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Palm Sunday

11 March 2016


Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-18; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-end of 23


Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


LUKE tells the story of the call of the first disciples in an unusual way. “Call” is an approximate description of the almost accidental circumstances in which Jesus meets Simon, who has brought his boat to shore so that he can wash his nets (Luke 5.1-3).

Jesus is trying to escape from the crowds who were eagerly following him, even at this early stage of his teaching ministry. He asks Simon to make for the deep water and let his nets down. What follows is well known: a huge catch of fish, after a night with no catches at all; the need for an extra boat; and, above all, Simon’s appalled reaction: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5.4-8).

Jesus reassures him. In future, he will catch not just fish, but, in Brendan Byrne’s rendering, “people alive” (Luke 5.10-11, The Hospitality of God: A reading of Luke’s Gospel, Liturgical Press, 2000).

This event has a great deal more to do with the Palm Sunday Gospel reading than might at first appear. During the Passover meal, and later on the Mount of Olives, Jesus will reconnect his followers to their first decision to follow him. It is a model that those charged with encouraging and sustaining vocations continue to use when working with individuals who have lost their way, and forgotten what it was that drew them in the first place.

First comes a general address to those at the table. They have received bread and wine from Jesus, and heard his solemn words (Luke 22.14-19). They have been horrified at the idea that one of them might betray him (Luke 22.21-22).

And yet their dismay turns almost instantly, in this beautifully crafted narrative, into ambition, and Jesus must step in to explain that true greatness is found only in real service, such as he has just shown them (Luke 22.24-27).

There is a second difficult lesson to be imparted here. Ambitions for power must be suspended; for the Kingdom is not about to be triumphantly realised, and suffering lies ahead. Eventually, however, there will be positions of honour for those who have stood by Jesus (Luke 14.28-30).

For Peter, there is a personal prediction. We can imagine the dialogue that precedes Jesus’s “Simon, Simon, listen!” even though Luke does not report it. This is an answer to someone who is saying that he will never give up on Jesus, and thus has a special need to be prepared for the fact that no one is invincible against temptation, or incapable of doing things, under conditions of distress, that would ordinarily repel them.

Jesus looks beyond weakness and failure to the strength that will be painfully born out of them. The Peter of Acts 2.1-41 will have learned his authority and confidence in offering God’s promise of salvation to others by receiving the love and forgiveness of the Lord whom he denied.

For Judas, there is only a question: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22.48). David Tiede suggests that the kiss did not, in fact, take place (“Luke” in The Harper Collins Study Bible, HarperOne, 2006). Did Jesus stop Judas from that final insincerity?

The unnecessary elaborateness of the plot is exposed, as Jesus turns to the arrest party to remind them of the opportunities they have had to seize him in broad daylight in public places. Yet they have chosen to act by night, with all that that implies (Luke 22.53).

The divide is now clearly drawn between weakness and folly, and sheer evil; and it is in the latter camp that the Gospel-writer places Pilate and Herod, whose unholy friendship is forged in condemning Jesus (Luke 23.12).

The judgement on others is less severe — the penitent thief (Luke 23.40-43), the centurion on duty (Luke 23.47), and the crowds who went to Golgotha for the spectacle and saw a truth that they had not expected (Luke 23.48). For them, there is still the possibility of being shaped into those who think like Christ (Philippians 2.5).

For us, entering Holy Week, all these lives are a summons to ask ourselves what we are doing, and why. The wisdom of members of religious orders who have obeyed a vocation over many years is a valuable companion for anyone facing the last stretch to Easter: “What called me here is not what has kept me here.”

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