Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “Jesus’ Chutzpah”

Palm Sunday, March 16, 2008

 

 

Matthew 21: 1-11

 

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Jesus had chutzpah. It was obvious that first Palm Sunday.

 

I’ve researched some definitions of the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” It is a term that can be used admiringly or a bit disparagingly. Boldness, audacity and nerve are some definitions for chutzpah. Presumptuousness and brazenness are others. The British apparently define chutzpah as “bloody cheek.”

 

Leo Rosten provides an example of chutzpah run amuck – “a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan." [i]

 

“Courage bordering on arrogance” is a striking definition I came across. Chutzpah is boldness and audacity and courage and nerve.

 

Jesus had chutzpah that first Palm Sunday.

 

Everybody in Jerusalem understood Jesus’ meaning when he rode into the city on a donkey and a colt that day. The prophets had clearly predicted that this was the way the Messiah would come. Nobody would have missed it. Nobody would have misunderstood who and what Jesus was claiming to be.

 

Yet Jesus had no intention of being the kind of Messiah the people expected and wanted.

 

No wonder the people who shouted “Hosanna” on Sunday shouted “Crucify Him” on Friday. Sermons often criticize the crowds for turning on Jesus as though they were fickle, but I think I understand. Jesus’ actions on Sunday were an implied promise that he had no intention of meeting on Friday in the way the people expected his promise to be kept.

 

Even Jesus’ own disciples whom he had trained personally and intimately didn’t get it. Peter, you remember, went out and got himself a sword after Palm Sunday. He, like everyone else, thought they were going to violently overthrow the foreign government that occupied Israel. When they came to arrest Jesus later in the week, poor inept Peter accidentally cut off the ear of a poor slave who happened to be standing too near him. (Matthew 26: 51)  

 

Even Jesus’ own disciples misunderstood the meaning and significance of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah.

 

It was a bold, courageous, audacious thing for Jesus to do – bordering on arrogance – to take on the mantle of Messiah, to accept the hosannas and cheers of the crowds, when his destination that week was a cross, not a revolution. Or at least not a revolution anybody around then would comprehend.

 

On Palm Sunday Jesus claimed his Messiahship but he made no attempt to meet the expectations of the crowd for what a Messiah should be or do. He made no attempt to explain himself so that people would understand what he was about. He just rode on accepting the praise of those who would soon ridicule and mock him. Jesus had chutzpah.

 

It makes us wonder about ourselves, perhaps. I know it does me. Why is it that we are so needy of the understanding and approval of others? Why do we have such a hard time standing straight and proud in the face of disagreement and disapproval? Why are we so eager to please that we are willing to sacrifice our own sacred truth?

 

My seminary professor of pastoral care Merle Jordan wrote a book in which he tells a silly story, as Professor Jordan was wont to do. It is a story about a man who went into a bargain basement department store to buy a suit. The man found one with fabric he liked and tried it on. The sales clerk complimented him on how good the suit looked on him.

 

The customer said, “But the sleeves are too long.”

 

The clerk said: “If you lean over and hunch up your shoulders, the sleeves will fit just fine.” The man did and the sleeves fit.

 

The customer said, “But the pants legs are too long.”

 

The clerk said, “If you crouch down and bend your knees, the pant legs will fit fine.” So the man did, and the pants legs fit, and he bought the suit.

 

He was walking out of the store wearing the suit, his shoulders crunched over and his knees bent so the suit would fit.

 

Two women passed by him on the way into the store. One woman whispered to the other, “Look at that poor man. I wonder what happened to him to cause him to walk that way? It is unfortunate.”

 

The other women said, “Yes, but isn’t he lucky that he found a suit that fits so well?”[ii]

 

Professor Jordan has a point he is trying to make by telling this silly story. Too often, he says, we force ourselves into “psychological and spiritual ill-fitting clothes that may be of a pleasing appearance to others but are destructive to the authentic nature of the [real] person…this is a violation of the true self.” It is actually a violation of God, Jordan says, because it is a violation “of the image of God in oneself.”[iii] 

 

Jesus made the suit fit him. He did not contort his life to fit the expectations and demands of others. He had chutzpah.

 

A Hindu fable goes something like this. There was a motherless tiger who was adopted by goats. She was raised as a goat, learned to speak goat, to eat grass like a goat, to emulate goat ways, to live as though she were a goat.

 

Then one day a large queen tiger appeared. All the goats ran away in fear. The young tiger was left alone to confront the beautiful adult tiger on her own. The queen tiger asked the young tiger why she was skulking around like a goat. All the young tiger did in reply was to bleat nervously and nibble nervously on the grass.

 

So the queen tiger carried the young tiger to a pool where they looked together at their reflections side by side. The young tiger looked long and looked hard until she finally realized who she was and she stopped bleating and nibbling grass and dug her claws into the ground and lifted her head high and roared.[iv]

 

Fred Buechner says that Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity all agree about this – that human beings as we usually exist in the world are not what we were created to be. We live like goats when we are created to be tigers.[v]

 

Jesus is a tiger, Buechner says. Jesus has chutzpah.

 

I’ve been rereading some of the writings of Carlyle Marney. When I was a very young minister just out of seminary, I used to listen to tapes of Carlyle Marney’s sermons and try to imitate him when I preached. He was a Southern Baptist preacher, an ecumenist, a bold thinker, and an intellectual – a list that does not always go together in one person. I loved Carlyle Marney.

 

He died five days before his 66th birthday in 1979, too soon. He left local church pastoral ministry in 1966 and spent the last 13 years of his life living in a big house on Wolf Penn Mountain in Lake Junaluska, NC. He called the house Interpretator’s House and he invited groups of clergy of all denominations to come and spend a week at the house, resting and talking and praying and recuperating.

 

I remember the last sermon I heard Carlyle Marney preach. He talked about having listened to the burdens and struggles of clergy of all denominations for the past dozen years, and he said he despaired for the future of the church in America. He said that most clergy had been so beaten down by church and society that they seemed to have come to a place where “they did not have the ego strength to say boo to a church mouse nonetheless to damn a culture that is anti-Christ.” I can still hear those words in my head 25 years later.

 

Jesus had chutzpah. Why are his followers so afraid?

 

One of the reasons we are so timid, I think, is because our vision is short. We don’t see very clearly into tomorrow. We don’t live with a very big picture.

 

Since the press carried a story about our services to recognize and honor gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships, I’ve been getting some letters and emails from around the country…mostly positive, but a few that aren’t.

 

I got one this week from a man who disagrees with me but who is very polite in the way he does it. His name is Patrick and he is an engineer in Florida. The subject line of his email said “Bummer”

 

This is what the email said:

 

Sorry to hear about your decisions...I know that a man in your position didn’t get where you are without an extensive and exhaustive study of the Word of God.  I don’t quite understand how you could come to the conclusion that what you are about to do is ok with the God of the Universe.  As a brother in Christ, I’m sorry for your decision and pray God’s mercy when you, like me, stand before Him and are held accountable for your choices in life.  I’ll be asking for mercy on my own behalf for the many things I have failed Him in. 

 

Thanks for letting me comment.

 

I am surprised by the number of emails and letters from people who disagree with me that mention the last judgment and what they expect to happen to me then. Do they suppose I do not think of such things?

 

It makes me remember a moment 15 years ago that was very important to the shaping of my ministry. Peter was a member of the church I served at the time. He was in the hospital as the result of complications from HIV/AIDS. His partner of many years, Karl, was in the same hospital on a different floor. Karl was days away from death. Peter had been attending my church for years and I knew him well. I had never met Karl. When I was visiting Peter in the hospital, he asked me if I would go with him to Karl’s room and meet Karl because, Peter said, I would soon be conducting Karl’s funeral.

 

So I pushed Peter in a wheel chair to Karl’s room. When we got there I saw a side of Peter I’d never seen before. When he saw Karl in his bed emaciated and near death, tears sprang to his eyes. He called Karl “my darling” over and over again and kissed him and wiped his forehead with a damp cloth and got him to drink some water and ministered to him with great tenderness.

 

When we got back to Peter’s room, Peter said that there was something he wanted to ask me. He told me he had been watching a TV evangelist and he wondered if he should repent of his homosexuality before he died so that he could go to heaven. “It has been a long time since Karl and my relationship has been physical, he said. That is long over anyway,” he said.

 

I was never in my life more aware of the verse of Scripture from James that says:  ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3: 1) I was all too aware of the words of Jesus: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) I felt in that moment the eternal welfare of my own soul hung in the balance of the way I would answer Peter’s question.

 

I took as long as I could to think about my answer as I could without seeming unresponsive. Then I said this: “Peter, I don’t really know, but let me ask you a question. You have been with Karl a long time. You tell me, was it been mostly about lust or love?”

 

He said without missing a beat, “Oh, it is love.”

 

“Peter, all of us have things we need to repent of” I said, “but if God gave you the gift of love, the greatest gift any of us can receive, do you really think God would want you to repent of it?”

 

Peter nodded his head in a firm way. We prayed together. There were things Peter repented of, but he did not repent for Karl.  

 

Patrick, my Florida engineer friend, I understand the last judgment better than you could imagine. I know all too well in my deepest self that I am ultimately accountable for how I live my life and what I do in my ministry. I carry the last judgment around inside of me. This is the very thing that causes me, timid as I am, to sometimes do better than I would otherwise do.

 

Jesus had chutzpah the first Palm Sunday because his vision was not short. He could see past the rejection of the crowds who would shout “Crucify Him” on Friday to today when you would gather here at 16th and P in Washington DC in 2008 to sing his hosannas. He could look past the mocking crowds and the embarrassment of his own disciples into your eyes. He took the hit so that you and I might get it and be saved.

 

Jesus the tiger.

 

If you will walk with him and study him this Holy Week, you will catch a glimpse of who you really are. And maybe, if we do this, we will stop bleating nervously and nibbling the grass, and dig our claws into the ground and lift our heads and roar.

 

 

 

 

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[i] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/chutzpah

[ii] Merle Jordan, Taking on the Gods (Abingdon Press, 1986), 67-68.

[iii] Jordan, 68.

[iv] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (The Seabury Press, 1966), 90.

[v] Buechner, 91.