A few months ago, my pastor asked if I would speak in church on Palm Sunday. I said sure. He promptly forgot and scheduled someone else. I found out on Friday the 11th that I was not expected to preach on Sunday the 13th. Rather than waste perfectly good sermon notes, I have published them here.
The text is John 12:12-19, which you may look up, and which describes what is traditionally referred to as The Triumphal Entry. This is Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to his crucifixion. Now, as a small child with Jewish grandparents, Calvinist grandparents, and ostensibly Lutheran parents, the story of Holy Week always puzzled me, especially John’s telling of it. How did Jesus go from being Good Guy on Sunday to Bad Guy on Friday? Or, if we allow that Jesus is always the Good Guy, then how did the Crowd go from Good Crowd to Bad Crowd? And The Jews — John is always talking about The Jews, usually in a smarmy, wink-wink sort of way, suggesting they are collectively Bad Guys. But that’s my grandma! And when I found out that everyone in the story is Jewish, I got really confused. Everyone, of course, but Pilate. Now there’s a baffler for a six-year-old. He’s right there in the Nicene Creed as the Ultimate Bad Guy. Does the creed mention Peter, or even Judas? No, it calls out Pilate, but there in the Bible, Pilate was the only one trying to help Jesus.
The Sunday school teachers at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in New Milford, New Jersey, in the late sixties, had no answers for me. They couldn’t even tell me why the name of our church was misspelled.
If you look at this story from the point of view of each of its many characters separately, everyone would class everyone else as Good Guy or Bad Guy differently. Who you think is Good or Bad seems to have a lot to do with who you think You are. Our pop culture, at least until recently, strongly reinforces the simple, Good Guy / Bad Guy dichotomy. Our storybook characters are easily identified and classified, and if they ever feel conflicted, it’s not because they are complex, or because life can be ambiguous; it’s only because they are struggling with the temptation to switch classification. The best example from my youth would be Star Wars, of course. No dispute who’s good or bad here. We even understand the only problem with Han Solo, the arrogant, obnoxious, murderous smuggler, is that he’s feeling the onset of a swap from All Bad Guy to All Good Guy. What a surprise when Luke intuits against all evidence that Darth is in the same conflict. And after a 30 year hiatus, we find out that Darth started out as sweet, lovely, Good Boy Anikin! And did teen Anikin struggle with the moral subtleties and ethical challenges of his complex world? No, he was just having trouble resisting the binary switch from Good Guy to Bad Guy.
By the time I was in my late twenties or so, this simple dichotomy was wearing thin. I remember, during the first Gulf War, Americans started to pay attention to Middle Eastern culture like never before, and I heard a lot of Bad Guy rhetoric. I remember the first time I heard this one: “They give their little children guns to play with and teach them to play ‘Kill The American’!” I remember how disturbed I felt. Then I looked outside and saw the neighborhood kids chasing eachother with yardsticks and enjoying a rousing game of “Kill The Bad Guy”.
“Hey!” I asked. “How do you know which one’s the Bad Guy?”
“He’s the one we’re chasing,” they replied.
“But why? How can you tell he’s Bad?”
“C’mon, silly! He’s the one who’s growling and running away! Soon’s we kill him, it’ll be someone else’s turn.”
“Have you ever considered playing ‘Pray For The Bad Guy’?”
They laughed and ran away.
As I age, I find the whole Good Guy / Bad Guy thing a less and less useful life tool. I don’t even care to use it in the polling booth anymore. Why have I been slow to reject it? Am I afraid I will slide into a morass of moral relativism? No, my moral absolutism is based on a firm conception of Right and Wrong… and that’s not the same thing as Good and Bad. Right and Wrong is based on truth, and that’s absolute. Good and Bad is based on judgement, and that’s relative. And my religion prohibits passing judgement.
So, for Lent, I’m giving up Kill The Bad Guy. Instead I’ll try Fellowship With The Other Guy.