I wrote a paper in seminary on a 1941 book titled The Nature and Destiny of Man written by a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. In it, Niebuhr argues that we human beings are both finite and limitless. We are limitless because we are made in the image of the Creator. Our minds are capable of soaring to fantastic heights and our souls are endowed with the possibility of infinite expression. But we are also creatures and thus limited. We are confined to space and time. We are imperfect and lack omniscience. Niebuhr said that humanity is both free and bound, both limited and limitless, sinner and saint, subject to history and social forces but also the shaper of history and society, creature of the Creator but potential lord of creation, egotistical but capable of living for others.
Niebuhr believed we are drawn into relationships with other people when we see the infinite in them; when we see in a lover or a mate or a friend the mystery of that person, his or her unique capacity for good and beauty and strength and virtue. Conversely, these relationships are challenged when we recognize the other person’s finite nature; when we see how small and powerless and petty a person really is.
Niebuhr’s thinking sheds light on one aspect of the hugely complex events that envelop the Passion of our Lord. Throughout the Gospels we see people being attracted to that part of Jesus which gives flesh to true Divinity. Drawn by his miracles and his healings and his signs and his teachings and his personal aura, they came from far and near to meet Jesus. He seemed to be unencumbered by the elements of this life that drag down the rest of us. He contended fearlessly with oppressive politicians and corrupt, uncaring religious leaders. He demonstrated a boundless capacity for compassion to all who were sick, lonely, anxious, or despondent and for those who were not accepted in society’s upper echelons. Demons cowered at his rebuke and the raging seas lay still at His command. He was God from God, Light from Light... of one Being with the Father.
And, as you know, by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. He emptied himself, as St. Paul says, and became humble as we are humble. He was limited by thirst and exhaustion. He was not able to right every wrong or exceed everyone’s expectations of Him. His critics recognized his finite nature and wagged at the foot of the Cross, “He saved other but he cannot save himself.” As he rode into Jerusalem, Jesus was praised by those whose held high expectations for what he would do and as he stood before Pilate the same people rejected him for disappointing them.
Expectations and disappointments: these are emotions born of our limitless potential and the finite nature of our physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual condition. The cry of “hosanna in the highest” is raised for those from whom we expect great things and the shouts of “crucify” are aimed at anyone who lets us down beyond all measure.
It is a dynamic that we do not reserve just for the Savior of the world. It plays out in every relationship between individuals, between groups, and between individuals and groups. How many marriages have begun with two people singing hosanna only to end with demands for crucifixion? How many politicians have strolled into office on a red carpet only to be booted out the back door when they fail to deliver the world to their constituents? How many coaches have helped how many young people to graduate only to be fired because they did not win enough league championships? How many churches have split when two sides can not agree on the ‘truth’?
We demand a kind of greatness and perfection from one another that only God can live up to, and even then, only on God’s best days. As a result we have become an extremely cruel and unforgiving society that throws away those who disappoint us with a stunning, but predictable regularity. We shun, sue, or sabotage anyone unfortunate enough to have their limitations exposed to our boundless expectations. The cry may not be “crucify him,” but the intention is the same.
The great irony is that the words “crucify him” – aimed at those who, in their limitations, have disappointed us – these words are generated in us not from what is infinite and glorious and generous, but from what is finite and mean and unforgiving. We condemn in another what fail to see in ourselves.
Each one of us has been victimized by unrealistic expectations and each of us knows what it is to be thoroughly uncharitable with regards to the short-comings of others. It is an old phenomena, older than the Passion of our Lord for sure. One of the things we learn from today’s story is that it should be O.K. to be human. It should be O.K. to have limitations and to make mistakes. We ought to cut some slack for others when they fail to attain the impossible standards we set for them. We are not God. We are not even gods. We are limited human beings making our way through life as best we can.
But we can be like God in this respect: God recognizes and accepts that we are finite and thus we will fall far, hard, and often. The Passion of our Lord is the most powerful testimony imaginable of just how low we can sink. Yet it also shows us that God’s mercy for us knows no bounds. That very mercy is woven into the fabric of our being. It is – should we choose to act upon it – a part of who we are in our limitless potential.
Each week we come to the Lord’s Table to taste the bread and drink the wine which will promote in us that which is charitable to those around us. Living on our own resources and left to our own devices, the cry of “crucify” seems to well up within us again and again and again. Making ourselves present to God’s grace opens within us that which is limitless and capable of near-infinite mercy and compassion.