March 25, 2018
This past Wednesday night, the Lawrence Neighborhood Association hosted a panel about the upcoming ballot initiative to fund a jail and mental health crisis center. I was one of two people speaking in opposition to the jail expansion in a room with the Sheriff, several county employees, a retired judge . . . we’ll just say it was not a friendly crowd. Even though I explained why I believe a bigger jail is not the best way to help those who end up in jail or the community at large; even though my presentation partner explained that sales tax increases hurt low income people the most; we were told that we lacked compassion, that we were selfish for not being willing to spend some of our money on services that will help the community.
I felt like the women in T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
I imagine you all know that feeling of being misunderstood–it feels awful. It’s especially awful when you feel like there is nothing you can do to change that perception. When other’s ideas are so firm in their minds that everything you say and do somehow gets twisted to support their (false) version of who you are.
Maybe you’ve been the parent or aunt or uncle hauling a screaming toddler through the store, sure that everyone assumes you are terrorizing the child.
Maybe you’ve had to tell someone you love “no,” and even though you say it out of love, they are convinced it means you hate them.
In the Christian realm, I know many of us are misunderstood; people learn that we, for example, support gay marriage, and they conclude that we do not read the Bible or care about Jesus.
And in the secular realm, people learn that we are Christian and assume all kinds of things about our personal beliefs and politics that are simply not true.
It’s exhausting to constantly correct misunderstandings—and sometimes it is impossible.
I really can’t give any advice that makes this easier. But I can tell you that you are in good company. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus is misunderstood?
The religious leaders don’t understand him—they accuse him of false teachings and try to trap him into saying things he doesn’t mean so they can turn the people against him.
The people don’t really understand him. Remember when Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that I am? “John the Baptist or one of the prophets.” The people don’t know.
Even the disciples don’t understand him. They try to keep the children away from him. They want to go buy food for the crowds. They don’t want to listen to Jesus talk about his coming death.
Black liberation theologian James Cone writes: “Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?” (James Cone, “Jesus Christ in Black Theology”)
All throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ words and actions are misunderstood. The ultimate example of this is in the story of the arrest, trials, and crucifixion, which we will hear this week. The authorities don’t understand what it means that Jesus is “King of the Jews.” They don’t understand that he is not some kind of miracle-working showman—like so many other would-be messiahs. They don’t understand that he comes in peace and love for everyone.
But we’re not there yet. We’re not to Good Friday—I hope you come for that service, but that’s not where we are right now. We are still on Palm Sunday. And there is a very interesting type of misunderstanding going on here: Jesus is misunderstood in a positive way—the people like the Jesus they perceive better than the Jesus who actually is.
Jesus rides toward Jerusalem on a donkey as a sign of peace, as a connection to the prophets. And the people wave branches to herald him as a victorious leader—most likely thinking of him as a military leader, someone who would lead an armed revolt.
The people are shouting:
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 heaven!”
“Hosanna,” the people shout, which means “save us!”. And Jesus is, in fact, saving them. But their cry is for a political salvation—a salvation in the form of overthrowing the oppressive Roman regime. They want the coming kingdom of their ancestor, David—to go back to the (very brief) glory days when Israel was a united, prosperous, nation. They are talking about a literal kingdom—a land with a king; their king rather than someone else’s.
Jesus must be thinking:
“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
Jesus, of course, talks a lot about the Kingdom. In Matthew it’s the Kingdom of heaven, in Mark and Luke, the Kingdom of God. Guess what? God’s Kingdom—that Jesus proclaims–and David’s kingdom—that the people cry out for–are quite different. David’s kingdom is for Israel. God’s kingdom is for all people. David’s kingdom is maintained by military might. God’s kingdom is maintained by the Spirit. David’s kingdom is visible and temporal; God’s is invisible and eternal.
When Jesus talks about ushering in the Kingdom of God, the people get excited about the coming kingdom of David. Which is not what Jesus means; yet there he is, riding toward Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds waving branches and chanting his praises.
Once again, Jesus is misunderstood. But at least this time it is a positive misunderstanding. The people’s lack of understanding leads them to think more highly of Jesus than they would otherwise.
Positive misunderstandings are not as common as the negative misunderstandings, but they do happen. You answer a question in class wrong, but somehow the teacher hears a correct answer and says, “great job!”. You mistakenly get seated in the V.I.P. Section. Someone gives you credit for something that you wish you had done but actually didn’t do.
On the surface, it seems like this is a better type of misunderstanding. But these positive misunderstandings can also be problematic—and may be even harder to correct than negative misunderstandings. If the people love Jesus and want him to be a great military leader, anything he says to the contrary can be dismissed as humility or as political posturing. “Sure, Jesus. We know you come in peace.” WINK, WINK.
“Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?”
Jesus took the side of the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast. He took the side of peace and justice and love and life. And people did not understand.
People still do not understand.
And—here’s the painful truth we need to hear on Palm Sunday—we still do not understand.
Not fully. Not completely. How could we? How could we understand God taking on flesh? How could we understand the power of vulnerability in the face of might? How could we understand what it means to walk the path of God in this world?
It’s too much for us. We do the best we can. We try to understand—sometimes we get it right; sometimes . . . not so much.
And—here’s the joyful truth we need to hear on Palm Sunday—we do not have to understand perfectly.
We can show up wherever we think Jesus might be and cheer on the work we see God doing in the world. We can sing songs of praise and listen to Jesus’ words and lay down our coats to honor him even if we don’t completely understand him.
Let’s strive to understand as much as we can, to walk as faithfully as we can, to follow Jesus with humility and accept divine grace with gratitude.