During our Lenten program the last few weeks, I’ve been helping Daniel and Audi with the kids as they prepared to sing for you all today! One day, when Daniel was leading a conversation about Palm Sunday, one of the children raised his hand and said something along the lines of, “Why do the same people who cheer Jesus on then go on to murder him? It’s creepy!”
He is absolutely right, the events we read on Palm Sunday are super, super creepy and deeply unsettling. How do the same human beings go from shouting Hosanna to their king to screaming “Let him be crucified!” And it raises an even more unsettling question. Does the same conflict lodge in our hearts? Would we so easily betray our God?
I like to think of this as The West Wing versus House of Cards problem of the human condition.
Stay with me. For those of you who don’t know, The West Wing was a drama written by Aaron Sorkin which aired on NBC from 1999-2006. House of Cards is currently in its second season and can be found on Netflix.
Both shows are about United States politics and both have quite a bit of focus on the Presidency and the President’s staff.
But the two shows have very different points of view. The West Wing is largely about the importance of serving the country. Episodes focus on inter-personal relationships, yes, and there is plenty of romance, but the characters seem genuinely invested in passing policy to make the country a better place.
The fictional President Bartlett was committed to bettering the country even if it hurt him politically. At one point, when he is about to make a controversial decision, his chief of staff, Leo, gathers the staff and says the following:
We’re gonna lose a lot of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues; we’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this Country, and let that be our legacy.
He then asks each of the staff if that sounds all right to them, and they each reply
I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.
And not only did characters focus on big, arching policy, they were even interested in the little guy. Every so often the show would focus on some average citizen who had a specific problem or concern. The most moving of which was probably when Toby was approached by the police because a homeless man who had been wearing a coat Toby had donated to charity had been found dead. Rather than simply distancing himself from this stranger, Toby begins to learn about him, and ultimately fights for him to be buried with military honors, when he discovers the homeless man was a veteran. Plots almost always brought the human stories of policy to the forefront.
Even the main characters were shown to serve their country sacrificially. C.J. Crane gave up a half million dollar salary as a PR flack in California. Sam Seaborne walked out of a lucrative law firm. Ainsley Hayes gave up becoming a powerful player in Republican politics to serve as a lawyer in a democratic administration, because she believed it was the best way to use her gifts to serve the country.
The West Wing presents a really positive view of humanity. It shows the hopeful, optimistic, cooperative, joyful parts of our soul that we see displayed by Jesus’ followers on Palm Sunday. Jesus’ followers have seen the face of God and they are ready to celebrate and honor God. Unfortunately, humanity is more complicated than the picture presented on The West Wing and on Palm Sunday.
House of Cards, the Netflix political drama, presents the other extreme of humanity. The main characters are Frank Underwood and his wife Claire. When the series begins, Frank is majority leader of the House of Representatives. Like President Bartlett he is a Democrat, but the resemblance ends there. Frank’s only goal is to accrue power. And he’ll accrue power using any means necessary. He bribes, he lies, he has affairs, he blackmails, he even has people killed. All so that he can move up the chain of power. At one point he turns to the camera and says, ““For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” There is a plot thread about a piece of policy, but the content of the policy doesn’t really matter to Frank. All that matters is that he can manipulate the situation so that he comes out a winner. There aren’t very many good hearted people in the show. Those that are usually end up losing their jobs or their lives.
Honestly, I’m not sure Herod and Pilate rose to the level of Frank Underwood’s villainy. But they were part of the political machine that was so interested in power and status quo that they were willing to kill God to keep their thrones.
Most actual human beings fall somewhere in-between the worlds of The West Wing and House of Cards. We are more like the crowd in Jerusalem. Excited about God one minute, and another minute willing to turn our back on Jesus if it means we can gain more power, money or even more comfort.
We seek to serve the common good, until it makes more sense for us to go into a career that will pay off our student loans.
We care about the downtrodden, but we buy our jeans from companies that force their employees to work in dangerous conditions.
Someone even recently shared with me that their seminary classmates would steal books others needed for papers. These are SEMINARY STUDENTS!
We are a mixed up people! We want to follow God, but just can’t seem to stick with it. How many of you abandoned your Lenten resolutions? I know I did!
How does Jesus react to this change of mood in Jerusalem? Does he try to run away when things go south? No. Does he turn to the hostile mob and yell at them for their betrayal? No. Jesus stays the course. Jesus continues to love humanity, even in the face of our betrayal. He calmly journeys to the Cross even with full knowledge of how fickle humanity can be when it comes to loving God.
He knows that we are The West Wing people who will join the Peace Corps and volunteer at soup kitchens and he knows that we are House of Cards people who will betray those closest to us, who will be unforgivably selfish. He knows all of this about us, probably even before Palm Sunday. He’s probably learned about it from watching his disciples, from living with a family, from being human. He’s probably learned this about us from reading Scripture. Abraham was a hero and a liar. Moses was a brave leader and a murderer. King David delighted in the Lord and had his lover’s husband killed. Scripture is full of the contradictions of human beings. Jesus has probably felt these contradictory impulses rise in his own spirit, and turned to his Father for help.
In fact, this conflict we have, of being lovingly made in God’s image but also spectacularly sinful, is why God became incarnate in Jesus in the first place. And even when Jesus experiences this awful tension, he does not abandon us. He walks toward the cross. He stays true to himself. He obeys his Father, because we cannot.
Jesus did not abandon the crowd at Palm Sunday. Jesus did not abandon the crowd on Good Friday.
Jesus does not abandon us, either. Whether we are at our most Christlike, selfless and giving, or whether we’re completely horrible and greedy, Jesus walks alongside of us. But Jesus doesn’t leave us where we are. Jesus beckons us to follow him, to walk the path he has laid for us, to celebrate our relationship with him by living into our best selves. And he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen our resolve and to give us peace.
We invite you to join us on Jesus’ journey this week, as we remember our rejection of God, and God’s triumphant defeat of our apathy. The story of Holy Week is your story, your story of betrayal and redemption, a story more exciting than any television drama. Don’t miss out.
(Quotes from The West Wing found in Nathan Paxton’s wonderful article, “Virtue from Vice: Duty, Power, and The West Wing.)