The Gospel of Social Justice: a Reflection on Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday is fundamentally about justice, in that it is rooted in the image of the least of these. This is the day that Christians around the world begin to celebrate the passion narrative: the significance of Jerusalem, the Upper Room and Gethsemane, the crucifixion, and resurrection for the salvation of humanity.
The Jewish people saw Jesus not fulfilling what their kings were to do…create a powerful nation and subdue the oppressor. Instead, Jesus led as one oppressed, espousing the virtues of poverty, selflessness, passivity, and sacrifice.
It is hard for us to get our minds around justice as a theme for Palm Sunday. But, it is the theme. The good news of the gospel confronts the difficulty the Christian community has to identify with the oppressed. 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.
Psalm 118 is a festival psalm. Without any doubt, is 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 delivering 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. Israel’s inability to recognize Jesus’ definition of king is the Christian’s as well. Kimberley Clayton, Director of Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia writes, “…the world’s judgements are often wrong, at odds with the judgments and purposes of God.”
In this regard, Luke 19:28-40 demands our attention. On the way into Jerusalem, Jesus reframed the title, “Lord.” He identifies the title rather than it him. Jesus brought peace in a just way, because of his identification with the oppressed; the rejected stones. When the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” The psalm causes adherents to Judaism and Christianity pause.
Jesus viewed salvation through the lenses of justice; personal and social. Jesus accomplished justice through his baptism; earthly obedience to the will of God; demeaning march into Jerusalem; reframing the meaning of Passover in the Upper Room; betrayal by Judas; dying on the crucifix of a common criminal; and raising from the dead.
Can Christians become followers of Jesus who no longer use the Bible to prove litmus test interpretations of faithfulness and promote the mission of justice that Jesus lived? Peter J. Gomes former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals writes, “Given that… the disparities between the rich and the poor increase rather than lessen and that Christians fight with one another for power and influence while the culture seems to deteriorate…[might we]unite in a social wisdom that goes beyond the Bible and into a whole gospel for the whole person?”
We join with that first century crowd in their adulation of Jesus, but standing twenty centuries away must reject fear, a fear that attempted to make Jesus commit injustice. Let us give voice to the oppressed, those voiceless and marginalized, by being faithful to God and identifying with the oppressed through espousing the virtues of selflessness, poverty, passivity, and sacrifice. God is pro nobis, “For us!” “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
Kimberley L. Clayton in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 150.
Adapted from Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 136.
Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (New York City, New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 186.