Consistently Catholic or just acting?

Matthew 26:14 - 27:66 (Palm Sunday, Year A)
Entry Into Jerusalem, Pietro lorenzetti, 1320

Today we have all had the opportunity to be actors. During this liturgy of Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, we have heard two very different Gospel readings: Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and the account of His passion. During each reading, we had the opportunity to act out the part of the crowd that gathered around Jesus in each story. We cannot but be shocked by the radically different ways in which the crowds respond to Jesus just some short days apart. This fact challenges us to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Do I, like the members of the crowd, respond inconsistently to Jesus depending on circumstances? Am I something of an actor in the way I follow Jesus, changing roles from devote follower to lukewarm bystander or even enemy at different times?

In the two Gospel passages, the crowd responds in incredible contradictory ways to Jesus.  In the first Gospel passage, the people are overjoyed to meet Jesus. They take off their cloaks and cut down branches in order to place them on the ground and form a kind of path that Jesus can pass over. When Jesus approached, they call out “Hosanna to the Son of David”. With these actions, the crowd, and we with them,  welcome Jesus as king and messiah. Jesus is seen as the one sent by God to liberate and save. The way that the crowd responds to Jesus in the second Gospel, that of Jesus’ passion, could not be any more different. We see this particularly in the dialogue that Pilate has with the large group. Instead of calling for the release of Jesus, they demand that Pilate release the criminal Barabbas. They implore Pilate to crucify Jesus. This was a man who they had greeted with joy just a few days earlier. We acted out both these responses of the crowd to Jesus: jubilant welcome and utter rejection. Probably we associate ourselves more with the former than the later. Of course we would welcome Jesus with joy. Certainly we would never reject Jesus in that way. I’m not so sure that this is always the case. In the two Gospels we heard today, the crowd responds in two different and entirely contradictory ways to Jesus.

Like the members of the crowd, we can also be inconsistent in the way that we respond to Jesus.  For an hour or so each weekend we gather together to worship Jesus and receive His words in scripture and His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. How do we treat Jesus outside of this time? Are we consistent? Do we seek to spend time with Him in prayer? Remembering that whatever we do to other people we do to Jesus, how are actions towards others? Are we unkind, prejudiced, impatient or unfair? We can all be inconsistent in how we treat Jesus. The classic example is that after receiving Jesus at Mass we race to our cars and lose our tempers with each other as we try to navigate our way out of the parking lot. Any of you who have watched the movie The Godfather, have seen an extreme example of someone giving a contradictory witness to Jesus. Towards the end of the movie, one of the main characters, Michael, orchestrates a series of executions of the leaders of rival mafia families. These “hits” all occur during a baptism at which Michael is a godfather. The movie dramatically presents the utterly contradictory witness by showing one of the murders after each vow that Michael takes in which he is supposed to be rejecting Satan and professing his faith in Jesus. In lesser, though real ways, we can all give an inconsistent response to Jesus in our lives.

Sometimes we respond differently to Jesus because we are influenced by those around us. The members who were part of the two crowds in the Gospels today, one that welcomed Jesus and one that condemned Him, were definitely affected by a certain amount of peer pressure. We have all probably had the experience of acting differently - either better or worse - when we are part of a group than how we would normally act when we are alone. Let me give an example of each, starting with a positive example. Several weeks ago, St. Joseph’s hosted “Freedom” at which 400 youth and young adults gathered together to pray, sing and celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was an inspiring evening. It was clear that many were encouraged to go to Confession because of the example of their friends. The event was a wonderful example of positive peer pressure. Now for a negative example. Most of you will probably remember the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver. On this night we witnessed destruction, theft and violence perpetrated by a large number of people. Most of the people who behaved badly that night would never have acted in that way if they were not part of a crowd. They fed off the atmosphere and surrendered their conscience and personal responsibility to the mob. Certainly this is an extreme example, but at different times we are all influenced by those around us, sometimes to act better and other times to act worse than we normally would when alone.

Palm Sunday provides us a great opportunity to ask ourselves a simple question: whether I am a part of a group, or alone, how consistent am I in following Jesus? Recently a parishioner shared with me a famous question that is often asked in sermons that can help us to better reflect on this.
If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Seriously, think about it. Imagine for a moment that it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. One day you are dragged in front of a judge. For weeks prior to this, all your actions and words were under secret surveillance. At your trial, all the evidence is brought forward. The judge would see those times when you are more obviously a follower of Jesus: when you are at Mass, in prayer and treating others with love, kindness and compassion. The judge would also see moments in which you acted in an unchristian way: impatience, greed, jealousy, and a general disregard for following Jesus’ path in what you say and do. How would the trial go? Would you be acquitted and found not guilty of being a Christian? Would you be convicted and found guilty? Would there be reasonable doubt in the matter? These are questions that personally make me uncomfortable. Palm Sunday provides us a great opportunity to reflect on how consistent we are in following Jesus.

Fortunately, there is time before the day of our trial. This period of lent is a gift for us to examine how truly authentic and consistent we are as Christians and make changes in our life as appropriate. Let our love and devotion to Jesus never be something we only act out at Mass but be a genuine way of life. Let us make sure that in the end we are found guilty of being followers of Jesus Christ.