Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Vinod Menon, a professor of physics at City College of New York, returned to the office and found a pile of mail and a cardboard box the size of a toaster. The box was hefty. It required $90 in postage to mail and was addressed to “Chairman, Physics Department.” He wondered if it was a gift from a former student saying thank you. With the pandemic slowing the mail and professors working remotely, the box had sat there for nine months, postmarked on Nov 10, 2020. Professor Menon opened the box and was shocked to discover it was full of $50 and $100 bills bundled with rubber bands totaling $180,000. A letter in the box explained it was for needy physics and math students at City College. The letter explained that he or she “long ago” took advantage of the school, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at City College, leading to a rewarding scientific career. The college attempted to figure out where the money came from. The name on the return address was likely fictitious; a Kyle Paisley did not match any graduates. Federal agents investigated and determined that the money was withdrawn from several banks in Maryland over several years and was not connected to criminal activity. The Federal agents reached out to the postal inspector to obtain video, but none could be found. So, after investigating, the authorities told the college that it was untraceable. Over the years, the college had received many donations, but this was a first in a box, so they decided to have the box bronzed and display it on campus. This donation would go a long way, with the annual tuition to city college being a little over 7,000 dollars. They decided to fund two scholarships for the physics and math departments for a student who gives back through peer mentoring. Dr. Menon, who emigrated from India in 1996, has conducted research at many private universities, including Princeton and MIT. Despite offers to teach at elite schools, he has been committed to City College because of the affording of education to diverse students, many of whom will be the first college graduate in their families. He said the impact is so important because “It’s a place where you can elevate somebody.”
Luke’s account of this familiar story emphasizes a few different details. This account offers no palm branches, Hosannas, or children. Really in this account, it doesn’t even sound like the crowd is that large. Luke’s entrance is kind of flat. The only details it offers are the donkey and the coats being tossed. Some of this is because of the audience he is writing to; most likely for his intended audience the festivals of booths would not have had the same meaning, so Luke emits those details.
We hear reminders of the birth narrative where the angels sang to God’s glory in the highest. Instead, this time, it is disciples with praise on their lips. The disciples are praising God for what God has already done on earth. They had found peace through God’s peace, not Roman peace. The work God had done through healings, through his teachings. We also see the political theater at work, with Christ riding a donkey and not the steed of the conquering King. However, the crowds understood it that day; the disciples were mesmerized by what Christ had done and were enthusiastic in their praises and worship.
The Pharisees are in the crowd that day. They reject these praises for King Jesus; they are concerned that this parade will put the peace of Rome at risk. Rome has given this occupied city leeway as they celebrate. This political theater from Jesus is getting out of hand; they want to keep things peaceful for unity and stability. This is a peace Jesus has felt shattered many times in his life. His birth reminded him that no one was safe as his family had to flee to Egypt because of government oppression. But Christ came to free us from this false sense of peace. Christ came to give us more.
Christ’s response to their condemnation is that the stones would be shouting praise if they kept quiet. Justo González commenting on this passage, points out what this false peace costs them. It costs them the ability to see God at work in their midst. The implication is that these Religious leaders cannot recognize the life and cannot recognize God in their midst. It is the lifeless stones who will not keep quiet. The creation will worship the creator if all else fails.  We see people who are bound by fear.
Fear keeps us from dreaming, wondering, and imagining something new; it often makes us rigid in our ideas and understanding of what is appropriate. The Pharisees trade all of this for their peace. This is a narrative that Luke has been building for chapters; we heard this with the story of the two sons. The older brother’s peace came crashing down when his brother returned. The father is the only one motivated by love rather than fear. Or last week when we reflected on Mary. Judas’ rejects her gift, calling it a waste of oil. He trusted something that couldn’t bring him true peace.
Fear comes in many forms in religious life — an unscrutinized commitment to the past; an unexamined theology that lacks the voices of minorities and those who have been harmed by the church; a commitment to ritual without the desire to recontextualize and understand in our context. Fear is saying we have always done it that way, but not knowing why. Fear is saying we can’t be something different, something new. Fear would have told Dr. Menon to give up on elevating others and to seek his own comfort. Fear is telling the disciples to be quiet. Fear is missing out how God wants to work here and now. We have to ask where are we in this crowd? With the disciples praising God, or are we with the Pharisees unable to see God working in their midst. Our Lenten journey calls us to examine where we are in this moment.