First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Passion and Palm Sunday

William Loader

Passion and Palm Sunday: 9 April Philippians 2:5-11

This passage can easily stand on its own, as it does in our lectionary. Much of it may well have stood on its own even before Paul came to write it into his letter. It uses language which is distinctive and plays with ideas which are special. It is worth nevertheless approaching it through the letter so that we can grasp what Paul saw in it in the first place.

2:5 is an obvious starting point, but its meaning is less obvious than appears. It could simply mean: 'be like Jesus!' But it may be saying more. It could be saying: let the mindset of Christ be yours as you draw your life from him or live 'in him'. Certainly elsewhere Paul usually goes one step further than holding Christ (or himself) up as an example to be followed. He usually includes the notion that there is an inner dynamic which helps make this possible. This is most evident in the verses which follow this passage, where we read: 'work out your own salvation, because it is God who is at work in you' (2:12-13).

The mindset of Christ is evident in his story. While the main point of the story line is clear, there are many details which are not. Being in the form of God may allude to Adam being in God's image. It would be a way of speaking about Jesus as a human being. While Adam relished the chance to eat of the fruit to be like God (equal to God?), Jesus did not. Instead he emptied himself. A quite different interpretation sees being 'in the form of God' as a reference to Jesus existing as a heavenly being like an angel (or even in intimate association with God - perhaps even as part of God's being as later Christianity would assert). Then the temptation would be either to emulate rebellious angels who want to usurp God's role (and who in legend were cast out of heaven) or to hold onto a status in God (reflecting later assumptions). Is equality with God understood as something Jesus once had or as something he might have wanted to achieve and chose not to? I find the latter more persuasive.

However one might understand 2:6, the import of 2:7 and the major focus of the passage, is Jesus' decision to embrace becoming a lowly human being. The language used in 2:7 is so strong it may suggest that 'being in the form of God' of 2:6 is the opposite of 'being in the form of a slave'/'coming to be in the likeness of human beings'/ 'being found to be like a human being in his structure of being'. This is why so many see 'being in the form of God' as being something other than human and something more than Adam (although there were speculations about a higher Adam). The emptying must mean giving something up. It recalls Paul's version of the story of Jesus in 2 Cor 8:9 where he writes of Jesus: 'though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor'.

It is not easy to know exactly what this story was meaning, nor to know how Paul understood it, when it spoke of changed forms of being. What is clear however is a choice. Jesus chose to obey what God wanted. That entailed his entering into solidarity with human beings and becoming fully one of them. We might speculate about what he gave up. It was certainly not the consciousness of who he was as a deciding person. He knew what he was doing. His choice was to abandon an option which was directed towards what some would have seen as self-advancement. Nothing indicates that, had he gone with that option, it would have worked for him. He chose to align himself with the divine will and that meant willingness to go the whole way in solidarity with human beings. Here we have to read between the lines about the purpose of such an act. Read in the context of Paul's writings, it would have been above all to face death on the cross for us, for sins. Some  wonder if the reference to the cross is Paul's addition. Maybe the tradition spoke simply of faithfulness in doing God's will right through to the point of death. However we understand the exact intent, there is little doubt that it is reporting an initiative based on the will to bring about change for human beings. It was an initiative of love. It was both Jesus' story but in part also God's story, showing us God's agenda.

2:9 brings us another contrast. Matching 2:8 which spoke of Jesus making himself lowly, 2:9 speaks of God exalting Jesus. This is a commentary on the resurrection which sees it as an act of God which vindicates and rewards Jesus. People regularly misunderstand the statement about the name in 2:9-10. It is not the name, 'Jesus'. Rather Jesus receives a name. That name is none other than the name which is above all other names: the unspoken name of God, represented by the word, 'Lord'. 2:11 also makes that clear. Everyone will acclaim Jesus Christ with his new name: 'Lord'. It is a way of saying that Jesus really does reveal God and the way God is. Bearing someone's name was like bearing their responsibility and being recognised as able to represent them. In Judaism angels could sometimes be given Yahweh's name.

At one level we have a story with a twist. Jesus did not chance his arm to try to usurp God. Instead he chose to do what God wanted. As a reward for that God actually gave him what he had originally contemplated and had rejected as an option: he was called 'Lord' (or God). We could then trivialise it into a piece of common wisdom. Don't be too ambitious about promotion. Do your job and see: you'll get there. It is possible to reduce the passage to an account of Jesus' cv. As such it becomes a piece of divine, self indulgent PR. But this skews its function. Paul is using it to expound an attitude. That attitude is not about how to get promoted, but about what the will of God is and what Jesus was doing. Paul would not be imagining that the act of lowliness was just one of those things Jesus had to go through to get to the top, but something paradigmatic. It said something about the heart of Jesus and the heart of God. He is 'Lord' now not because he has left all that behind, but because God names him as representing the way of divine being. It is in that sense even paradoxical to speak of exaltation and enthronement. Elsewhere we see that paradox expressed in an enthronement of Jesus on a cross with a crown of thorns.

Paul uses this traditional account of the story because he wants to evoke greater generosity and self-giving among the Philippians. Already to this point in the letter he lets it show that he is far from happy with some Christians who are showing the opposite attitude and creating rivalries and divisions (see 1:15-18); he calls for solidarity and community (1:27; 2:1-4). Paul reads his own life constantly in the light of the story of Jesus (1:20-26). He wants them to read theirs similarly. The great treasure of this passage is that it challenges us to do the same. It is, however, easily subverted into an opposite attitude, a paradigm for success and power.

Gospel: Palm Sunday:  9 April  Matthew 21:1-11
Gospel: Passion Sunday: 9 April Matthew 27:11-54 (26:14 - 27:66)

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