A lot can happen in the course of a week. We’ve probably all had weeks like that, where the place we started looked nothing like the way the week ended. Sometimes it’s for the better, when everything goes our way and the weekend feels bright and optimistic. And sometimes a week that starts off well enough makes a hard left turn for the worst. We can all probably think of a certain week where exactly that happened not too long ago.
It feels particularly important, then, that it’s just that kind of week—one where things go suddenly off course—that tells us the most important things about God. We heard how Jesus was celebrated in a huge parade, complete with a donkey to ride on and palm branches littering his path. Matthew describes the crowd as “the greatest crowd,” the biggest Jerusalem had ever seen. The whole city was in an uproar about Jesus showing up as pilgrims across the Jewish world, there for the Passover, were curious about who was being hailed as the Messiah.
One of the most satisfying parts of any movie is when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him in the end. When Hans Gruber gets paid back for his crimes against innocent people in Die Hard, or when Thanos is put in his place by the heroes in The Avengers; or even when Gaston gets paid back in full for terrorizing Belle and trying to kill the innocent Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The trope of “bad guy gets what’s coming to him” is satisfying because, on some level, we all agree that bad behavior deserves to be punished.
And on the flip side, we also agree that good behavior deserves to be rewarded. When people work hard and do good, we expect and celebrate when good things happen to them. When you study for the test, you get the good grades. When you work hard and smart, you get the promotion. When you help others, somehow that good makes its way back to you.
Which is why this parable Jesus tells today should feel so wrong to us.
I might be in a weird age gap here, but does anyone remember MySpace? Before Facebook, MySpace was the social media for middle and high schoolers. But among its many features, one enduring thing that it had was your friends list. And the friends list was important, very important, to the teens who used it, because your friends were ranked, and you could change that ranking any time you wanted.
Let me tell you there was a lot of drama around the MySpace friend ranking. Inexplicably being bumped down someone’s list could easily lead to anxiety about what went wrong in your friendship. Being bumped up was a source of joy and pride. It’s a little weird how much hung on something as simple as a list on a website. It was a lot like the seating arrangement Jesus spoke about in the gospel today.