postmodern preaching

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B


  • Mark 11: 1-11

In Mark, ( as well as Matthew and Luke), it is noted that Jesus and his followers are near the Mount of Olives, which according to Zechariah 14: 4, is the site of a final battle of the nations.  The use of a colt for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was meant to signal the arrival of a person of peace, not of war.   The song–“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the reign of our Ancestor David that is coming.  Hosanna in the highest!”– is not a quote from the Hebrew scriptures, but  “but an addition to make the connection with the coming Davidic kingdom,” according to commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, (p. 83)


  • John 12: 12-16

In John’s version, the crowds had already gathered because of the spectacular raising from the dead of Lazarus by Jesus.    On his own, Jesus “found a donkey’s colt and  sat on it.”  (Zechariah 9:9ff): “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!/ shout aloud  O Daughter of Jerusalem!/Lo, your king comes to you;/triumphant and victorious is he/humble and riding on a donkey,/on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  John’s  text emphasizes that the followers of Jesus did not understand the significance of what was happening until after “Jesus was glorified.”

  • Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

Psalm 118 may be a compilation of as many as five psalms, which would explain the change in voice from personal to corporate.  It opens with a conventional summons to praise for the Lord’s “kindness.”  In vv 19-29, the writer references an earlier time when he attempted to enter “the gate of the Lord” and was “rejected.”  But now he returns, vindicated by the Lord: “the stone that the builders rejected/has become the chief cornerstone.”  This stunning reversal is the Lord’s doing; “This is the day the Lord has wrought/Let us exult and rejoice in in.”  Now the voice becomes corporate as apparently those inside the Temple welcome the one who are approaches to enter: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It concludes in the first personal, singular: “You are my God and I acclaim You/ My God, and I exalt You.”



  • Isaiah 50:4-9a

In a time of doubt, despair and cynicism, one stands up to speak, “that I may sustain the weary with a word.”  Despite rejection, the speaker is confident  that these words can renew and restore, because that has been the result in the past.

  • Psalm 31: 9-16

The psalmist is so distraught by his treatment from his enemies he feels it viscerally, in his eyes, belly and throat.  He has becomes an outcast even among his family and friends.  His enemies have plotted to take his life.  Yet, he declares, “I trust in You, O Lord/My life is in Your hands.”

  • Philippians 2: 5-11

Paul returns to an admonition he also made to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 5:16-17), when he writes to the church in Philippi: “have the same mind [perspective, attitude,approach] as Christ.”  He continues with what seems like an extant hymn or other liturgical fragment, which declares Christ Jesus, although he was “equal” to God did not use his privilege to avoid taking on human form and submitting to human cruelty, “even death on a cross.”  And continues: But God transformed this humiliation into a triumph so that “every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

  • Mark  14: 1-5, 47  OR  Mark 15: 1-39, (40-47)

Violence is present in Mark’s narrative from the beginning with the execution of John the Baptizer by Herod (1:1-14).  And at the very beginning of Jesus’ public life, Mark writes, the religious establishment started to plot to kill him (3:6).  And, we are also told, Herod viewed Jesus as another charismatic trouble-maker like the Baptizer, whom he had had executed (6:16).

The story of these final days begins with a type of anointing, which Mark’s narrative places here and not after the crucifixion.  Jesus emphasizes that “you will not always have me” and commends the action of the woman who “has anointed my body beforehand.”

As the conversations and events of betrayal, duplicity and abandonment unfold at the meal and in Gethsemane, Mark describes Jesus’ growing despair.  He asks if it is possible he be spared this humiliation and violent death.  Jesus admits that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

While Judas and Peter cause Jesus the greatest disappointments, all his friends and followers fade away as it become increasingly dangerous to be near Jesus.  “After all had abandoned him,” a new follower, unique to Mark’s narrative, appears and as quickly abandons Jesus, escaping so quickly he leaves his clothes in the hands of the arresting soldier.

After the arrest, Jesus is taken before the religious authorities.  The charge is blasphemy and a specific threat to “destroy the Temple.”  Jesus responds to his accusers that not only is he the Messiah, he is the Son of Man, who will return with fierce judgment.  But Jesus does not respond to the specific charges against him, allowing their confusion to prevail.  The verdict of guilt is handed down quickly by the Sanhedrin and the sentence is death.

Jesus is handed over to the political authority, Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea.  Are you a rebel against the Roman Empire, a so-called “King of the Jews,” Pilate asks?  Jesus answers, “You have said so,” which puzzles Pilate who concludes there are no grounds for conviction.  But the religious leaders stir up the  mob watching all this unfold to demand the death of Jesus.  So, despite his belief in the innocence of Jesus, Pilate, the alert politician, placates the crowd and their leaders and hands Jesus over to be crucified.  Some Roman soldiers standing near-by spit on Jesus and hit him.  The mockery follows him to the cross with insults from the crowd and even an improvised sign tacked over his head, “The King of the Jews.”

After carefully describing all the ways Jesus has been left alone to die and ridiculed and humiliated, Mark writes, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The last breath escapes his lips.

Two remarkable things happen immediately in Marks’ narrative.  The veil of the Temple is ripped asunder from top to bottom.  And then, one of the soldiers on duty that particular Friday look up, “saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last,” and muttered, “This man was God’s Son!”  (Which is the first and only time this acknowledgment is made by anyone in Mark’s gospel.)

Mark concludes with two incidents unique to his narrative.  While a few women look on “from a distance,” a stranger, Joseph of Arimathea, “boldly” asks for the corpse.  And Pilate sends soldiers  to make sure Jesus is dead.


Inspired by the work of Robert Alter, Paul Ricoeur wrote a study he titled “Outlines of a Literary Analysis of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark,” (Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination, pp 191-199).  He observes that the “genius” of Mark’s narrative is two powerful devises.  As the narrative unfolds, the friends and followers of Jesus gradually disappear from the story and at its end the spotlight falls on  a very unlikely, surprise voice.  Some of those friends leave after bombast and tears–Peter– while others sorrowfully just slip away or keep a safe distance.  Ricoeur also notes that as the narrative continues, Jesus offers fewer and fewer words in his own defense or explanation of who he is or what he has done in his public life.  His last words are the psalmist’s cry of utter despair.  After one final whisper of breath, there is a brief silence.  And then the surprise–from  a soldier who just happened to pull that shift that day comes a testimony which those closest to Jesus did not say  for themselves.  “This man was God’s son,” the anonymous centurion says.  The impact of Mark’s genius is to gradually shift the focus from those who had been closest to Jesus throughout his life and ministry to the reader/hearer. Ricoeur writes:

“From Judas who betrays him, to the disciples who flee….”  “Peter’s denial takes on its full weight.  Starting as a negative model of the condition of being a disciple, it becomes a source of uncertainty for the reader insofar as the reader is invited to proffer an affirmation of faith with such force that it will cut the ambiguity of everything that has gone before.” (p. 197)

 The anonymous soldier, whose presence was purely arbitrary that day,  is a stand-in for each person who hears this story and sees that those who were present who were closest could not see.  Each time the story is read/heard, it invites a response: to “cut the ambiguity of everything that has gone before” and testify– “This man was God’s son.”  As the followers of Jesus abandoned him one by one the only person left is an anonymous soldier, the stand-in for every subsequent reader/hearer, who is invited to say what they did not say, to see what they did not see.  The “genius” of Mark’s narrative is to put the listener/reader on the spot, to draw in the most casual bystander to make a declaration no one in the story itself– except the person who was only there by chance that day– could or did make!  Mark’s narrative also uniquely adds that  because all the friends and family of Jesus had quietly slipped away, it was a total stranger, Jospeh of Arimathea,  who took the corpse of Jesus for burial.

 David Foster Wallace lost a lifetime struggle with clinical depression and took his own life September 12, 2008.  But in his forty-six years, he produced some of the most remarkable fiction and non-fiction, including his novel, Infinite Jest.  His body of work and his life have been portrayed as a postmodern spiritual journey by D.T. Max in a moving portrait published in The New Yorker, March 9, 2009.  He also reports that Wallace was working on his third novel at the time of his death. When Wallace’s wife went through his voluminous papers and notes, she found this quote from a poem by Frank Bibart.  Max speculates that Wallace might have saved it as an epigraph for his incompleted novel.  It read:  “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” 

Could that other “genius” story-teller, Mark, have meant for us to “fill” the “form” of the centurion, who, in the midst of a routine workday opened his eyes and saw for himself and was able to say for himself what was true?



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