Some years ago, on a 99 degree September day in San Antonio, Texas, a 10-month-old baby girl got locked, accidentally, in a parked car by her aunt. Frantically the mother and the aunt ran around the car in near hysteria while a neighbor tried to pry the lock with a clothes hanger. By the time Fred Arriola, a wrecker driver, happened upon the scene, the child was turning purple and was beginning to foam at her mouth. It had become a life-or-death situation. Fred grabbed a hammer and smashed the back window of the car to set her free. Rather than being heralded as a hero, though, Fred was criticized. He explained, “The lady was mad at me because I broke the window. I just thought, What’s more important—the baby or the window?”
Sometimes we get mixed up over what truly matters. Sometimes a mom and an aunt worry more about the pristine appearance of a car than the life of a child. And sometimes we worry more about our status in the world and our happiness than with the health and life of our soul.
The people of Jesus’ day faced the same confusion over priorities in life, so Jesus presented His disciples with a correcting view of life. In a nutshell, at the opening to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives to His disciples not a list of things that might make a person happy but a description of things that will lead to a fulfilling life.
Dr. Donald Hagner points out, “Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t seem very interested in happiness. English translations hardly employ the words ‘happy’ or ‘happiness.’ A perfectly good Greek word, eudaimonia, meaning ‘happiness,’ was available but is not used by a single New Testament writer. Another Greek word, one that seems indispensable to the description of Hollywood happiness is hedone, ‘pleasure.’ This word occurs in the New Testament only a few times, always negatively. Luke 8:14, for example, refers to seeds that are ‘choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.’ Happiness, in the sense that it is usually understood, apparently seems from the New Testament perspective to be altogether too much of a preoccupation with the self.
“The Bible has another vocabulary, a more elevated one, for words such as ‘blessedness’ and ‘joy.’ While in the Old Testament blessedness is sometimes related to material matters, in the main it designates as blessed the person who knows and fears God, who considers the poor, and does justice and righteousness. Blessedness is for the most part directed away from the self. Blessedness is the product of what God has done and our participation in that.”
Jesus calls us to something higher than the pursuit of happiness because the pursuit of happiness does not actually lead to happiness. Tim Keller comments, “On January 7, 2007, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting article called ‘Happiness 101.’ It described positive psychology, a branch of psychology that seeks to take a scientific, empirical approach to what makes people happy. Researchers in this field have found that if you focus on doing and getting things that give you pleasure, it does not lead to happiness but produces what one researcher has dubbed ‘the hedonic treadmill.’ You become addicted to pleasure, and your need for the pleasure fix keeps growing: You have to do more and more. You’re never satisfied, never really happy.” (King’s Cross, p. 149)
For this reason, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount not with a list of things that will make a person happy but with a description of things that pull us toward faith and compassion and humility and goodness:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake….”
In his gospel, John likes to tell the story of Jesus through personal encounters Jesus had with people. In telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, John begins with an encounter the risen Lord had with a woman whom we know as Mary Magdalene.
For close to three years, Mary had been part of a group of devout women who followed Jesus and helped care for His daily needs. Jesus had become the joy of Mary’s life and the strength of her soul. Like many others had, Mary found in Jesus the words of life.
But then came the hideous day when she stood at the foot of an executioner’s cross along with Jesus’ mother and some other female followers, and they witnessed the horror of the crucifixion. She watched the nails driven through His wrists and feet. She heard Him cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” She watched Him struggle for each breath He took, and she wept when He took His final breath. She watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid His corpse in a tomb, and a great stone was slid into place, sealing the tomb. Then she and the other women followers went to a home to prepare spices and perfumes that would be used to anoint His body.
The next day was the Sabbath, so they could do nothing, but Mary’s grief percolated. She went to bed Saturday night, but she could not stay asleep. Stirred by anxiousness and desperation, she gets up early—while it is still dark. Though there were no street lights in Jerusalem, she hurries to the tomb. She feels driven to be near Jesus—even if He is lying dead in a tomb. That’s what grief does to a person. Even when your loved one is dead, you can’t bear to be apart. You wear the shirt they used to wear; you postpone clearing out their closet; you leave their voice on the answering machine and listen to it again and again; you go to their grave to be near them. That’s what Mary Magdalene does.
At the tomb, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone. Filled with bewilderment, confusion, and aggravation, she runs back into the city to tell Peter and John. It’s not that they can do anything, but it’s too much for Mary to handle on her own. She longs for someone to stand beside her in her sorrow and confusion. But Peter and John are also overwhelmed with grief and confusion. They rush ahead of her to the tomb, then turn around and leave again, leaving her alone again in her sorrow. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens to people who are mourning; they get left alone to bear their sorrow by themselves.
In His mercy, God sends angels to console her, but Mary is inconsolable. The other gospels report that the angels announce Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but Mary cannot take that in. That’s what happens in grief. Good news is inconceivable so we cannot take it in.
Jesus Himself appears before Mary and asks her, “Why are you weeping?” But Mary cannot recognize Him. Her senses are so fogged by despair that she cannot accurately see what is before her eyes—until He calls her by name.
There is something deeply powerful about being called by your own name. For Mary it lifted the fog of despair from her soul.
Apparently, she turned to Jesus and clung to Him. That only makes sense. When you lose someone who is dear to you, then suddenly that person reappears, you cling to that person. You hold him or her like you will never let them go again.
For Mary, despair has been turned to joy!
At this, Jesus gives her two commands.
With the first, He tells her, “Do not hold on to Me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
The most natural thing for Mary to do is to cling to Him—to cling to His physical body. But any physical body—even a resurrected body—has its limitations. If Mary clings to His body, how can He also be with Peter when Peter gets locked in prison? How can He be with Thomas when Thomas brings the good news to India? How can He be with John while John is imprisoned on the island of Patmos? How can He be with Paul in jail in Rome? How can He be with you wherever you may go? Not even One who walks on water can be with all of His people around the world at the same time if He is confined to a physical body that Mary can cling to. The reason Jesus tells her not to cling to Him is so that He can ascend to heaven and send His Spirit to fill the hearts of all of His followers.
With the second command He tells her, “Go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”
The great good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not to be kept to ourselves but shared with others so that everyone can know the wonderful news that Jesus is alive forevermore and that we need fear death no more!
Many who observed the original Palm Sunday would have been shocked by what they saw.
Many Jewish people would have been shocked by the waving of palm branches and by the shouting of “Hosanna” on that particular day—the first day of the Feast of Passover. The waving of palm branches and the shouting of “Hosanna” was something the people typically did during Succoth, otherwise known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles, which takes place each year in September or October. During this great Jewish holiday, believers leave the comfort of their homes for seven days to sleep under the shelter of a temporary cover in a “booth” or “tabernacle.” In doing so, they recall their deliverance from Egypt and how they lived in temporary shelters while God led them through the desert. The booths remind believers of the shade God provided as the Jewish people wandered through the hot desert for forty years. Their shade came in the form of a cloud that hovered above them throughout the hot day. The cloud was actually the glory of God covering them, sheltering them, and leading them. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people would celebrate Succoth each fall by waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna! O LORD, save us. O LORD grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”
But when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey, it was spring, a half a year away from Succoth. It was not the right time of year for the people to wave palm branches and to sing “Hosanna.” But they believed Jesus might be the fulfillment of their Succoth prayers, that He might be the One who had come to deliver them from Roman rule, and to shelter them from harm. So they waved branches from Him, and they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”
The Roman soldiers would have been shocked for a different reason. They would have been shocked to observe the excitement of the crowd over something that appeared so diminutive to the Romans. Philip Yancey comments, “What stands out to me now is the slapstick nature of the affair. I imagine a Roman officer galloping up to check on the disturbance. He has attended processions in Rome, where they do it right. The conquering general sits in a chariot of gold, with stallions straining at the reigns and wheel spikes flashing in the sunlight. Behind him, officers in polished armor display the banners captured from vanquished armies. At the rear comes a ragtag procession of slaves and prisoners in chains, living proof of what happens to those who defy Rome. In Jesus’ triumphal entry, the adoring crowd makes up the ragtag procession: the lame, the blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee and Bethany. When the officer looks for the object of their attention he spies a forlorn figure, weeping, riding on no stallion or chariot but on the back of a baby donkey.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 190)
What particularly grabs my interest in the Palm Sunday story is something else. The day Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem was the day that had been stipulated in the Mosaic Law as the day when Jewish faithful were to choose their Passover lamb. They were to select their lamb on the first day of the week of Passover and bring the lamb into their home for four days before they slaughtered it for the Passover meal (mirroring how God came to live among us in Jesus before we slaughtered Him). By coming into Jerusalem on that precise day, Jesus was announcing to the people that He had come to be their Passover lamb—that He had come to be the One who would lay down His life to set His people free!
The crowd was ecstatic when they thought Jesus had come to be their conquering hero. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!” But a few days later, when He was led sheepishly to the slaughter, they turned against Him. They shouted, “Crucify Him!”
I am struck by how similar I am to the crowd. When I think Jesus will trample my enemies, I wave a palm branch. When I think He will bring to me a happy life where everything goes the way I want it to go, I shout “Hosanna!” But I am not as excited when He speaks of His kingdom coming through sacrifice and forgiveness and unconditional love—especially when He wants those things from me. But, as it turns out, it is the kingdom of the Passover Lamb that I truly long for as opposed to the kingdom of a conquering warrior. Human history reveals the failure of warrior kingdoms over and over again, but the Passover Lamb has been transforming people’s lives through love and forgiveness for centuries now, and I long to see the fulfillment of this kingdom!
Sadly, we live in a world where ethics get compromised for the sake of personal convenience and morals get set aside for one’s own gain.
Amy Choate-Nielsen reports, “According to a Reader’s Digest poll in 2004, 93 percent of respondents reported one or more kinds of dishonesty at work or school, and 96 percent reported lying to or committing other dishonest acts toward those close to them.” (Deseret News, March 28, 2014)
According to a report shared by Madeline Boehmer, 75 percent of employees admit to having stolen at least once from their employer, and 37.5 percent admit to having stolen at least twice from their employer. Employee thefts result in $50 billion stolen from U.S. businesses each year. (SheerID Inc.)
On the flip side, David Cooper and Teresa Kroeger report that in the 10 most populous U.S. states, employers rob the lowest earning workers: “2.4 million workers lose $8 billion annually (an average of $3,300 per year for year-round workers) to minimum wage violations—nearly a quarter of their earned wages.” (Economic Policy Institute, May 10, 2017)
In the midst of such corruption, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 commands us, “Hold fast to what is good.”
Those who seek to be followers of the God who is good need to be careful not to settle for the collapsed ethics and morals of our world. We need to pursue the good that matches the loving heart of God.
Mother Teresa once commented, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity.”
The good that God tells us to hold fast to has to do with applying love and charity to the people we meet.
Ruth Haley Barton puts it this way: “In every decision we make we could hope that somewhere along the way someone will ask, ‘What does love call us to?’” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 197)
I think that’s what Pee Wee Reese tried to do. According to Larry Wise, “Jackie Robinson was the first black to play major league baseball. While breaking the ‘color barrier,’ he faced jeering crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error. His own fans began to ridicule him. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the fans jeered. Then shortstop Pee Wee Reese came over and stood next to him. He put his arm around Jackie Robinson and faced the crowd. The fans grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.”
May we hold fast to what is good by asking repeatedly, ‘What does love call me to do?’