How many of you know that the ashes put on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday come from burned palms that were used at the liturgy for the last Palm Sunday? Those ashes call us to repentance, but what are repenting? Is it sloth, or overindulgence or any of those “sexy” sins that grab imaginations and (sometimes) headlines? No. It is about a subtle sin that we all participate in so much, we do not even realize we are doing it. Which is just what the enemy wants us to do, since the more engage in that sin, the less we see it.
The sin used to be called “pride.” I find that a weak word. The sin we are talking about is the very real sin of ambition. It is a very American sin, where ambition is articulated as “be your best.” Which translates into “make more money.” In order to make more money, you work harder. In order to work harder, make “sacrifices.” What do we sacrifice? Health? Time with family? Relationships? What we eventually sacrifice is human compassion: for ourselves and for others, the result is anger, alienation, self-medication, and workaholism, which eventually destroy our happiness. Which is just what the enemy wants.
The ashes of human ambition are made manifest in Palm Sunday, where Jesus is caught up in this intense human drama of ambition.
Judas is unhappy with Jesus’ lack of ambition to a rabbi who is purer, holier, and therefore more acceptable to the religious establishment. He gets disappointed, loses faith and betrays his friend.
Peter, James and John have convinced the crowd that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem will herald in a time when the “Roman filth” will be expelled from their sacred land, and then they can live as God intended. They are looking for a new Moses and a new David all wrapped into one. They are disappointed by Jesus’ lack of ambition and they turn the crowd against him. Instead of yelling “Hosanna” at the end of the week they yell, “Crucify.” Peter is so disappointed, he denies Jesus’ very existence. He gives into fear and welcomes loss of connection because his ambition has not been fulfilled.
The others in the passion drama are just mere props for an illustration of human ambition:
A corrupt religious class that has a monopoly on the practice of faith that earns them money. Jesus’ seeming ambition is seen as a threat and, like any other practical business arrangement, they simply make his company irrelevant.
Pilate isn’t just a representative of an oppressive Empire seeking to control a rebellious population. Pilate is a Roman citizen consigned to the far reaches of the Empire. His ambition is to return to Rome, further his career and gain more wealth and power. Who could blame him?
Herod’s ambition is to remain king. And if he has to sell out a messiah, so be it. Nazareth isn’t important, only Jerusalem. There will be other messiahs to take his place. And a messiah is the last thing Herod wants for it would mean and end to life as he knows it. His ambition is the same as any Archon. To stay in power, and don’t count the cost.
Palm Sunday shows us, full face, that we share bits and pieces these persons. A deal made. A friend cut loose. Looking out for number one.
The palms we wave on Sunday will be made into ashes next year and put on our heads as a remembrance of our ambition. We must recognize our ambition and to see it for the sin it is.
Let’s take a different path. Let’s follow a different road. Jesus leads the way and marks it with his teachings. If we follow we will be in a place of peace and health free from the debilitations of ambition.