The obedience, humility and mercy of Jesus
From today the Church focuses on the last few days of Jesus’ life; and our reading tells us about two events that Matthew places immediately before the Triumphal entry. It prepares us for that event, and for the crucifixion.
It is a passage which speaks to us of:
1. The deep obedience of Jesus
Jesus goes to Jerusalem.
He knows what it will mean (Matt 20.18-19).
He will be betrayed: someone who is speaking good to him to his face is plotting how to do bad to him.
He will be condemned to death
He will be mocked, flogged and then crucified.
The key word here is a Greek word, ‘paradidomi’. It means, literally, to be handed over. And it suggests not only the action of Judas handing Jesus over to the chief priests and scribes, nor just the action of the chief priests and scribes handing Jesus over to the Gentiles to be crucified. It hints at something more: the handing over of Jesus, the Son, by God the Father, into the hands of sinful men and women.
Or to put it another way.
Jesus knew that he had come in order to drink the cup that God was giving him.
When James and John ask for those places on his right and left, he answers them, ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ (Matt 20.22).
That cup is clearly understood by Matthew as being the cup of the wrath of God against sin. The Psalmist speaks of that cup of wrath. So does Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk and Zechariah.
That is why in the garden of Gethsemane, just before he is arrested, Jesus is in such anguish that he sweats blood (according to John); and he begs God to take the cup from him.
But his prayer continues with those amazing words, ‘Yet not what I want but what you want’ (Matt 26.39)
Jesus knows what he has to go through.
He knows that he has to face dreadful physical suffering;
He knows that he has to face absolute spiritual separation from the Father.
And yet he is willing to be obedient to the will of the Father. He doesn’t protest against it. He doesn’t try to avoid it. He accepts that will. He is obedient to his Father.
2. The deep humility of Jesus
Jesus is about to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is to be an unambiguous sign. He is deliberately fulfilling the OT prophecy. He is making it very clear that God’s king is coming to God’s city, and he is coming to reign.
Those first followers of Jesus are just like us. They think of kings and kingdoms in terms of power and status and significance and wealth. They think of greatness in terms of how much you have – how many followers, how many servants, how many possessions.
That is why James and John, recognising that things are coming to a head, persuade their mother to speak on their behalf. If Jesus is now about to come as King, they want to be Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. They want those positions of power and status.
Thinking that greatness depends on how much you have, of course is the way that leads to anger, resentment, arguments and conflict. Look at how the other disciples respond to James and Johns’ request. They are livid.
But Jesus challenges them and turns our criteria of greatness on their head: ‘You know the at the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you’ (Matt 20.25-26)
He speaks of greatness not in terms of whether you are at the top, but whether you are at the bottom. He speaks of it as not how many people you have who serve you, who are ready to do your will, but in terms of how many people you serve – and the extent you are prepared to go to serve them.
I was very struck several years ago by a picture of Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was on his knees speaking to a resident in a nursing home.
It is an unsettling image. It is not one that those who wish to promote the importance of the role of Archbishop would use much.
In the eyes of the world, leadership is meant to be different, above us.
In 1969 an extraordinary film called Royal Family was produced which showed a family called the Windsor’s living a very ordinary life, just like us. David Attenborough, then a controller at the BBC, wrote to the producer, “You’re killing the monarchy, you know, with this film you’re making … The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut .. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.” The film was shown once, but has never been shown again. It is kept under strict wraps.
The more I learn of our monarch the more grateful I am to God for the gift of her to us. She serves not only in her public role, but also quietly in ways that we will never see. But the point is that, however humble she is, that humility before others can never be publicly shown. In this world, the head of state cannot be shown as a servant. I cannot think of any image of the Queen kneeling down at someone’s feet.
But Jesus offers a very different picture of leadership and greatness to the one which the world presents.
He claimed to be King. But he then,
knelt down and washed his disciples feet.
chose to go to Jerusalem, in order to be condemned, mocked and flogged. He stretched out his arms and he allowed them to nail him to a cross.
He willingly and freely gave his life so that those he died for might be set free and really live.
When we look at these verses, we see the deep humility of Jesus.
3. The deep mercy of Jesus
The two blind men cry out to him: ‘Lord have mercy on us, Son of David!’
Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, let our eyes be opened.”
That seems to me to be the prayer that we should pray this Passiontide: “Lord, let our eyes be opened”
Help us to see who you are. Help us to see what you went through for us. Help us to see the true nature of greatness.
I was speaking on Friday with a man – he must be in his early 90’s. He is very tall, and he has a real presence and aura about him. I’d love to find out more about what he had done. He came to the cathedral midday Lent reflection, and he was telling me afterwards how this was all so new to him. He had only come to Christ two years ago, and he was learning and discovering so much. ‘And I’m no longer afraid of death’, he said.
Jesus in his mercy, had opened Brian’s eyes. He is seeing the world in a completely new light.
Jesus hears the cry of these two blind men. He has compassion on them. Do you notice that (v21)? He touches their eyes, they regain their sight and they follow him.
Where? On the road to Jerusalem. On the road to the cross and, through the cross, the resurrection.
And perhaps the mercy of Jesus is shown in this passage in another way, although this is speculative and I claim no authority for it.
Jesus says to James and John, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ (v22). They say, ‘Yes, we are’.
And Jesus says to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup’.
Perhaps he is speaking about the suffering that James and John will experience as they follow him. James was executed by Herod and John spent the final years of his life in exile.
But I wonder whether Jesus is instead speaking about how they, and indeed we, will drink from his cup in another way.
And we do that every time we gather for communion. He gave his life as a ransom for us; he drank the cup of the wrath of God – and now, because of that, in his mercy he offers us the cup of peace with God. The cup of death and separation that he drank has become for us a cup of life and intimacy.
So the next time that you hold the communion cup in your hands, if you remember, think of the cup that Jesus drank for you and thank him that because of that we can have life, peace and communion with God.
Whatever, I pray this Passiontide that the Lord Jesus will open our eyes. That we will see his obedience, his humility and we will know his deep mercy.