Good Friday Reflections – 1 Towards Jerusalem

On Good Friday we have a series of talks followed by the Good Friday Liturgy. This year Mother Anne-Marie gave the talks and they were based on Paula Gooder’s book Journey to the Empty Tomb. Each talk was preceded by a modern hymn and then a Scripture reading.

Mark 11.1-2, 7-10

Talk by Mother Anne-Marie

Introduction and Towards Jerusalem

“Journey to the Empty Tomb”, the book that is the inspiration for these Good Friday talks, is a book that looks at the biblical accounts of the last week of Jesus’s life. It is scholarly, in that it looks at the Gospel texts and examines them closely, especially their similarities and differences. But it is also a book that draws us into prayerful reflection, so it is designed to be both informative and devotional. The expectation is that it will be read during Lent or in Holy Week.

Paula Gooder, the author, is a freelance lecturer and writer in Biblical Studies. A fuller biography is on the back of the sheet. I have heard Paula speak on several occasions.

She was the key speaker at the conference in Rome Father Jerry and I attended in 2012. She always fills me with enthusiasm for the Biblical text, and if I can’t actually hear her, then her books are the next best thing. Because like me she is a Mancunian, a mother, a vicar’s wife and a Reader (as I was from 1983 to 2002); I feel a kind of affinity with my younger self. The difference is that she is an amazing scholar of the New Testament and New Testament Greek. You are hearing me today, my thoughts and reflections; but I am drawing on Paula’s book in a big way and I want to give due acknowledgement to that.

As I read for, and wrote these talks, a theme emerged, and that was of discipleship. In each talk a particular disciple or group of disciples or followers emerges and I hope identification with these figures will help us reflect on our own discipleship today.

Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The disciples bring the donkey to him there and then he rides into the city.  The road into Jerusalem would have been thronged with people, as they travelled in for Passover. A city with a population of around 30,000 had to cope with an influx of people – the minimum estimate is some 160,000 extra people, but other estimates are much higher, even up to a million. Jesus was travelling with the crowd. The people who joined the procession were most likely his fellow travellers, not the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Some of these people may have heard his teaching and seen his miracles. Some may have been present in Bethany when Lazarus was raised from the dead, and they have travelled with him from there. We call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey “a triumphal entry” as if he comes like a victorious Roman general who would have ridden on a white horse, with slaves and booty of the campaign in tow. Jesus’ procession on a donkey was a much more humble affair, most likely a very deliberate subversion of such an event.

As well as bringing to mind the procession of a victorious Roman, for Jewish people Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would have resonance of an event in Jewish history some 150 years before the time of Jesus, when Judas Maccabeus, who some of you will know from Handel’s Oratorio, entered Jerusalem having driven the Selucid empire out of the city. 1 Maccabees tells us the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches. So it is likely there were expectations that Jesus would drive the latest conquerors from the city too. But there was yet another resonance. The prophet Zechariah, from whom we get the verse about your king coming to you triumphant, yet humble and riding on a donkey, also identified the Mount of Olives as the place where the Lord will stand to begin the redemption of Israel. And remember our text – Jesus very deliberately asks that the donkey be brought to him on the Mount of Olives. As Paula Gooder says “if we connect the Maccabees with these verses from Zechariah, then Messianic bells begin to ring”. And so the crowd shouts “Hosannah to the Son of David, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”– a direct quote from Psalm118 – Hoshi’a na, the Hebrew word for “Save us now”. This psalm, was at the time of Jesus top of the hit parade of psalms, very popular as it expressed hope in a coming David like king who would save the people from oppression. So it seems the crowd did have some expectation of Jesus doing something Messiah like or King David like as he entered Jerusalem.

But what happened to that crowd? I have already said that Paula Gooder thinks they would be the crowd of people coming into Jerusalem, possibly who had heard and seen Jesus at work, hence their expectation. They were in some sense loosely connected to Jesus. If not disciples, certainly potential ones. A bit like people who are exploring the Christian faith now or who come to church occasionally. We tend in the church to call them “the fringe”, and that was probably what this crowd was – on the fringe of Jesus’ followers. But what happens to them? They melt from the text. They may reappear on the Friday, but that maybe a totally different group of people. You would think they might want to see what Jesus does when he gets into Jerusalem. You may think that they might have leapt to Jesus’ defense as the authorities closed in on him. But they melt away.

Paula Gooder suggests they were distracted by the scramble that happened every year at Passover. The scramble to find accommodation in a packed city – there was no advance booking over the internet, so it was first come, first served. It reminds me of travelling in Greece when I was a student 45 years back – no advance booking then either, so I remember once sleeping in a communal bed for five in the kitchen of a house on Rhodes, and resorting to the roof of Athens airport – strictly one night only! So I can understand their preoccupation! They also had to sort out where they would eat the Passover, getting their lamb and deciding who they would be sharing it with. The simple business of life in the big city at festival time overtook them. They may have seen Jesus for a short time as their potential saviour, Messiah, but he fades into the background as they get preoccupied with arrangements for the feast. The human attention span is very short indeed. It is not the result of modern technology, but “ever thus”.

Our presence here on Good Friday may indicate that either we are pretty committed to our faith now, or we are searching now. The commitment can wane and we need always to be wary about the things that so easily distract. If we are searching, we may feel some of the enthusiasm and expectation of the Palm Sunday crowd, that Jesus is the answer. Ultimately I believe Jesus is the answer, but he has never been a simple answer as he does not just save us, he continually challenges us, urges us to be like him and demonstrate the good news to others in word and deed. So melting away, after initial enthusiasm or after a long period of commitment, is understandably a common trait in today’s disciples too.