So begins Holy Week in April, the cruelest month, in the midst of our creeping, wheezing plague. And today, Palm Sunday, is when we begin our collective betrayal of the Son of Man. Who else shall be betrayed?
Today, we read in Matthew’s gospel the Liturgy of the Palms of how Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy by telling his disciples to commit grand theft colt. As Jesus enters upon the donkey’s colt, people get excited and throw down cloaks and palm fronds. The rest of Jerusalem freaks out about this. It’s upsetting, indeed.
I’ve always been more upset about how quickly these zealots turn on Jesus within only a few days, a little earlier than for COVID-19 symptoms to show. The crowd will want him crucified. All supporters of Jesus have betrayed him or socially distanced themselves. It’s not that I’m mad at them. It’s that, to quote Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” We always betray Jesus. In some way, every Palm Sunday and every other day. We abandon him and what he demands of us.
Jesus is the plague-ridden, he is the stranger. Jesus is the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the incarcerated. This is the collective indictment upon us. Palm Sunday embarrasses me because it shines the harsh light upon us breaking the Two Greatest Commandments. The story of Palm Sunday demonstrates that we, to put it mildly, are not always our best selves. We are all too human in need of forgiveness, divine or otherwise.
Some betrayals are more immediately dangerous and treacherous than others. Since weeks ago, each and every church building should be closed. If they are not, those congregations, those pastors, those pew-fillers betray us and each other. The politicians who enable this betrayal betray us. They literally put countless lives at risk and lengthen the time of this plague upon our houses. We have seen it time and again over the last thirty days. Even Fort Worth, Texas had to write new guidelines specifically preventing church services because evangelicals are spreading the contagion by worshiping together. This is not collective and individual foolishness. This is the narcissistic subversion of our collective goals to flatten the curve, to literally save lives. Such conduct is selfish and deadly.
Our other reading from Matthew is the Last Supper, where Jesus is betrayed more succinctly by one of his own, within his own community. “Surely not I, Rabbi?” says Judas. Oh, surely not. How dangerous would that be for everyone, the people who trust you?
Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for traitors: Judas Iscariot, Brutus, Satan. Living in New York City, I have long said that high-end real estate developers deserve that lowest circle: they betray and destroy local communities by destroying buildings to build for the highest bidder. They are far and few in between, but the damage they wreak is immense, seismic, and long-lasting. That’s the thing about living detached from one’s community: we affect each other in more ways, invisible ways than we can ever know. Flagrantly going to church during a pandemic and risking bringing home the virus to one’s loved ones and those most vulnerable is its own kind of treachery.
Ultimately, we are called to forgive. Jesus taught that even up to when he was nailed on a cross and left to die. That is one of the hardest things for me: to forgive those who have acted and continue to act atrociously and selfishly before and during this plague that continues to burn like wildfire. I really don’t know if I can or if I will. It is my personal failing.
And we must never forget. Never. Because each year, we remember and retell the story of a man riding on a colt, the deafening sound of “Hosannah! Hosannah!” resounding off the buildings. If we forget, then those responsible will never be held to account. And it’s only a matter of time until it happens all over again and we betray ourselves.