape Jesus into his own image, and so decided he would rather do away with Jesus altogether. Rather than conform to Christ, he would destroy him. And, really, what other options are there? It brings to mind the quote uttered by Pope Francis in his first papal homily: “He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil.” It is also true that those who refuse to walk with the Lord will walk with the Devil. Judas, wrote St. John Chrysostom, “did the devil’s deed.”

The early Church writer, Origen, stated, “He was willing to take money in exchange for handing over the Word of God. They do the same thing who accept sensual or worldly goods in exchange for handing over and casting out from their souls the Savior and Word of truth who came to dwell with them.” Anyone who tries to manipulate Christ only break himself on the Rock of salvation, having refused that very foundation of mercy (cf. Matt 27:3-10).

“So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” Jesus asked the disciples as they drifted off to sleep in the garden. “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” He urged them to “watch and pray” so they would “not undergo the test”. What test? Ultimately, the test of faith. If they could not stay awake with Jesus during the darkest hour—literally and otherwise—what would it reveal of their resolve and fortitude?

“The spirit is willing,” Jesus said, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas had succumbed to the flesh, to his passion for power. Would the others do better? Peter soon denied Jesus and the others would disappear in the darkness of the world, bewildered and shattered.

Pilate had asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” However, a later question reveals that Pilate was not a philosopher but was, like Judas, given over to his own ambitions: “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” Pilate was a practical politician, constantly seeking an edge and then an easy out. He conversed with the Incarnate Word, declared him innocent—and then gave him over to be executed. “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood,” he told the roiling crowd.

No one, however, is innocent of the blood of Christ. We cannot wash our hands of his blood; rather, we must be cleansed by being washed in his blood (cf. Rev 7:14).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words have perplexed many, and understandably so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis, wrote, “God is foresaken by God because of man’s godlessness.” It is a mystery, for the Incarnation escapes our comprehension. Yet Jesus cited the beginning of Psalm 22 to draw attention to David’s lament as a righteous man unjustly persecuted. That Psalm concludes, “And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you.”

Jesus, in fact, spoke on behalf of sinful mankind—not as a sinner, but as a perfect man condemned. Having thus established Jesus in solidarity with sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’, so that we might be ‘reconciled to God by the death of his Son’” (CCC 603; 2572).


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About Carl E. Olson 1136 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

3 Comments

  1. Macbeth could not wash the blood off his hand. “He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil (The Pontiff).” As a response to the first question, How do we know whether it is God we pray to? Not Satan? Certitude explains Aquinas, is when subject and object are known in one act of apprehension. Rather than sequence. Self-evident in nature good and evil are known by our inherent interior faculty. The bedrock of conscience and responsibility for our acts. Would Judas have been surprised in knowing? Truth in its preeminent form references good and evil. By nature intransigent, immutable by nature because it references God’s immutable nature. Modern philosophy distanced from clear knowledge of Aquinas’ perennial principles of knowledge has crept into and distorted theology. Mitigation of sin a widely accepted principle has reached a presumptive efficacy that John Paul II warned Should Not dismantle responsibility for sin. For example if certain acts were not irreparable [apart from God’s intervention in Christ Crucified] and sin in any instance not absolute then reason would be the rule of truth rather than its measure. Judas contended with the revelation of the Father in Christ. Truth itself. Once doubt crept in mitigation of that Truth made it a matter of rational deduction to pocket the 30 pieces of silver. After all as bursar he had been amassing monetary insurance for a comfortable retirement. Good Friday teaches the Cross alone insures our happy retirement.

  2. Good article. I have other simple questions to help in the discernment between good and evil: Who do I serve with this I am just to think about/speak about/do/enable? Who wins by this and who loses? Is God winning and me losing (my ego, sin, etc.) or is it me winning and God losing (the honor and obedience He deserves from me)?

    The Catholic Faith is the greatest place to be a total, dedicated, consecrated, no limits, LOSER before God. Every time we lose before Him, he fills that now empty portion with Himself, His blessings, Grace, Love and Victory. Some can say: ““He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil”, or some other great spiritual virtuous phrase, but if you are still using that to win instead of lose before God, you are still serving the Evil One. It was Satan’s decision to always win before God and that turned him into the Eternal Loser. Remember that when you see evil very impressively and very temporarily winning all around you.

    I’ve known plenty of people who can move a Catholic person and/or audience to tears of trembling devotion but theirs hearts are in a kingdom far, far away from God. Like Judas Iscariot: “This perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” (that sounds SO familiar today – the poor as distracting human shields to all sinful compromise and dark evil). Like so many today, Judas the “Merciful and Pious” on the surface but he was still going to “win”.

    We defeat the world and serve our fellow humans the absolute best by ALWAYS losing before God, not in appearances but in total REALITY, again and again and again, into Eternal Life, which starts here and now! Jesus won us Eternal Victory by his most total, horrific “defeat” on the Cross. Remember that when you’re up there suffering with Him, (John 16:33).

  3. At the foot of the Cross there was one Apostle present, St. John the Evangelist. He was entrusted with the care of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was the only Apostle that died of old age.

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