Palm/Passion Sunday presents a complicated problem, and it just might be more of a problem for New Yorkers than residents in other parts of the country. That’s because New York City is brimming with strivers of every sort, in every field of endeavor. It attracts the adventurous and dreamers and high achievers, and all of us are committed to success. We want successful lives, careers, relationships, families. And we’ll do nearly anything to have it…some even risking life and reputation.
So here’s the problem we encounter as Holy Week begins: we’re focused and preoccupied by success, but the passion story concerns a great failure. At the center of this failure is none other than Jesus Christ. The last week of his life started out well enough, with crowds cheering him on like a conquering hero as he moved into the bustling, cosmopolitan city. They presumed he was headed to a great success and wanted in on it.
Unfortunately, things wound down pretty quickly after that, his ticker-tape parade turning into a funeral march a few days later, leading him up a small hill to the place of capital execution called Golgotha, meaning, place of the skull. There, at the top of a wooden scaffold that held his body, a sign was tacked that read, “This is the king of the Jews,” written in three different languages, so no one could miss the irony.
There was no question that Jesus was a colossal failure as a king—and as a seeming messiah, for that matter. Well, pretty much a failure in every conceivable way given that at the end there was no one left to defend him, even, and most especially, those who had tramped around the countryside with him hoping they too might catch his coattails to glory. The few that remained at the end stood back at a distance, probably so as not to be too closely identified with the criminal on the cross.
And as for his closest friends, they marched right along in the spirit of failure, their loyalty and supposed love for the man melting away in fear and depressed recognition that things were not going to turn out the way they had expected and wanted. At one point, Simon Peter, the supposed rock upon which Jesus’ church would be built, made this pledge: “Lord, I am ready to go with you, both to prison and to death.” But this bold proclamation dissolved under a fast-acting corrosive called “save-your-own-skin,” otherwise known as cowardice, or we could say, abject failure.
The story reeks of one failure after another, amassing into an enormous weight, engulfing Jesus by the time he gasps his final words.
It doesn’t take a genius IQ to see that most of the world’s worst suffering is due to human failure. One of the principal converting points for me on my walk into faith, now many years ago, was a recognition of the pervading truth embedded within the passion story reeking of failure. It rings true. Despite our devotion to success, we recognize the pattern. We have an intuitive grasp of how this happened. Even if we were to imagine ourselves a little bit smarter or wiser than the actors in the ancient drama, as we scan both the near and far horizon of human experience, we see the very same failures multiplied a thousand, million times over.
And if we bravely look close to home, say, as close as what goes on inside our own hearts and minds, we find the same residual tendencies, the same tension in our urge for both moral greatness and failure, sometimes with only a seeming hair’s width distance between them.
That’s the human story. That’s the story Jesus willingly entered.
It’s a mind-bender, to be sure, but here’s the miraculous thing: Jesus willingly became failure on our behalf and showed us a pathway through it. He walked his talk about love, reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, and integrity all the way into seeming failure, for us. For despite our deep and abiding commitment to success, each one of us knows something about human failure. When Jesus died, the failure died too. For all of us. Everywhere, for everyone.
In this way, his story becomes our story. We find we have less and less need and desire to deceive ourselves into thinking all’s well with us when really, all’s not well. And we learn that what we cannot do for ourselves, God can. God already passed through failure with overwhelming integrity, empowering us to live our own integrity.
Here’s the ultimate irony. Turns out that the man on the cross is a true king after all. He reigns in the kingdom of humility and integrity where up is down and down is up, first is last and last is first, and where weakness and failure become transmuted into the very power of God.