This morning’s daily readings included Mark’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and it got me thinking again about how those same crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as the long-awaited king so quickly turned against him and called for his crucifixion only a few days later.
There is a deep irony in the story, because the people were rightly proclaiming Jesus to be the long-awaited king were also wrongly harboring hopes that he would be a king to their liking, a king who would behave in the ways they expected him to behave, who exercised his power in ways that suited their own aspirations and goals. They interpreted the message of the kingdom as a ticket to getting what they wanted, as a new power available to them for attaining the desires of the flesh.
This was nothing new for Jesus. For his entire ministry, people were clamoring for him to use his authority and power to do the things they thought would make for a better life. In many ways, this agenda was simply an extension and continuation of the temptations of Satan that Jesus endured in the wilderness before he began his ministry. The people wanted to eat another miraculous meal, to see another sign, to see another healing, to start the PR campaign to make him their new king, kick out the Romans, and bring back the glory days of Israel. Jesus was just the man to do it!
Jesus knew this was happening, of course, and this is where many of his so-called “hard” sayings come from. If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me… anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple… Let the dead bury their own dead, following me is more important… etc. Jesus was trying to help people understand that the kingdom was not a ticket to getting everything you want, but instead to even make the first baby steps in kingdom life you first must “take up your cross,” which meant the end of your life (a metaphor not lost on people who witnessed crucifixions every few days). You give up the old life of following the “desires of the flesh,” and receive a new life from Jesus, and learn from him how to live it in God’s kingdom.
Jesus had to say the “hard things” he did or he would be guilty of leading people on, allowing them to continue in the disastrous assumption that they really were his disciples simply because they liked hanging out with him when it was convenient for them. How tragic to assume you are entitled to all the promises Jesus gives to disciples without actually living the life of a disciple!
People make the same assumptions today. They hear the good news of the availability of the kingdom and they assume this means it will make their life easier, that it will be a new way to get what they want, a ticket for a little more comfort and security in their pursuit of their desires. People misinterpret the gospel in this way all the time.
I suppose our response should echo Jesus’ response. I see him do two things:
- He never shied away from proclaiming the good news as good news. It was astonishingly good news. It was, and continues to be, the best news ever. He didn’t try to steer people away from the kingdom by saying it actually will be really horrible. It is the best way to live, it is glorious and grace-filled and full of joy, peace, and rest. He preached that this was available to anyone simply by trusting him. He was willing for people to come to him without totally “pure” hearts in this regard.
- But he also never shied away from telling people what it would involve. He outlined the benefits and the costs. He helped people understand that being his disciple wasn’t a matter of liking him and coming to meetings where he taught on the kingdom. Plenty of people who heard, enjoyed, and probably “got a lot out of” his teaching were not counted among his disciples. He was very clear about the fact that it meant the end of your old life, and the beginning of a new one in which discipleship to Jesus now took precedence over everything else. He was willing to lose people in order to be clear on this point.
Another way to put this is that Jesus was both highly invitational and highly challenging. He invited any and all into relationship with himself, but also brought a great amount of challenge to those who were in relationship with him. Discipleship seems to happen best in an environment of both high invitation and high challenge.
Even among his disciples, though, there was an incredibly high level of misunderstanding about what kind of king he was, and what was going to happen in Jerusalem. In this aspect, Jesus displayed a tremendous trust in the Holy Spirit to bring his disciples into “all truth” after his resurrection and ascension. This will be the topic of another post.
For now, though, a question for thought and comment:
Thinking about invitation and challenge, which of these do you tend to do well? Which is a struggle?