Who is this man?

Palm Sunday 2012
The Passion according to Mark
Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges and confronts us so that we might grow and learn. Amen.

I want you to come with me on a journey of the imagination. It is 2008 and Sydney is hosting World Youth Day.100,000 young people have travelled from all over the world to be here. An estimated 500,000 young Australians have spilled out of planes, emerged out of trains and poured out of buses to be on Sydney for this once in a life time occasion. The whole city is caught up in the excitement of the occasion. Thousands of families have opened their homes to the visitors, the transport systems have been expanded to cope with the increased demands and local businesses are expecting to profit from the huge numbers of people in town. Media contingents have arrived to cover the event and the whole of Australia, religious or not, knows that something has fired the imagination of catholic youth from all over the world.

So here we are in Sydney. It is the day that the Pope is to arrive to address the crowds and to celebrate Mass. The thousands who have been sleeping at Olympic Park are awake and their camping gear is packed away. From across the city crowds and crowds of young people are streaming towards the venue which has now been transformed into a place of worship. The local clergy and officials are gathering, word is out that the Pope is on his way. Everything seems set to go.

Then something extraordinary happens. There is a ripple in the crowd, their attention is drawn away form the park to something that is going on outside. Now everyone can hear the noise. Crowds are shouting and cheering – obviously excited by something or someone. It is too early for the Pope and the officials watch in dismay as the stadium empties and the young people disappear to satisfy their curiosity about the commotion.

The officials despair. All the careful planning of the past three years seems to be falling apart. Is all the expense and all the trouble going to be wasted? What are they going to tell the huge media contingent? Everything so far has gone to plan. The youth have behaved impeccably. Sydney has had a huge economic boost but now this! What on earth could be going on? What could be drawing the young people away from the event that they have come from so far to attend?

Finally, the officials realize that they simply have to see what is going on and, stepping outside the Park, they see what is causing all the interest. Moving slowly towards the venue is an old, very beaten up kombi van – its roof removed. Inside sits someone who is barely distinguishable from the crowds. He looks as though he has been on the road for some time and with him are a number of companions, who like him don’t appear to stand out from those around them. The officials are confused. From the hullabaloo the least the officials had expected was to find a limousine with Lady Gaga or some other popular star inside.

People are shouting and screaming. They are so excited that they are jumping up to get a better view, pressing in around the van, even weeping. The Pope seems to have been forgotten and there is the danger that the crowds will get out of control, disturbing the peace which the officials have worked so hard to maintain.

As the van draws nearer the event organisers get a closer view. Now they have some idea what the fuss is about. This is the fellow from the outback who has been causing trouble wherever he goes. He has fooled people into believing that he can cure their sick and solve other problems besides. He has criticized the priests and implied that what he teaches is of more significant than the teaching that comes from the church. Word had reached the authorities that he had gathered something of a following, but this is beyond what anyone could have expected and it is happening at the worst possible time.

The officials had assured the government of the day that there would be no trouble, that everything would be done to keep such large crowds orderly, that every security angle had been covered to ensure that the event that the Pope was to attend would go off without a hitch. This is an absolute disaster and there seems to be nothing that can be done without creating a riot. The officials and churchmen are furious. They have been publicly embarrassed in front of the whole world by this, this nobody! Right now their hands are tied but this stranger had better beware, his time will come.

Eventually the van moves through the crowds and away and though it begins later than planned, the visit of the Pope goes ahead without further incident.

That is just an imaginative scenario, but it is not too far from the situation in Jerusalem when Jesus arrives for the Passover celebrations. Jesus could have slipped quietly into the city and gone to stay with his friends in Bethany. Instead he chooses to do something sensational, something that is sure to catch the attention of the officials – he enters Jerusalem as the king promised by the prophet Zechariah. Being mounted on a donkey seems to be a deliberate strategy to draw attention to himself and his purpose.

As a consequence of Jesus’ behaviour, the crowds could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was the king promised by Zechariah. The leaders of the Jewish people could be excused for being put out by this person who was acting so arrogantly and who was stirring up the crowds at a time of year when the whole of Jerusalem was on edge. (The leaders are hoping that there will be no trouble at the festival that will cause the Romans to come down heavily on them and spoil the Passover. They want to keep under the radar, not have their activities broadcast to the world.)

It is no wonder that within a week everything goes pear-shaped and Jesus ends up on the cross. He has antagonized the leaders, caused a disturbance in the streets and then in the Temple. He has drawn the attention of the crowds away from their reason for being in Jerusalem. He has criticized the religious authorities and risked the wrath of Rome.

It seems as though Jesus was tired of hiding in the shadows, that he wanted to draw things to their close, to declare his hand no matter how risky that might be. Jesus has come to the centre of the Jewish faith, to see if the people will receive him. At first it seems that they will, but when the chips are down, they turn their backs and walk away.

Jesus is both reassuring and confrontational, exciting and alarming, comforting and challenging. The question we have to ask is: “Do we only respond to Jesus when he makes us feel comfortable, or are we open to the challenge to accept Jesus in all his guises. Are we only prepared to declare our faith when it is easy, or will we stand up and be counted when the crowds turn against us. Do we want a Jesus created in our own image, or are we open to the complexity of who Jesus really is?”

Through this Holy Week and Easter as we journey with Jesus to the cross, let us open our hearts to accept not only the Jesus who comforts and reassures us, but to the Jesus who confronts us and demands that we sit up and pay attention.

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