We get to see how Jesus compares to various leaders this Sunday, in the readings for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Year C.
Luke’s Gospel juxtaposes them deliberately: We meet the cocky apostles and their modest leader, the unfair, timid Pilate and his courageous victim.
Jesus literally takes the form of bread for his Apostles; they argue about which of them is greatest.
Jesus begins by saying, “I have eagerly desired to have this meal with you.”
He institutes the Eucharist saying, “This is my body which is given up for you.” He institutes the priesthood, saying, “Do this in memory of me.”
The first communicants and first priests respond by breaking out into a boasting argument. They have totally missed the point of Jesus’ washing of their feet and providing them the Eucharist, and he has to lecture them at length to get them back on track.
Jesus faces death with great reluctance, then accepts it; Peter brags that he is ready to die, then rejects it.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours be done.” He was eager to share the Eucharist with his apostles, but he is not eager to die. Humanly, he shrinks from the pain.
Peter brags, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death.” But then he hears, “Peter, the crock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.”
Jesus’ obedience to the Father overcomes the Agony in the Garden, where he “encounters all the temptations and confronts all the sins of humanity,” as St. John Paul put it.
But Peter’s obedience to Jesus can’t even overcome his sleepiness.
Peter betrays Jesus and runs away, while Jesus strengthens everyone he meets.
Jesus tells Peter, “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail … you must strengthen your brothers,” but Peter’s faith can’t even withstand the scrutiny of a maid who confronts him when Jesus is on trial.
Meanwhile, Jesus, despite being beaten and driven to death, spends his last moments on earth teaching the Apostles, healing the soldier that Peter wounds, teaching the women of Jerusalem, forgiving his killers, reaching out to the thief crucified with him, and even converting a centurion.
Jesus shows his greatness while the leaders in the story shame themselves.
Jesus endures getting slapped, spit on, ridiculed and being humiliated intellectually and emotionally: He gets betrayed by his friends, bettered in unfair arguments framed by the Sanhedrin and Pilate and then dismissed as inconsequential by Herod.
But despite it all, his attackers come off looking worse than Jesus.
He shows he is a better man than the Council, by refusing to play their game. They want to know if Jesus claims he is the Christ, not whether he is the Christ. Jesus explains their attitude: “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I question, you will not respond.” They are totally closed.
Jesus shows he is a better man that Herod by shutting down his inquiry altogether. Herod has Jesus dressed in a mocking costume but it is Herod who looks ridiculous, not Jesus.
Jesus shows he is a better man than Pilate, who decides that Jesus is “not guilty” but he still has him flogged, and eventually crucifies him because he can’t oppose the crowd.
Jesus is such a master of the situation that he can stay true to his resolve despite great cruelty. Pilate is so mastered by the situation that he can’t even oppose his own subjects.
What does Jesus have that they don’t?
The letter of St. Paul describes it: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus had humility and obedience. These are the key virtues throughout salvation history. Adam and Eve fell because they were proud and stubborn; Noah survived because he was humble and obedient. Abraham showed his humility and obedience with Isaac; Moses showed Pharaoh and then the Israelites the consequences of arrogantly refusing God’s will.
The lesson he wants each of us to take is that there is no future for us without humility and obedience, either.
We are not great enough to take on the world on our own terms; if we try to, we will fail. God created the world, and we can only succeed on his terms. If we obey him, we will thrive — even if he leads us to a cross.