From Riches to Rags

It's not supposed to end this way. Jesus' story, I mean. It's just not supposed to end this way. Deep down, maybe, we knew there'd be trouble. After all, Jesus had been causing trouble and making enemies his whole life. But we never expected this. The shame, the pain, the utter helplessness, even failure that Matthew unflinchingly portrays in his narration of Jesus' last days and hours.

Now, to tell you the truth, most of us are so used to this story--maybe too used to it--that we've forgotten how unpredictable, how disastrously unusual it really is. Think about it. Most of the stories we know and tell are uplifting. The characters in them get better, improve, go on to great things. This is the American way, the rags-to-riches story of the young man or woman who starts from a humble birth and through dint of hard work, frugality, sheer ingenuity, and just a little bit of luck makes it to the top. And Jesus' story starts that way, too. He's born in a manger, after all, to parents as poor as they are young; it doesn't get much more humble than that. And he's a hard worker, too, a carpenter. In time, his ingenuity and luck start kicking in, and he attracts a following, becomes known as a healer and revered teacher. And, then, several years into his surprisingly successful ministry he is welcomed into Jerusalem like some kind of conquering hero, or even a returning king. "Hosanna," the crowds shout. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." But from there everything goes down hill quickly. Less than a week later he is neither king nor hero but criminal, outcast, loser. This isn't a rags-to-riches story after all. In fact, it's the exact opposite.

And, actually, that's the point all along. From the very beginning of Matthew's gospel, he gives us clues that while Jesus may be a king, it's a very different kind of king altogether. Jesus is neither the rags-to-riches figure of American folklore nor the come-from-behind, against-all-odds conquering hero of film. Instead, he is just what he seems in these verses: an outcast, a criminal, a loser...and all of this for you.

That's right. Jesus endures what he endures, suffers what he suffers, and loses all that he has, for you. And here I don't mean, actually, that because we're such awful sinners Jesus had to be punished for us. Rather, I mean that Jesus takes on our lot and our life to show us just how much God loves us. Actually we are sinners, of course, confused, hurtful, and hurting all at the same time. But I don't think you can read this story closely and say it's about God punishing Jesus. After all, it's not God who hails Jesus as hero one day and cries for his death the next; it's the flawed and fickle crowds. And it's not God who hangs Jesus on the cross; it's the religious leaders. And, truth be told, this is what always happens when the all holy and all gracious God comes among such as us. Think about it: in all the gospels Jesus comes preaching and teaching, healing and feeding--what's so bad about that. But actually that's not all he does. He also proclaims the coming kingdom of God and offers the forgiveness of sins to all who will receive it.

And that, of course, is just what gets him into trouble. For whether peasant, ruler, or anyone in between, rather than admit our brokenness, our need, our utter insufficiency and helplessness apart from God, we'd rather keep up the pretense, continue with the lie that we've got it all together, thank you very much, that we've got just the right job, car, spouse, or family, that we don't need or want anything. And so rather than confess our sin and receive Jesus' pardon we reject him, declaring him blasphemous and asking with those of Jesus' day, "Who are you to forgive sin; only God can forgive."

And so Jesus, Lord of Glory and Son of God, dies...all for us. This isn't a rags-to-riches story; for our sake, it's riches to rags. As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross."

So not only does this story not end the way we'd expect, but very frankly it doesn't make much sense at all. Giving up everything for a people who often don't even recognize you, sacrificing all out of love for another who may, or may not, love you back. This makes no sense. Except, maybe, to a parent. Parents, perhaps, are among the few people in the world who understand what it is to love someone--their children--so much that they would risk everything, sacrifice everything, out of love for their child, knowing all the while that that child may or may not ever return that love. When you love someone that much, you see, you'd take that kind of gamble, make that sacrifice, in a heart beat.

Some years ago, Swedish theologian Anders Nygren did a study of how the ancient, Greek-speaking world understood love. Nygren distinguished between the two most common words for love, eros, representing the romantic, erotic emotion of lovers, and phileo, the brotherly love of friends. He then went on to describe a third type, barely mentioned in the literature of the day but common in the earliest Christian writings: agape. Agape love is the self-sacrificial love of a parent, and the early Christians seized upon it to capture their sense of the God made known to them in Jesus.

Ultimately, you see, Jesus goes to the cross not to satisfy the blood lust of a holy and vengeful God but to make painfully clear just how much God loves us. The question, then, on this Sunday of the Palms and Sunday of the Passion, is what difference this might make to us. What does it matter, that is, that Jesus died for us, and how will it shape our response not only to God, but also to our neighbors and the world? After all, Paul begins his famous hymn to Christ by saying, "Have the same mind among you that was in Christ Jesus...."--the Jesus, as he goes on, that did not exploit his riches but exchanged them for rags for our sake.

Might it be easier to love others now that we have experienced God's unconditional love? Might it be possible to forgive others now that we have experienced God's unfathomable forgiveness? These are important and at times complicated questions. However you may answer them, however you may try to have Christ's mind among you, however you may struggle and even fail to be more like Christ as we enter into Holy Week, know this one thing: Jesus came to this earth, took on our lot and our life, and suffered and died on the cross, all that you might know just how much God loves and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, Lord God, for your love for us and all the world poured out in Christ Jesus. May our hearts and minds be formed and transformed by his self-sacrificing love. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.