Sunday, March 24, 2013

Passion (Palm) Sunday

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, nearly 20 years ago, appeared together in a comedy called Joe Versus the Volcano. Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Banks, is diagnosed by an unscrupulous doctor as having a "brain cloud," an incurable illness that will painlessly kill him in 6 months. Soon afterward, a desperate businessman in cahoots with the doctor offers Joe Banks a deal. His company needs a special mineral found only on the tiny Pacific island of Waponi Woo. The island’s inhabitants, however, won’t let him mine the mineral unless he helps them find someone to jump into the island’s volcano, whose god demands a human sacrifice once every hundred years. The businessman offers to bankroll Joe Banks’ final months so he can live them in luxury. For his part, Banks has to jump into the volcano at the end. Banks agrees. But then he falls in love with Meg Ryan, the crooked scheme is uncovered, and there’s a happy ending. Of course!

This is an intentionally silly move. But its premise of an angry god who demands human sacrifice reflects a very real fear encountered throughout history and around the globe. Many people have believed, and still believe, that the gods are angry and that they’d better be kept happy, or else. Sometimes this involved human sacrifice. Sometimes it didn’t. Nevertheless, "Every day is an audition" with these gods, whose potential for anger and retaliation keeps everyone walking around on eggshells.

Even we Christians can sometimes think this way about God. More often than not, this happens when we confuse the way God acts with the way some of the people around us act. We encounter bossy, demanding, controlling, abusive, manipulative people and, consciously or unconsciously, we conclude that God must be like this too. We end up confusing the God revealed to us in Jesus, with the volcano god of Waponi Woo.

Sometimes the confusion starts with our parents. Some never "spare the rod," creating fear and anxiety in their children. Others are overly-demanding. Their children try and try to gain their approval and affection, but these never come or are only grudgingly given. Children conclude that love and acceptance are things to be earned, instead of being freely given.

Angry spouses and significant others who yell, threaten, berate, and manipulate add to the confusion as well. Sometimes they don’t even need to raise their voice. Just the threat of an outburst is enough to keep the other person in line. The typical response by victims of this behavior is not love, but self-preservation.

Then there are bad bosses whose employees worry about the next tirade, or receiving a "pink slip." Film producer Scott Rudin has fired over 250 personal assistants, one of whom simply brought him the wrong breakfast muffin. But he’s not the only one; 44% of Americans claim to have worked for an abusive boss.

Repressive governments who use threat and force to maintain power are also to blame for confusion about God. Such governments would happily agree with Machiavelli, who in The Prince famously asserted that it’s better for rulers to be feared than to be loved.

Not only tyrannical rulers, but also parents, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, bosses and others who control, manipulate, threaten, abuse, and make unreasonable demands are generally feared instead of loved. Like the volcano god of Waponi Woo, these people need to be kept happy, but at a humiliating cost to others. It’s very easy to take our negative experiences with such people and apply them to God. This leads to a terrible misunderstanding of God, and is a perfect recipe for us to resent him. The truth is, however, that God doesn’t demand we humiliate ourselves in order to keep him happy. In fact, it was he who allowed himself to be humiliated so that we might be happy- or more specifically, that we might be saved.

Consider what we remember in today’s liturgy. We began by recalling how Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. That Jesus rode a donkey is significant. Just like cars makes statements about their drivers, so Jesus’ choice of transportation makes a statement about him. Historically, powerful kings who had conquered Jerusalem entered the city on a war horse. But Jesus, even though he is a king, didn’t come to conquer; he came to save. He didn’t want the people of Jerusalem to fear him, he wanted them to love him, as he loved them. That’s why he rode, not a powerful steed, but a humble donkey.

Jesus’ humility, however, was supremely expressed in the humiliation of the Passion. He was beaten, mocked, spat upon, cursed, whipped, nailed to a cross, and left to endure a painful death of a criminal by bleeding and suffocation. This is no "volcano god" demanding a human sacrifice to make him happy. Instead, this is God’s Son offering himself as a sacrifice. Jesus didn’t do it to save himself from the wrath of an angry god. He did it to save us from the pain of being separated from a God who loves us so much. This isn’t a god for us to be afraid of; this is a God who fears, if you will, that we won’t realize how much we mean to him.

In the Sacrament of Confirmation, one of the Holy Spirit’s gifts we received was the "fear of the Lord." But we need to remember that fearing the Lord and being afraid of the Lord are two different things. When we’re afraid of the Lord, we want him to stay away and leave us alone. We serve him only because we fear the consequences if we don’t. But "fear of the Lord" is wonder and awe in the face of all that God has done for us; it’s a reverential love for one who loves us even more. And that’s good news for us to celebrate today. It’s not us versus the volcano god. God is on our side…so we should have nothing to fear.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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