What’s the picture Matthew paints for us about Palm Sunday?
We can’t answer this question unless we remember some very important things about Palestine in Jesus’ time. Palestine was an occupied country. It was ruled by the Romans. Nobody wanted them there. So Jerusalem was something like Paris during World War Two. People hated the Romans, despite the collaborators. And even the collaborators hated the Romans.
Jerusalem was a big city. There were at least 50,000 people lived in the city, and some people estimate it was a lot larger than that. At Passover each year, thousands more people would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The population would swell to four times its normal size… maybe more. Passover was so important, and so ingrained, that the Romans couldn’t stop it happening. It was easier to let it happen and try and manage things.
Now why would Rome want to stop the Passover? Well, let’s remember what it was about. It was about Israel being set free from Egypt. It was about God rescuing the chosen people from the overlords, and from Pharaoh, King of Egypt. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that at each Passover festival some firebrands would be suggesting that maybe a new Moses was going to arise, and with the help of God, set Israel free from the new overlords. This Passover, those wild preachers would say, God will set us free from the Romans.
So, to make sure nothing got out of hand, the Romans would boost the Jerusalem garrison each Passover. The Romans had their base at a port called Caesarea, which was to the north west of Jerusalem. To avoid the mountains, they would march down the coast from Caesarea and then cross over into Jerusalem from the west.
Maybe you can begin to see what was happening. Each year at Passover, there was already a big procession into Jerusalem.
Now, let’s think about our Australian history for a moment. There are some things we all just know. We don’t think about them. They’re in the blood from when we were little. Ned Kelly, ANZAC, The Ashes, Waltzing Matilda, Simpson and the Donkey… The point is that we don’t think about these things; they just ARE. Mary and Sophie and Jijo had to learn these things when they came to Australia. Others of us knew them before we started school.
Every country has got this sort of stuff written into its memory. It’s almost part of the national DNA. So there are some things every person from India or Tonga or Sudan or Scotland knows about, but they mean nothing to the people outside. So the Scots have first footing; most of the rest of us have no idea what that is… or maybe we’ve read a bit about it in a book… but it doesn’t mean the same as if we had grown up as Scots.
In Israel there was something written into the national DNA. It was about the Mount of Olives. That’s to the east of Jerusalem. The East is where all the big things come from… like the Wise Men, for example, and the Garden of Eden. The Mount of Olives was, in Israel's Sacred Memory… in its national DNA, the place from which an assault on Israel's enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4). (John Petty) The Mount of Olives… just saying it, set of all sorts of unconscious thoughts about God and freedom from the enemy going in people’s minds. Just like if I say “Simpson and his Donkey…” to you. Sophie might say, “Who…?” But in the minds of Australian born people a whole lot of bells start ringing about mateship and sacrifice… and being an Aussie.
So here we are in the week before Passover. The Roman Army arrives en masse. Row upon row of soldiers in armour. Centurions on war horses. Cavalry. Polished brass. Flags, drums. And the message to Jerusalem is clear.
We rule. We are in charge. We are the Empire, the Reich of a thousand years. Do as you are told… or else. Be afraid. It is a calculated national insult against Israel. Because here they come again, belittling and scorning our history of freedom, and our escape from Egypt as God’s chosen people, the people of the mighty King David. People just had to take it. If you didn’t suck it up you would be crushed; Colonel Khadafy is an amateur by comparison.
And on the other side of the city… in comes Jesus. Jesus mimics the procession, and sends it up. Instead of a warhorse, he’s on a donkey. No soldiers, no swords and armour, just Jesus. And the people cheer and clap and laugh. What a send up! It’s the Israeli version of The Chaser or Monty Python. (In the USA think The Yes Men?) It’s a glorious pisstake, as we say in Australia.
And then people take a second look. He’s coming… from the East. He’s coming… from the Mount of Olives. People are putting their clothes on the ground and waving branches… that’s another cultural DNA thing. It’s what you did to honour a triumphant king. And people knew the old words from their scriptures: "Speak to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden."
It gave people a choice about which procession to follow, and it gives us a choice. We can write Jesus off as a rural nobody, a ratbag who got what he deserved, or we can see the message. We can see the message that this is God’s person; God’s chosen one who is restoring not just the fortunes of Jerusalem and Israel, but of the whole world.
The authorities understood what Jesus was saying; he was dead in a week. What about us? Will we just ignore him? Or will we laugh at what he did, and enjoy his street theatre… but treat it as though it was one more episode of The Chaser, and then turn off the TV and have a cup of tea and go to bed? It’ll be forgotten by next week.
Or… even though there will be "Thursday nights" when we desert him, and fail him, are we going to see the message and follow him?
Amen. Andrew Prior
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