Palm Sunday – Exalted by Humility

Entry into Jerusalem, Wilhelm Morgner, 1912, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany.
(About this Image)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:6–11
April 10, 2022

As we saw in last week’s reading from Philippians, Paul had an exceptionally good relationship with this community. The letter to the Philippians is a “Letter of Friendship,” not of exhortation much less of sorrow. This does not mean that everything was perfect; there were strains within the Church but that they addressed them as Paul had preached “with the same mind that is in Christ Jesus.” (Php 2:5) Last week, we saw how false teachers had come to Philippi and caused discussion. They preached a Gospel which was overly dependent on maintaining Jewish customs and attitudes. Paul praises the Philippians for their wisdom and loyalty to the Gospel of Christ. However, in December, we read of a more personal conflict which Paul ultimately feels will be satisfactorily concluded.

Paul ends this letter with an appeal to someone Paul calls his “yokemate.” Two members of what we would call leadership Euodia and Syntyche have had a disagreement. Paul wishes his yokemate to help them “come to a mutual understanding.” (Php 4:2) This might be more accurately translated as “think the same thoughts as the Lord” which is a quote from Philippians 2.2: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”

Paul is not taking sides and he is very clearly acknowledging their virtue and help in establishing the church at Philippi: “for they have struggled at my side in promoting the gospel, along with Clement and my other co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Php 4:3)

Can it get much better than being inscribed in the book of life? This was most likely a personal dispute. As is too often the case if you want to fight, go to church, if you want a big fight, go to a small church. Paul’s prescription is not to go to mediation, but to go to God and ask if they were thinking with the mind of Christ.

In last week’s reading, Paul told the entire congregation that the true Gospel of Christ obtained its power because it reflected the way he had created the universe: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself”. (Php 3:21) This will not only bring the universe into order but the community as well and with Euodia and Syntyche, he shows us that this order will reverse even personal estrangements. The unity Jesus brings is total and universal.

We have read enough to experience the beauty of Paul’s thought, but today’s reading will reveal an even greater depth.

The section immediately before today’s reads:

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
Rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves
Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus

(Php 2:3, 5)

Paul has once more packed much into a few lines. Let us look at only two items. He urges humility. Humility would have been considered by Romans a virtue only for slaves. He will next tell the Philippians that they are to seek to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus but note that Paul says, “among yourselves.” This Christ-like attitude is not just for individuals but must characterize the entire community.

He will next tell us what this attitude is. We must first note that this is a hymn. Whether written by Paul or a disciple the Philippians would have known and sung it before reading it in this Letter. Paul will use the letter to explain its cosmic, communal, and personal consequences.

We begin with:

Who, though he was in the form (morphe) of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped (harpagmon)

(Php 2:6)

“Form” (morphe) is used here as more than visible likeness. God does not have one. It may best be translated as essence or the reality of. Thus, Jesus had the dignity and reality of God. He will give up the appearance of being God but not the reality. “Grasped at” (harpagmon) is a very rare word meaning something to take advantage of. Jesus is contrasted not only with the gods of the ancient world who sought only the offerings of devotees but with emperors and kings who used their subjects for their own advantage.

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave

(Php 2:7)

The verb translated here as emptied has Jesus as both the subject and object. His total giving was a choice, and this choice was not halfhearted but total. It is also important to remember that form means essence. Jesus truly became a human being, but Paul goes further and calls him a slave. This is not a metaphor.

he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.

(Php 2:8)

Paul reminds us again that, unlike any other leader and indeed most likely unlike ourselves, Jesus is humble. This leads him to be obedient to death. He offered himself as a sacrifice. But even this is not enough, it is on the cross. This is a death for slaves and is the total annihilation of a person’s dignity.

As fitting a hymn, the storyline goes progressively downward from not claiming his rights of Godhood, to becoming human, to accepting death to being crucified, the death of slaves and other non-persons.

This of course is not the last word.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,

(Php 2:9)

Because of his humility, God the Father has exhalated him. To be given a name is to change or reveal one’s role and status. The name Jesus means savior. Reversal of fortune is a favorite classical theme but is also found in the Jewish Scripture as well most famously in the Suffering servant songs of Isaiah. For example:

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals

(Is 52:13–14)

Savior is not, however, enough. Just as Jesus’s decent into the depths was by steps so too his exaltation will be:

that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Php 2:10–11)

As Jews would know, only to God does one bend the knee. We read again in Isaiah.

By myself I swear,
uttering my just decree
and my unalterable word:
To me every knee shall bend;
by me every tongue shall swear

(Is 45:23)

“Heaven and on earth and under the earth,” reflects the whole universe and it ends in a double climax:

All must confess that Jesus Chrit is lord—Lord means God but note that this is for “the glory and honor of God the Father.” They did not have a clear idea of the Trinity at this point, but he is clearly exalting in this equality and that there is no competition.

This is the ultimate approval not only for Jesus but for the way of being his giving up and lifting up reveals. If Jesus was exalted by humility, then we who seek his mind and heart can expect the same.