When you pray to Jesus, how do you picture him? Is he a teacher? Healer? Is he bloodied on a cross or standing piously pointing to heaven? Does he demand anything of us, or does he just say, I’m OK, you’re OK? Jesus has many faces – which do you choose?
We start today’s Mass with the crowds going wild welcoming their king… a parade ushering into Jerusalem the son of David come to restore greatness to Israel. We end with a parade of people led by that same son of David carrying a cross on his back as he leaves Jerusalem. A lot changed in one week. Jesus had two paths – a choice of which kind of king He would be… and the people had a choice of which kind of King they wanted. He had to be tempted by the Palm Sunday parade… we all want to be loved – we all want the path to power and fame. But Jesus knew that what awaited him was the path of humiliation, pain, and feeling abandoned even by God the Father. Put yourself into the crowd as we listen to these highlights from the last week of Jesus’ life on earth and ask yourself – which Jesus do I prefer?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us… these phrases describe the state of the world in Charles Dickens’ classic book “A Tale of Two Cities” – but it could just as well describe what we hear today in our scripture readings. Jesus has two paths before him… the path to the throne of Earthly Kingship …and the path to the throne of the cross. Jesus had to choose: which Jesus he would be.
There’s a scene from the movie Talladega Nights, where they get into a fight over their meal prayer because Ricky, the guy leading grace, keeps praying to the “Dear Lord Baby Jesus”. Others argue that Jesus grew up and had a beard, so it’s weird to be praying to the infant Jesus.
Ricky responds: “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to the Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
What follows is a bit of a theological free-for-all. Everybody in the family votes for a favorite Jesus. “I like to think of Jesus like a Ninja, fightin’ off evil samurai,” says one of the boys.
Ricky’s race partner adds: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt. ‘Cause it says like, I wanna be formal but I’m here to party, too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
I’m NOT recommending this movie to teach us theology of how to pray. But Ricky’s family is at least willing to do openly what most of us do without even really thinking about it: We choose our own Jesus.
We might like our Jesus all cleaned-up and proper – little or no blood. We take away anything that might make us uncomfortable – for example – that loin cloth was not part of the Roman execution. The victim was stripped completely naked – as part of their public humiliation. But we choose a Jesus who we can look at without shame and without horror.
We might like Jesus the healer, preferring the stories of how he healed the blind, the lame, the raising of Lazarus – now THAT’S the kind of Jesus we want around – our own personal genie in a bottle just waiting to grant our wishes.
We might like Jesus the teacher, as we picture ourselves sitting on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee listening to Jesus teach about ‘Blessed are the poor’… His words seem to contain a deep, eternal truth in them. I mean, we wouldn’t actually want to “be” poor, but Jesus the teacher sure makes it sound virtuous. We like thinking about virtue.
We might prefer Jesus the table-turner – as we point our fingers at everything and everyone around us who has strayed from the path of Truth. And most of us doing the pointing think that we’ve got THE truth on our side; we can even point to documents and dogmas and doctrines to support our claim to be right…so we join Jesus turning over tables.
Nobody in their right mind would choose Jesus the weak, humiliated, poor, bloody, hated revolutionary from nowheresville, Nazareth.
But every one of has to do it: We choose our Jesus.
Which takes us to the Gospel reading… At a glance, the choice seemed straightforward. Pilate presented two prisoners: a convicted felon named Barabbas and a teacher from Galilee named Jesus. He declared his intention to set one free. Which one would the crowd prefer?
Barabbas was what you might call a celebrity terrorist - a brave patriot or nationalist revolutionary who had had the guts to do what a lot of other people had only dreamed of doing: he had stood up to the despised Romans. Luke tells us that he had committed murder, presumably of someone sympathetic to the empire.
But there’s one detail left out of most manuscripts which in a way, adds a whole ‘nother dimension to the story. In some of the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew, we discover that Barabbas has a first name. His first name is…. Jesus. Yeah – kinda weird ain’t it? I guess that’s why the translators left that part out – out of respect for Jesus Christ. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, 'Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"
It is a dramatic moment: Which Jesus do you want? This Jesus or that Jesus?
The two prisoners stood before the crowd.
It may have seemed as if they were on trial. But in truth, it was now the crowd that was on trial. Which of these two figures held the greater promise for the nation of Israel? Was it Jesus Barabbas, who would hit the Romans hard, make something important happen, and inspire the masses to revolution? Or was it Jesus of Nazareth, whose primary weapons were trusting God, refusing to worry, and loving one's enemies?
Every day, like those in the crowd that day, we must decide which Jesus we want.
Perhaps I want the Infant Baby Jesus who doesn’t challenge me about my bad habits. Maybe I want a Jesus who approves of my political views. Or the Jesus who, amazingly, can't stand the very same people I can't stand. Or the Jesus who understands me and doesn’t insist that I change my way of life.
It comes down to this: Am I only wanting a Jesus who promises to REMOVE the thorns and suffering from my life here? Or do I want a Jesus who takes the thorns into his flesh to show me the path to true joy WHILE He suffers with me?
Choose your Jesus.
(I need to give credit to Glenn MacDonald – a
Presbyterian Minister from Indianapolis.
He has a knack for opening up the scriptures with new insights and
inspiration, and I want to credit him with inspiration for my homily today.(but
if you don’t like it, I’ll take the blame))