Holy Week begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem. It seems rather clear from the text that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on a young colt was intentional and prearranged. He gives very specific instructions to two of his disciples on where to find the colt. As he processes into Jerusalem with his disciples, Luke tells us that the people kept throwing their cloaks on the road and as he approached the path down the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem his disciples began to proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” Luke’s version differs somewhat from Mark and Matthew. In Mark they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming.” In Matthew they call Jesus “Son of David” and in Luke they say “Blessed is the King.”
While only Luke calls Jesus King and all the accounts are slightly different, in all three accounts Jesus is certainly being honored as the agent and representative of God’s kingdom. But what sort of kingdom is this? And if Jesus is a king what kind of king?
Entrance processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. But this is certainly not the kind of elaborate ceremony that would accompany the return of a king or a conquering general. Biblical scholars and historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, that about the time Jesus would have made his peaceful entrance into Jerusalem from the east riding a donkey, another very different kind procession would have taken place from the west side of the city. The Roman governor Pilate would have entered leading a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers coming from Caesarea Maritima about 60 miles west to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia overlooking the Jewish temple and its courts.
Pilate’s procession, notes Borg and Crossan, would have displayed not only Rome’s imperial power and but Rome’s imperial theology. The emperor of Rome was given such titles as “son of God,” “lord,” “savior” and one who brought “peace on earth.” So here we have in direct contrast two very different kinds of kingdoms reflecting two very different kinds of peace.
The peace that Jesus embodies is a holistic peace that heals, restores, and transforms individuals, communities, and whole societies if actually practiced. It is a peace that begins with forgiveness – force, not violence. There is more to it than forgiveness, but forgiveness is at the very heart of what Christ is about.
Luke’s Gospel particularly highlights this. Two of the three sayings of Jesus from the cross relate directly to forgiveness. He tells one of the criminals hanging beside him who asks Jesus to remember him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And with regard to his torturers and oppressors Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And after he is vindicated and appears to his disciples after his death, he charges his disciples with proclaiming “in his name,” that is, by his authority and in his power (which is the power of love) repentance and the forgiveness of sins. From Luke’s point of view forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to following Christ. Without practicing forgiveness one cannot be faithful to the way of Jesus.
Years ago Sam Mofat was a professor at Princeton Seminary who had served as a missionary in China. He shared on a number of occasions the gripping story of his flight from Communist pursuers. He told how they seized his house and all his possessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends. Moffat’s own family barely escaped. When he left China, Moffat took with him a deep resentment against the followers of Chairman Mao. He said that it lead him to a crisis in his faith. “I realized,” he said, “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.” And that, of course, is because forgiveness is basic to the life and message of Jesus and what he calls his followers to do.
Forgiveness is, for the most part, counter cultural. It runs against the grain of normalcy in society that is based on the offender getting what he or she deserves. And yet our lack of forgiveness is destroying families, communities, and whole societies.
Leo Tolstoy thought he was getting his marriage off on the right foot when he asked his teenage fiancée to read his diaries, which spelled out the details of his past sexual dalliances. He wanted to keep no secrets from Sonya and wanted the marriage to begin with a clean slate. Tolstoy’s confession, however, sowed seeds of resentment and jealousy. Years later she wrote in her diary, “When he kisses me I’m always thinking, ‘I’m not the first woman he has loved.’” For half a century jealousy and resentment and the lack of forgiveness ate away at her like a cancer destroying any love she had for her husband.
Unfortunately this is not unusual. We nurse wounds, perpetuate family conflicts, punish ourselves and others, and rationalize our harmful actions—all to avoid this unnatural act. C.S Lewis said once, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” It is unnatural because it seems unjust. And it is unjust when we define justice as punitive or retributive justice, as punishment or getting what you deserve. The justice that makes for peace is restorative justice rooted in the practice of forgiveness.
The reason we must be committed to forgiveness is because Jesus was. And according to Jesus forgiveness is at the very heart of the character of God. So while forgiveness may seem unnatural to us, for God it is the most natural thing in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this. He was a German theologian and pastor who chose to stay in Germany and identify with the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. He was arrested and wrote several of his famous works from prison. He was martyred just before the war ended. Even while he worked to undermine Hitler’s regime, he followed Jesus’ command to pray for his enemies. He wrote, “Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them . . . We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do themselves.” Bonhoeffer contended that we love and pray for our enemies because that is how God loves and acts.
In Luke 6 Jesus taught, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . . But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and [here’s the reason we pursue this unnatural course] you will be children of the Most High [you will live true to who you are]; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
We can think of a hundred excuses and reasons why not to forgive: He needs to learn a lesson. Or I don’t want encourage irresponsible behavior. Or she needs to learn that actions have consequences. Or I was the one wronged—it’s not up to me to make the first move. Or how can I forgive if he’s not even sorry?
Popular Christian writer and journalist Philip Yancey describes his own struggle with forgiveness. He says, “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago.” That’s true for all of us. Forgiveness is a struggle. It is never easy. Then he says, “I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors.”
There can be no peace, no healing, no wholeness, no restoration of relationships, no working together for the common good without forgiveness. As a global society we have no future without forgiveness.
Another thing that makes for peace is the practice of compassion. This is equally important and goes hand-in-hand with forgiveness. The kind of holiness that Jesus embodied throughout his ministry was a holiness of compassion, which often led him to clash with the religious establishment and the powers that be who were committed to a different kind of holiness. They practiced a holiness based on the purity laws. It was a holiness formed by the holiness code.
We see something of Jesus’ compassion for his people as he weeps and grieves over the fate of Israel. Jesus cries out as he approaches Jerusalem, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Their spiritual blindness and inability to practice forgiveness and refrain from reacting to violence with violence sealed their fate. Their inability to love their enemies will result in the enemy, Rome, crushing them. The description we have in our text about the Romans surrounding them and hemming them in and crushing them to the ground may have been written after the fact, but there is no question that Jesus anticipated this outcome because of their refusal to relinquish hate and violence. Instead of nurturing compassion and forgiveness, they allowed bitterness and resentment and hate to fester. They gave in to their fears and insecurities, as many Americans are doing right now. Let us pray that the many do not constitute a majority for all our sakes.
What makes for peace? The practice of compassion. I say the practice of compassion because compassion is not really compassion unless we act. Compassion is the capacity to enter into the hurt and pain and suffering of others.
The late Henry Nouwen wrote about one of his most vivid memories as a youth which was connected to a little goat given to him by his father to care for during the last year of the Second World War. The goat’s name was Walter. Nouwen was 13 years old and lived with his family in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-day armies. People were dying of hunger.
He loved his little goat and spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him. He carried him in his arms, built a pin for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. He fed him as soon as he woke up in the morning, and as soon as he returned from school he fed him again and cleaned his pen and talked to him about all sorts of things.
One day, early in the morning when he entered his pen he discovered Walter missing. He had been stolen. Nouwen was heartbroken with grief. Years later, when the war was over and they had enough food again, his father told him that their gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing to eat. Nouwen says, “My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him—even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion.”
While compassion must be practiced, it may not be very practical at all. Mother Teresa was sometimes challenged about the long-term effects of her humanitarian ministry of compassion. She was asked once, “Why give people fish to eat instead of teaching them how to fish?” Her response was, “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I give them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over to you and you can show them how to catch fish.” But then she was also quick to respond that she and her sisters gave people a lot more than fish. She said, “If our actions are just useful actions that give no joy to the people, our poor people would never be able to rise up to the call which we want them to hear, the call to come closer to God. We want to make them feel that they are loved.” That’s what the compassion of Christ aims for – to help people see, feel, know in the core of their being they are loved.
Sometimes our hurt and grief is so great that we find it hard to see the hurt and grief others feel. What we must do is learn to channel our own pain in a ministry of healing to others. And the irony of it is that it is in such ministry to others that we ourselves find healing. We must allow Jesus to help us “see” through his eyes so that out of our own pain and grief we can minister to the pain and grief of others and in that very ministry we ourselves will be made whole. We must try to see through the eyes of Jesus and if we can, then we will see value of forgiveness and compassion. We will see the things that make for peace.
Our good God, we can be so blind, just like the folks for whom Jesus grieved and wept, who could not see the things that make for peace. Help us to see. Help our country to see. Help our world to see. In the name of Christ. Amen.