• Steven Marsh

Learning–Superficial Success Dissolves into Despair: a Reflection on Mark 11:1-11 and Psalm 11

God is passionate about you. That means, God has an ardent and zealous desire to see you live a successful life. Therein lies the good news of Palm Sunday.

God is writing a story of salvation in your life. And you get to participate. What forms the storyline? God saving you. Think about that. The Jewish people were saved from bondage in Egypt. Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem continued God’s plan of salvation, which began at creation and was further revealed through the covenant made to Abraham, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the promise of a Messiah through the lineage of King David. God’s plan of salvation culminated in Jesus’ birth, baptism, earthly suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. “In spite of present circumstances, however threatening they may be, this testimony is sure: God’s love endures.”[1] Our lives are set in the context of God’s steadfast love.

Jesus’ journey on a donkey into Jerusalem, didn’t fit the people’s view of a successful king. Jesus didn’t create a powerful nation and subdue the oppressor. Instead, Jesus led as one oppressed, espousing the virtues of poverty, selflessness, passivity, and sacrifice. The people’s view of success for Jesus may have been, shall we say, superficial. From the Gospel reading, Jesus defined success by loving and serving the least. Keith Hartsell from Wheaton, Illinois relates this story,

I was with a friend a few years ago in California, and as we were driving around the busy streets of L.A., I noticed that his cell phone was locked with an unusual password—pro nobis. I asked him what pro nobis meant and why he chose that for a password. He told me it was Latin, and it meant “For Us” and then he suddenly started choking up. I thought, why would those two Latin words cause so much emotion? He composed himself and then explained that after walking through deep personal pain, true healing came when he learned that God is “for us”—or the Latin phrase pro nobis. My friend said that after his parents’ divorce, a season when he assumed that God didn’t care or that God had given up on him, he finally found hope through those two simple words. When he decided to believe that God was pro nobis, that God had even sent Christ to die for him, he could then decide to lay down his life for others.[2]

Without any doubt, Psalm 118 sounds a clarion call of how God is “for us!” Jewish people read this psalm at Passover recalling God’s deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt and leading them into freedom. Christians read it to commemorate God’s faithfulness to the church and our requisite call to be faithful. Jesus does not measure up to the traditional and accepted understanding of king, however. He redefines success.

In this regard, Mark 11:1-11 reframes how humanity is to experience God being “for us” … through being saved. On the way into Jerusalem, Jesus defined the title, “Lord.” He identifies the title rather than it him.[3] It was the beginning of the week of Passover. Passover is the ritual observance of the Jewish people that celebrates God’s deliverance of their faith community from Egypt. The Christian community has appropriated and adapted the ritual observance of Passover as it sought to understand and interpret the life and death of Jesus Christ. Jerusalem is not just any city. It is the city of God and the faithless city, the city of hope and the city of oppression, the city of joy and the city of pain.[4] As Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, a multitude of people began praising God with great joy and loud voices, because of the great deeds of power that they had witnessed Jesus do. The people were shouting, “Hosanna! “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”[5] “Hosanna” is the Hebrew for “O Lord, grant salvation.”

How we live our lives as students, mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, employees, employers, deacons, neighbors, pastors, cousins, elders, worshipers, and friends is critical for the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth. We are bringers of salvation. As Christians, our actions say more than our words. Might we no longer use the Bible to prove litmus test interpretations of faithfulness and instead use it to promote the mission of justice that Jesus lived? Peter J. Gomes former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University writes, “Given that… the disparities between the rich and the poor increase rather than lessen.… [might we] unite in a social wisdom that goes beyond the Bible…into a whole gospel for the whole person?”[6] Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem redefined success. Jesus’ triumph calls disciples then and now to a lifestyle which significantly, not superficially, engages society’s challenges.

The other day, a friend told me how her neighbor planted two trees in above ground potting boxes. The trees weren’t looking healthy, causing a level of despair in the neighbor. So, the neighbor gave the trees away to my friend’s son for digging them up. Why were the trees unhealthy? There was only so much soil, excellent soil, for the roots to penetrate, before they hit the concrete bottom of the planting box. The neighbor’s despair over the unhealthy trees was caused by superficial success. The trees have been replanted in my friend’s son’s yard, where they will flourish with unlimited soil for the roots to penetrate.

Let us be faithful to God and identify with the oppressed through living the virtues of poverty, selflessness, passivity, and sacrifice. Therein lies success for people’s salvation for eternal life after death and abundant life now. John Piper in Think writes, “…make all your thinking an act of love for people…Thinking that does not aim to display Christ and build up people is not worthy of God’s approval.”[7] “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever…Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”[8] God is pro nobis, “for us!”

[1]Audrey West in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 148.

[2]This illustration found on preachingtoday.com

[3]Adapted from Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 136.

[4]Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 5.

[5]Mark 11:9c is almost a direct translation of Psalm 118:26

[6]Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (New York City, New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 186.

[7]John Piper, Think (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 184.

[8]Psalm 118:1, 25

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