The phrase, “These are strange days,” is getting high mileage right now. As I talk with people, I hear similar stories. Some share the creative ways they are dealing with social distancing. Others talk about the precautions they are taking. People tell me how they are keeping routines while this pandemic disrupts normal life. There are articles about the COVID-19 graduates and how to make masks at home. The news is full of projections and assessments of how officials have responded.
I think about the week we call “Holy Week” and wonder what it must have felt like for Jesus and the disciples. In Matthew, between Jesus triumphal entry (21:1-11) and some movement on the plot to kill Jesus (26:1-5), there are parables, conversations with Jesus’ disciples, and exchanges with others. Reading the way Holy Week unfolds in Matthew reveals some jarring shifts. It starts with great expectations. Is Jesus the divine warrior and righteous one of Zechariah 9:9-17 (echoed in Matthew 21:4-5)? That’s not the way the week unfolds.
After entering Jerusalem and hearing people’s prayer for deliverance, Jesus’ schedule did not slow down. Many of us were still enjoying the wonder of Palm Sunday after church. Yet, if we read Matthew as if the events were unfolding in real time, before Sunday dinner Jesus shifted far from the cries of “Hosanna!” He cleared the temple of money changers (21:12-17). The next morning, a tree that had no fruit frustrated Jesus (21:18-22). Then, it’s off to the races. He teaches, answers questions, and encounters the scribes and pharisees.
Going through each step in Matthew means not skipping these lessons, questions, and encounters. It means wrestling with some sticky parables. It means hearing about sheep and goats and trying to figure out how to live more like the sheep. For Jesus and his disciples, the week would have felt strange for different reasons. The Roman occupation probably always carried a fair amount of uncertainty. Passover was coming and they would celebrate Seder together. I wonder if this meant that they were celebrating this sacred time away from their families.
On Wednesday, Judas peeled away from the group. He met with the chief priests and agreed to identify Jesus for them. For the other disciples, his decision would have been difficult to reconcile with their worldview. He was one of them. He held a trusted position in their group. They probably struggled with why he would do something like this. Before they could wrap their minds around what his betrayal would mean, they fled in fear. As much as they loved Jesus and believed in him, they probably all thought, “Not me!” and ran to preserve their own lives.
Friday would have felt surreal. They must have wondered how this could be happening. It would have been especially difficult if they thought Palm Sunday pointed to the kind of Messiah Jesus would be. The divine warrior of Zechariah could not be killed. He was supposed to be the one doing the killing. Instead, Jesus presented a picture of absolute obedience to God’s path. It’s a picture we can aspire to follow.
During this strange Holy Week, during these strange days, we can model the life of Christ. We can look at all of those teachings between the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday and the darkness of Judas’ betrayal. Consider the following parables from Matthew: “Two Sons” (21:28-32), “Wicked Tenants” (21:33-41), “Wedding Banquet” (22:1-14), “Signs of the Times” (24:29-31), “Fig Tree” (24:32-35), “Faithful and Unfaithful Servant” (24:45-51), “Bridesmaids” (25:1-13), “Talents” (25:14-30), and “Sheep and Goats” (25:31-46).
As I went through each one, I thought about Jesus telling these stories just a few days before his death. I thought about the added weight of knowing his earthly ministry was almost finished. I also thought about how they each speak to our world right now. In the Parable of the Two Sons, one said he would not go but did. The other said he would go but didn’t. It’s a story of transformation. During these strange days, we can change from the way we were and become the people God wants us to be.
During this strange Holy Week, what is God saying to you? How is God speaking a fresh word to you? Read these parables and see what fresh word God has for you.