Isaiah 50:4-9a • Psalm 31:9-16 • Philippians 2:5-11 • Matthew 21:1-11 • Matthew 26:14-27:66
A lot of territory is covered in the Matthew readings this week: from Jesus entering Jerusalem to his death on the cross. It's a long story, though, for a church service! For me, sitting down with it in a comfortable chair in a quiet hour at home made the whole picture come alive.
The crowd's excited response to Jesus, laying palms on the path of the donkey carrying him, was a mirror image of their negative reaction later. It is almost as though a virus spread among the people. Viruses have no real life of their own. They lay dormant until they can attach to a host, and then they can multiply, spreading quickly within a host and looking for the next one, too. In these readings, a virus – let's call it the sheep flu – seems to be active in at least two ways:
- First, like sheep, following the flock right off of a cliff, people lost the ability to think for themselves as a powerful desire to be part of the group took over.
- Second, like sheep, people looked for someone to follow, someone who would meet their needs, rather than being responsible for themselves.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people were excited to see the leader they were looking for, the one who was going to take care of them. They had seen him heal the sick, for heaven's sake, this man was like a walking hospital. He had stood up to the Scribes and the Pharisees, too, and goodness knows, everyone was sick of them. And maybe he was the Messiah, and the Romans would go away, too. This guy will take care of everything! Life is good! Problems solved!
The sheep flu spread its sickness both within people and between people. The trouble with the sheep flu, though, is that it did not have the ability to live within these hosts without also damaging the host organisms. Judas was the first to regress, going to the leaders to ask for money in exchange for betraying Jesus and later killing himself.
A whole series of betrayals follow. The disciples flee at his arrest. Peter denies him three times. False witnesses come to testify against him. The religious rulers plot against him. The crowds scream for his death. Pilate sits perplexed, caving to political pressures but washing his hands of it in front of the crowd. The soldiers torture him, ridiculing while they beat him. The sheep flu has rendered its hosts incapable of any emotional reason.
Only Jesus, the good shepherd, is able to think his way out of this. In the garden of Gethsemane, he is agitated. He takes time to pray, three times, wrestling with what is to come. He seeks the companionship of the other disciples, but they let him down, sleeping while he prays. In this hour, all alone, Jesus regains his ability to be himself, to face what is ahead. By accepting his responsibility for himself, the sheep flu could not attach to him, even in the most virus-friendly conditions of stress, pressure, anxiety and fear.
Jesus warned the disciples in the garden that prayer was needed, that "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." When anxious, some of us pray and others sleep; few, however, manage what Jesus did that night: to accept the reality he found himself in and choose to be his best, calmest, most mature self in it. In contrast, our immature selves want others to fix it for us, while at the same time, blaming them for our plight. We are easy targets for the sheep flu.
None of us are called to be the good shepherd; that's on Jesus. All of us are called to engage our our best thinking as the challenges ahead unfold. In the middle of the coronavirus, this can mean everything from the mundane to the sublime to the difficult – from taking time for a walk to playing music for reflective listening to dealing with the many unimagined challenges suddenly a part of life. The good news is that unlike the coronavirus, when it comes to the sheep flu, each of us has a choice about whether or not to become infected.
Morning: How shall I order my day? What are my options?
Evening: Where did I find myself infected by the anxiety of the group?
Psalm 31:16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.