Sunday April 17: Palm Sunday 2011
Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
I drove into the centre of Whyalla one morning, with everyone else, just at that time when the place was abuzz with people ducking out to get coffee, secretaries were off to the post office, and all the young mums were arriving for shopping. I found a traffic jam. Walking down the middle of the sheet, holding up all the traffic, was an elderly aboriginal man. I thought he was just a drunk, until I saw his face. It was a picture of concentrated, delighted pride.
I realised I was watching street theatre, and a political statement. “This is my country. This is my land. We are still here. You cannot ignore us!” How right he was! We couldn't. He was bringing the commercial centre of the town to a standstill.
What we see on Palm Sunday is a street theatre. We see Jesus and his followers conducting what today we might call a flash mob, a little piece of street theatre that brings people to a standstill. Everyone who sees it asks, "What is this? What's going on?" And then, of course, those in the know give them the answer.
Exactly what happened that day is unclear. It is unlikely that the demonstration, as we might also call it, was as big as it appears in Matthew’s reflection upon its meaning. A citywide disruption would have attracted the immediate attention of the military, and would have been crushed. The man I saw was at work two streets from the police station. But by the time the police were aware of the incident, if they ever were, it was all done. People were left to laugh, to ponder, or merely to reiterate their racism because they were blind and could only see a drunk.
In Matthew’s reflection the event is a statement about Jesus and who he is. Matthew himself may indicate that most people did not fully understand. They saw only “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
We are seeing how inspired scripture works. How much did Matthew understand during this incident? Was the man who we call Matthew even present at this incident? How many of our insights today actually occurred to Matthew?! I remember my boss amazed to see one of her computer programs being used in a way she never intended, and watching the program do things she didn’t know it could do! It worked, all the same, even though she had never thought of the idea. So it is with Matthew’s words today. The Spirit speaks to us, and perhaps beyond what Matthew ever intended or thought.
What's happening on this original “Palm Sunday?” For some it was a bit like the situation where someone says "There's this drunk wandering down the middle of the street! What are the police doing? Where are they? This is disgusting."
And someone else says, “You didn't get it. You didn't understand what was happening. Didn't you see the way he was stopping anyone who was driving up behind him and,by walking right in the middle of the road, and wobbling and staggering, he was making the people driving towards him stop as well. They were scared he would fall in front of them. But it was all put on. Didn't you see the way he was laughing at them? Didn't you see the way he was saying "We're still here! You can't ignore us!"
Didn't you see the little group of people down on the corner cheering him on? They may as well have been laying down palm branches and coats on the road! He wasn’t drunk at all!”
And some Australians will laugh, and tell us we are dreaming it all up. It was just a drunk. Of course he was drunk. They were just stupid Galileans, what else would you expect. Forget it!
At least a part our congregations will be uncomfortable with a political interpretation of this text. Like the Pharisees and Scribes who may have seen some of the symbolism at the time, their comfortable world is being challenged. Their assumed ownership and righteousness is being questioned.
But we can’t have salvation without political implications. There is no avoiding the reality of the situation. The people of Israel were living as captives in their own land. They were subject to an invading nation. Jesus was undertaking a political act. Kings entered their cities in triumphal parades just like this one.
John Petty describes the situation:
Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east… The Mount of Olives was, in Israel's Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel's enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4).
The direction of approach is significant for at least two reasons: (1) Coming to the city from the Mount of Olives is a prophetic and eschatological image, and (2) there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover; one--the procession of the Roman army--came from the west; the other--those with Jesus--came from the east.
The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000--both conservative estimates. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharaoh in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association….
The procession of the Roman army from [its headquarters] to Jerusalem would have been an imposing sight--Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armor, the stomp of feet, and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. Message? Resistance is futile!
“Sarcasm and irony… The only mechanisms” can be deadly. In a week Jesus is dead. His message on Palm Sunday, and in the time which follows in Jerusalem is too much for the authorities to stomach. If they listen it will mean the end of all their privilege, turn their understanding of the world upside down, and pit them head on against Rome. It cannot be allowed to happen.
We cannot follow Jesus down the middle of the road without disrupting the traffic! If there is no political implication and consequence of what we are doing, then we are not following him at all. We are merely sitting on the side of the road, blind and deceived.
As soon as we allow that Jesus is not just some drunk wandering down the road, everything else follows in an unstoppable flood. He is not merely mimicking an entry procession. He is making his own claim to Kingship based on Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. Any passing Scribe who stopped to wonder at the racket would have seen the point:
In 2 Kings 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage. ("Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’") The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto his path, is treating Jesus as a royal and kingly figure, which is further underlined by their comparison of Jesus to the Great King David. (Petty op. cit.)
We call him the Prince of Peace and draw the distinction between the donkey and the war horses of a ruler who does not come into the city in peace. But for Jerusalem, shaken when he was born (2:3), and shaken at his death (27:51) and resurrection (28:2), this entry is not peaceful. The turmoil of verse 10 is real. A choice has to be made. An opinion must be cast.
The aboriginal man in Whyalla quickly disappeared. People could remain comfortably blind, and write him off as a drunk. Jesus stayed, and enacted more theatre in the temple. He could not be ignored. His actions forced a response. How much will we let his actions shake our perceptions of what is a good and complete life in the presence? Or will we let him be one more dead revolutionary we can safely ignore and quietly forget after Easter morning?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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