A Pound of Flesh

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” – Luke 19:28-44

Everything seemed to be going great!

Key word: “seemed.”  Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead.  He went over to Lazarus’ house to celebrate his renewed life and have dinner with Lazarus and his family.  Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume.  And the next morning, he is off to Jerusalem.  Prophecy after prophecy was being fulfilled like a Messianic checklist.  Born of a virgin.  Check.  Called Immanuel (Isa. 7:14).  Check.  Came to Capernaum (Isa. 8:23-9:2).  Check. So then Jesus knocks another one off the list.  From Zecharaiah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!  Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey…” He sent some of the disciples on ahead to fetch a donkey and he was VERY specific about it.  He tells them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” That was pretty specific.  Not only did Jesus know there would be a young donkey at the entrance to the village, he also knew no one had ever ridden it.  Not only that, but he told the disciples all they had to do was to tell the owner, “The Lord needs it,” and he’ll just give it to you.  Like Obi-Wan Kenobi.  “You don’t need this colt.  They can take it for the Lord.”  Surely, it was becoming harder and harder to deny that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  The disciples sure thought so.  They placed their cloaks upon the animal as would befit a king.  And as they approached Jerusalem, the people spontaneously spread their cloaks on the ground before him as they were singing and crying out, “This is the day that the Lord has made.  We will rejoice and be glad in it!”

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“He can take the donkey. The Lord needs it.”

If they only knew…

Things were not as clear cut as they seemed.  And soon, it would all fall apart.  Like the 2016 presidential election.  If you were a Democrat, it seemed as if you had the Presidency all locked up.  Nearly every pundit out there was predicting a pretty clear victory for Hillary Clinton.  Sure, some traditionally red states would vote Republican, but with the all the controversy surrounding Donald Trump, Democrats and even many Republicans thought it was a done deal.  And it was.  But just not the way most people expected.  As the returns came in, the electoral math grew more and more murky.  States that traditionally went the way of the Democrats started to turn red – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan.  And even though she won the popular vote, Hillary Clinton went down in defeat.  The first female president would have to be someone else.  I imagine for Jesus’ followers it would have felt the same – except far worse.  They believed Jesus to be the Messiah!  The promised deliverer!  The one who would free them from the yoke of oppression.  Were they wrong?  And so we approach Palm Sunday with that framework in mind.  It’s a week before the end.  A week before it all would fall apart.  The crowds are growing as Jesus goes from place to place and as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the people are sure and confident that the long-promised Messiah was before them.  But even in the midst of this huge celebration, not everything is right. Not everyone is happy.

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So many people were sure they knew the outcome of the election in 2016

In the midst of the crowd, right there around Jesus, are the Pharisees.

And they are not happy.  They see what’s happening.  These fools actually believe Jesus is the Messiah!  They are hailing him and treating him like they would the King of Kings!  Some of them shout out to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” In other words, they’re telling him to reign it in.  Even Jesus, that hot-headed, self-confident braggart must realize what the people are doing is heresy.  Notice they call him “teacher?”  They don’t pretend to think he is anything but a man who spouts out advice and stories to impress his followers.  Oh, sure, he might have done a few impressive things (like raise a man from the dead?), but he isn’t the promised one.  And then Jesus has the audacity to act as if he IS the fulfillment of the prophecy!  He answers them by saying “…if they keep quiet the stones will cry out.”  The Pharisees, who prided themselves on knowing the Scripture, would have heard this as a reference to the prophesies of Isaiah where it is written that God himself said, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” If it wasn’t clear before that this man is leading people into heresy, this about did it.

But what seemed like a triumphant celebration…wasn’t.

In fact, Jesus was weeping.  The disciples must have thought it strange, those who were following Jesus into Jerusalem, to see him crying as he rides into town.  Here they were giving him a royal welcome, but he was crying.  And he wasn’t crying tears of joy or tears of gratitude as one might expect after such a warm welcome.  No.  He was crying tears of sadness because he knows that despite this honor they are laying down before him, none of them comprehend what is about to happen.  And in the span of just a few days, the people will turn on him.  Even his most loyal disciples will run for their lives.  And this crowd? This crowd that is singing his praises?  They will all but vanish as the Pharisees and the temple leaders will demand a pound of flesh from Jesus.  That’s how great their hatred of him has grown.  Nothing else will suffice than a pound of flesh.

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The term “pound of flesh” comes from the Shakespeare play Merchant of Venice

That term, “a pound of flesh,” sounds almost Biblical.  But it is not.

Instead it comes from a play by William Shakespeare called The Merchant of Venice and it refers to a technically legal but outrageous compensation and in the play, it isn’t figurative.  The lender, Shylock, really wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Antonio borrowed money from Shylock and couldn’t pay him back.  And although Antonio’s friends offered twice the money due to Shylock to pay off Antonio’s debt after he defaulted on the loan, Shylock was unmerciful and according to the agreement was due a literal pound of flesh. Shylock had been mistreated in multiple ways by Antonio and his friends so he had decided no amount of money would quench his desire for vengeance.  Which is what happened to Jesus after his triumphant entry.  The Pharisees and the temple leaders have it in for Jesus.  Nothing will stop them from exacting their “pound of flesh.”  After being arrested, Pilate even offers to save Jesus’ life by offering to free either Jesus or a murderer.  The crowd chooses to free the murderer.  And while it’s tempting to look back on history and stand in judgment of the Pharisees, we only have to look at our own recent history to see we still do the same thing today.  The soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison who tortured and humiliated their prisoners jumps to mind.[1]  The atrocities those men and women committed under the banner of the US flag is disgraceful.  Then there was the series of random beatings on the Muslim-American community.  Even those who only “looked” Muslim were attacked.  A 68-year old Sikh man in Fresno was run over by two guys who THEN beat him up and shouted at him, “Why are you here?”[2]  We are not free of the hatred and violence that stirs up within the human heart. We demand our own “pound of flesh” and we take it from those who are free from blame.

But of course, those are extreme examples. 

In our everyday lives, this same tendency toward exacting our “pound of flesh” isn’t so extreme.  But it exists nonetheless.  We get so easily offended by something someone says or does and react in hurtful ways.  We gossip about them behind their backs.  We say things that demean them or show them a lack of respect.  And in our heads they “deserve it.”  But do they?  Sometimes it’s just a situation we’re in.  Maybe something goes wrong and we lash out at whoever is around us.  Have you ever done that?  Have you ever had a bad day at work, had a bad phone call, received some bad news, and took it out on whoever happened to stumble upon your minefield?  I have. And I regret it almost immediately. I hope the next time you are mad or upset or on the verge of lashing out, you will take just ten seconds to cool down, step back, and breathe.  We so often get caught in the moment that it soon spirals into something drastic, but if we only took the time to step out of the whirlwind of emotions, we would see it wasn’t as bad as we thought.  On Good Friday, we often focus on Jesus’ triumphal entry, but it wasn’t triumphant for everyone.  Had the Pharisees been able to see beyond their fear and hatred, perhaps they too would have noticed the love of Christ that was waiting for them.   Perhaps they could have embraced the life God wanted for them.  We often dismiss that possibility because we know Christ came to fulfill the prophecies and to prove he was the Messiah, but the lesson for us is that we can learn from their mistakes.  We can recognize what the Pharisees could not and act as the Children of God are supposed to – with love and care in their hearts.  In the play, The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters, Portia, gives a most poignant speech.  She says, “But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God Himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, (Shylock), Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy…” May we be merciful indeed.

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/torture-at-abu-ghraib

[2] https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-sikh-fresno-attack-20151228-story.html

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