Procession: A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew
This is Matthew, a Jew writing especially for Jewish converts to Christ. Matthew wants to make sure he conveys that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah. That is why he has Jesus “riding on a donkey” as the prophet Zechariah foretold and describes the crowd crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”—words from Psalm 118.
There are supporters who believe Jesus to be the Messiah, and yet not long after, in this same city, another crowd yells, “Crucify him.” Have you ever wondered why the people of Jerusalem changed sides so quickly? As we hear later in the story, it was the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were threatened by Jesus that wanted him dead and roused many to turn against him even though it was not in the people’s best interest. It is a pattern that has continued throughout history.
A reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah
This is one of the four poems called “Suffering Servant Songs” that depict a messenger sent to convince the people to be true to the covenant God had made with them. The Servant suffers rejection and even death while being faithful to his mission. The early Church saw Jesus as the embodiment of the Suffering Servant, as do we today.
Have you ever suffered for doing the right thing, for standing up for the truth, for helping someone in need? At times, we all may be called to be suffering servants but not people without hope. Our hope is in Jesus, especially in times of suffering.
A reading St. Paul's Letters to the Philippians
This passage was probably a hymn sung at early Christian liturgies that incorporates the image of the Suffering Servant that was familiar to the Jews of the time. But it goes beyond this image to one obedient to the point of death: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him” … “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”
This was a radical statement for any Jew to make. For Judaism, God is totally other, not embodied in some aspect of nature. God is God. That’s it. But here, the early Christians boldly sing of their belief “that Jesus Christ is Lord.” That may be easy for us to say now, but it was a dangerous song back then.
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew
This is the most important part of the Gospels, and so we read the whole passage reverently. It is impossible to get the many parts of the story all at once. Please try to read all four of the gospel Passion stories, or at least one of them, sometime this week and talk about it with someone who shares your faith.
There are so many interesting characters and stories within stories. Let’s look more closely at Judas and Peter. Both betray Jesus but in different ways and for different reasons. Peter is afraid, afraid for his life. He knows how hideous the Roman crucifixions were. So, here he is the one chosen by Jesus to be the leader, the “rock,” and he crumbles. We do not know why Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans. Was it just for money or were there other motives? In any case, Judas becomes so wrapped in guilt that he kills himself. He does not believe that he can be forgiven. That means that he did not really understand who Jesus was, the healer, full of compassionate forgiveness, and so he cut himself off from the gift that Jesus offered him. Peter recognized his tragic mistake and turned himself around, had a change of heart, and asked for forgiveness. Later, of course, he gave his life for Jesus and for the message of forgiveness. And what of Judas? Did his suicide mean that he was forever condemned for his lack of faith in forgiveness? We might be inclined to answer quickly, but remembering the dimensions of God’s mercy, we leave that judgment to him.
As we celebrate this Palm Sunday conscious of the millions of refugees living in poverty, the thousands killed or displaced by war and natural disaster, the hundreds of innocents killed by firearms, let us pray that the risen Jesus who overcame suffering and death will be with those who suffer throughout the world. Let us also ask ourselves what we can do to help our vulnerable sisters and brothers.
As you may know, I co-founded WhyHunger with the late Harry Chapin. We started the first hunger hotline in America, the New York Hunger Hotline. Some years later, we started the National Hunger Hotline which still operates at 1-800-548-6479. Over the years, we have helped millions of hungry people find food in their neighborhoods. During the past two weeks our calls have gone up 300 percent. If you know people who are hungry, please tell them to call that hotline. And if you can do anything to help hungry people near you or far away, please do.
Painting: Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto di Bondone (1303). Scrovegni Chapel, Veneto, Italy. Public domain.
Excerpts from the English translation of the Lectionary for Mass © 1969, 1981, 1997, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation (ICEL). All rights reserved.
Bill Ayres was a founder, with the late singer Harry Chapin, of WhyHunger. He has been a radio and TV broadcaster for 40 years and has two weekly Sunday-night shows on WPLJ, 95.5 FM in New York. He is a member of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Centerport, New York.