This past week, my family and I were driving back from Colorado along Highway 85. Not for the first time, I noticed the ridges and sloping landscape to the west of the highway. As I watched the sun going down, I remembered a graphic that I saw at the Denver Museum of Natural History. The first time I saw it the image struck me as being both odd and fascinating. It showed that somewhere between 100 and 150 million years ago most of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana were all underwater. Looking at the landscape it made perfect sense. The rocky ridges looked very much like images of the seafloor that I have seen in the present day. In fact, a Wyoming history website proclaims,
“Fossils found in the Weston County region date back 110 million years to the Cretaceous Period. The land was largely submerged, supporting thriving sea life—plants, shellfish and sharks, among others. A variety of prehistoric marine reptiles, including the sharklike ichthyosaurs and the long-necked plesiosaurs, as well as plant imprints and sharks’ teeth, have been discovered in the area.”
I began to think of the story that those rocks and ridges were telling, one of an ancient time when strange animals roamed a vast, perilous ocean. I thought about all of the places that I have hiked both here and in Colorado that seemed almost otherworldly, as if I were walking on land that wasn’t really land. It also made sense that even though there are times I miss the coast and seeing the ocean back home, I’m still comforted by looking out over the vast plains that lie to the west of the Black Hills.
And as I drove home on Wednesday evening, I wondered about the stories that are being told by the landscape itself. I wondered about the stories hidden in the layers of rock on the rolling wave like prairies and pastures. It would seem that the rocks themselves cried out in the silence story for us to learn something of the world that used to be.
As we enter into this time that we call holy week, we come to a familiar story, one told many times before. It is the story of a man on a mission, a man seeking to right the wrongs of the past and open the door to the future. It is the story of a people who have lived in oppression for generations, a people who hunger to know the freedom that their forefathers spoke of. It is also the story of a people with a tenuous hold on their traditions as they grapple with foreign powers to maintain a sense of who they are.
In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, we have a story about palms. Luke however, is the Charlie Brown gospel and we are going to get rocks for Palm Sunday. In all of the Gospels, we have the crowds gathering to celebrate. They have heard the teachings of Jesus. They have been witness to healings and miracles. They have heard the teaching of the Way, the interpretation of the law and prophets from the rabbi Jesus. And now, they look to celebrate. They look for the Messiah, the one they have been waiting for since the time of the Maccabees two centuries before. They believe that Jesus is this Messiah, this anointed one who will restore Israel to the glory of the past, the glory of David and Solomon. They come out in droves to shout their acclaim for their deliver, the one they believe to be the restorer of God’s people.
But not everyone sees this, not everyone is ready to praise God for this deliver. In fact, some don’t see him as deliverer at all. Some see him as a sign of impending destruction, an instrument of unholy terror who will undermine the foundation of everything that has been worked for these many years. As the crowds swell and begin to heal him as king of the people and the land, these the detractors are afraid, afraid that their tenuous hold as political leaders may be slipping through their hands. They wring their hands and mumble among themselves, wondering how to control the crowds before the Romans get nervous and do it for them. They wonder if this spells certain doom for the peace that they have worked to hold onto. They cannot calm the crowds so they do the next best thing, they go to the people’s king and ask him to do it. “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” Can you hear the fear and frustration as the Pharisees and other religious leaders go to Jesus with this request? It reminds me of an older child concerned about the behavior of the younger one getting them in trouble. It’s as if you can almost hear a thin whiny voice saying, “Make them stop!”
Jesus’ answer: “Nope.” Actually, it is a little more dignified than that. “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” Often, I have heard people try to literalize that statement and say that if the people there with Jesus weren’t shouting and praising him, that the rocks and stones of the ground would begin to speak as you or I do. It would be interesting if it happened, but I don’t think it would. I think this, like much of the biblical writings is metaphor, a speaking of truth through story, allegory, and simile. I think the writer of Luke is saying something about the nature of a truth that cannot be held in silence, a truth that must be spoken.
I think this truth has to do with the idea of story and narrative. Michal Beth Dinkler writes,
In other words, stories are “a form of culture making”; storytelling shapes both communities and individuals. As anthropologist John Berger puts it, narratives are the fundamental elements of a community’s evolving self-portrait: “A [community’s] portrait of itself is constructed, not out of stone, but out of words, spoken and remembered: out of opinions, stories, eyewitness reports, legends, comments and hearsay. (Dinkler 2015)
I believe that Jesus is telling the Pharisees and religious leaders, those who are scared by the potential ruckus that the people are making over Jesus, that they could silence the crowds now, for that matter he could silence the crowds, but they would not stay silenced for long. The story behind the shouts, the accolades, is a story that demands being told. The life and deeds and teaching of Jesus, the greatest story ever told as it were, cannot be held in check by societies, rulers, or as Paul says, ‘powers and principalities’. In other words, someone has to tell the story; that’s what holy week is about. Someone has to tell the story because it is a story worth telling.
So, what is the story that the writer of Luke is telling? One writer put it this way,
“Luke’s gospel had a particular emphasis upon Jesus’ role as a prophet who spoke for God and who called his followers to be diligent in caring for those without privilege, particularly the sick, lame, blind, widows, Gentiles, and the poor…” (Green and Willimon 2012, 1281)
This is why the disciples, more accurately the followers of Jesus, sang his praises and shouted his name throughout the gospels, and especially in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is an advocate for the poor, the masses, the downtrodden, the everyman. He is the champion of those who feel that God has forgotten them. He is the healer of those left for dead and the raiser of those who were dead. He is the one who speaks to the castoffs, dines with the outcasts, and offers grace, mercy, and life to those who have not been offered it. He speaks for a God who is there and loves the people.
Story, a powerful story like the story of Jesus, has the power to heal and change lives. A recent article on the website for Harvard Medical School quotes Dr. Suzanne Kovan as saying,
“The storytelling is really where the medicine is,” she said. “There is nothing that I can think of, there is no kind of testing, there is no sort of physiology or pharmacology that is more essential to clinical skill than the ability to elicit, interpret and communicate someone else’s story… This isn’t an adjunct to medicine. This is medicine, because we’re hearing from patients that they want to feel that their stories are being heard. They want to be listened to. And literature, I think, is a very fine kind of listening and very good training for listening.”
This is the power behind the gospel. It is the medicine, the balm for the soul of humanity, the telling and retelling of who Jesus was, what he did, and how he changed the lives of those around him. In this story, we who follow can bring a sort of medicine to the hurting world by hearing about them, their lives, and their struggles and introducing them to the story of one who understood and continues to understand through us.
As his disciples, followers of the Way of Jesus, we now carry the mantle. It is up to us to cry out for and against the things that Jesus advocated and denounced. It is up to us to cry out on behalf of the sick, lame, blind, widows, the stranger, the sojourner, the poor, the unwanted, the broken. It is up to us to denounce those who bring harm to the innocent, the fragile, the defenseless. It is up to us to be as Jesus would be in order that Jesus will continue to live in our time and our place. We are those who would cry out. If we are not, the message is silenced and passes into history, a forgotten tune, a memory of songs and stories passed.
It is up to us to tell the story and keep telling the story.
When the parade is over, do we pick up our lives, brush them off, and live in the old way? Do we toss our palm branches aside, so we can grasp the seductions of the world? As we begin the journey through the holiest of weeks, let us speak the truth, as we confess to our God,
Ever constant storyteller, mixing love and hope together, you pave the way to the kingdom, but we prefer to stub our toes on the potholed roads of temptation. You would touch the cup of grace to our parched lips, but we seem to hunger for the ashy taste of bitterness. You beg us to learn the songs of salvation, but we hum along with the chorus death plays in the background of our lives.
Have mercy upon us, God of Holiness. As you come to us, you bring healing for our brokenness, peace for our troubled lives, hope for our doubting minds. May we empty ourselves of everything which keeps us from following you, so we may receive these gifts, and more, from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
Laying aside judgment, God offers us redemption; setting aside anger, God embraces us with love; letting go of grief, God pours living water upon us. This is the good news, my friends: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who brings us the kingdom of God!
Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. “Reading the potentials of Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ (Luke 19:28-40).” Edited by Mark E. Biddle. Review and Expositor (Sage Journals) 112, no. 4 (2015): 525-541.
Goodman, MArtin. Rome and Jerusalem. New York, NY: Vintage Books / Random House, 2007.
Green, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2012.
King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.