One of the regular resources I use in sermon preparation is the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Paul Nuechterlein, recently retired ELCA Lutheran pastor manages this site to provide weekly commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each Sunday's worship.
Directly or indirectly, contributors to the site honor the work of Rene Girard, d. Nov. 4, 2015. Girard was first an anthropologist then a commentator on ancient literature in the Bible.
His fundamental teaching was that humans learn first and foremost by imitation. Think "monkey see, monkey do." What humans in particular desire and therefore choose to imitate and join are more often than not the actions of those in power over them.
Aptly, though with a cynical edge this theory describes the environs of first century Jerusalem and the days leading to the crucifixion. Jesus is the scapegoat presented and sacrificed by the powers that be, both Roman and Jewish to maintain the status quo.
The ultimate use of power is to preserve power. So when Judas forces Jesus' hand by his betrayal in the garden he is acting on his mistaken belief that the Messiah will exercise power just like but against Rome.
Instead, Jesus lays down his life and refuses by his silence to be the scapegoat that the powers need him to be. In his resurrection he redirects the mimetic desire of those expecting a messiah to "win" and then the good news is born in the hearts and minds of his followers.
Several contributors to "Reflections" focus on the role that those under power play to prop up the status quo and imitate power. When the Pharisees challenge Jesus' dining with "tax collectors and sinners"(Luke 15) or when Judas in Bethany criticizes Mary for wasting pure nard to perfume Jesus's feet in last Sunday's reading (John 12) they are imitating those in power and propping up a Jewish caste system that imitates the Roman one subjecting them.
The Pharisees challenges and Judas' questions are pretenses. Neither have absolute power but whatever power they can pretend to exercise they will. We know this in our day and time when we see those who have been bullied become the bully or dads who were spanked spanking or others decrying the ways in which they are deprived of their own pretensions. Monkey see, monkey do.
This week in Growing a Rule of Life has been a lesson for me that my life in prayer and devotion needn't imitate or attempt a kind of "power over." My old Lenten practice was to do exactly that. To take control or attain mastery over some action or behavior. I would start on Ash Wednesday and chip away for 40 days until I was expert in doing or not doing .
As if power over anything was His goal. As if mastery was what God asks even of me. As if heaven were more available because we've made fewer mistakes or have become habituated to doing some good thing.
We should all be letting go of our privileges and titles. We should all be reexamining our presumptions to favored status or to being offended. Last Sunday, St. Paul counted all his honors as rubbish for becoming like Christ in his death. (Philippians 3)
This Palm Sunday we will instead try to imitate one whom we say triumphs as he entered Jerusalem already in obedience to his own dying. Some irony here, no? Jesus intentionally offended the powerful by mounting that donkey and drawing a crowd who must have known who they were mocking in their hosannas.
We shouldn't be so quick to impose an understanding informed by a moment yet to be narrated for us. That he was raised was not known by anyone along that parade route. God meant something very different for the messiah than "Jewish champion" or "bully to end all bullies."
But right now the lesson is to suffer one last time in a system that uses even us to prop itself up. "Power over" is being called out and it still will try to have the last say.
Next week we can think about how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus expose the pretense, our pretense. No more scapegoats to prop up power. No more caste systems. No more being offended or avoiding offense.
Until then we should check our own assumptions and name the collusion our mimetic desire finds us practicing.