Palm Sunday Misgivings

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. ’ [Or, The Lord needs them and will send them back 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 [Or, most of the 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.’

There's a Bizarro Comic which has the Buddha and Jesus sitting in the clouds. "I should have made one of those nobody-can-depict-me rules," says Buddha. "They always make me fat."

"Tell me about it. I've been a blond white dude for, like, 2,000 years, Jesus replies.

We always see Jesus through the eyes of our culture.

This is inevitable; from where else can we begin to understand him? The question is how much we will let ourselves be challenged by the gospel stories, and how much we will seek to use them, and him, to reinforce what we want life to be for us.

Matthew tries to break into our imagination. He even has Jesus riding two animals at once! (Zechariah 9) "Matthew is more interested in literal fulfillment than historical probability" (John P. Meier  p. 232).

When Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was "in turmoil"; the Greek word translated as turmoil has the root we use for seismology— earthquakes. There is soon to be another earthquake in Jerusalem; perhaps the text is asking us if will we let Jesus shake us out of the comfort zone of our world view, or if we will remain unmoved. The question of the crowd: "Who is this?" is being asked of us, and it will be asked of us again at Easter.

It is not surprising that the city was shaken, for Jesus came from the Mount of Olives. The symbolism is clear: the Mount of Olives was the place from where it was understood God's final rescue of Israel would come. (Zechariah 14) Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a moment rather like Matthew 2:3 when "King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him." What was about to happen? Things could get out of control. Although God's victory is promised in Zechariah, it is clear that the prophet envisaged a terrible time.

He came into Jerusalem as a King of Peace, not of war. He is not riding a warhorse, but a donkey. The two donkeys reinforce the symbolism.  But what does this mean, really? When Richard Fidler interviewed Dr Mark Cross on Conversations recently, the doctor spoke of a time when there were two Kings of England in his mental health unit; there was some conflict! We are the ones who are deluded if we think we can have two kings without conflict, yet so much of what we do as church seems to think we can be opposed to Empire— Jesus is Lord! —  yet have a privileged and comfortable position within our society.

There is nothing in Matthew which suggests Jesus was coming to set up a parallel kingdom, or some kind of church you could attend without upsetting the Roman overlords, or their Sadducee lackeys. So what would we have done, if we were in the crowd? What are we doing now? How can you have, or live for, a kingdom of peace in the midst of an empire which is built upon violence and war?

The probability is that the Palm Sunday march was street theatre and civil disobedience.  As a child, I imagined a crowd of thousands, a bit like John Martin's Christmas Pageant. But such a display would likely have drawn an instant and crushing response from Rome.  A smaller march, strategically timed to coincide with the Roman entry on the other side of the city, might survive by "flying under the radar." But it would be no less serious in its statement of allegiance to something other than Rome.

Even this smaller parade, and Jesus' actions in the temple, resulted in the empire retaliating and killing Jesus. Will we pretend his murder was simply Roman oppression which our democracy would not allow to happen, or will we allow ourselves to be shaken and see that we live under Empire still?

Palm Sunday should bring turmoil to our hearts, for it is no simple thing to say Jesus the prophet from Galilee has entered the city of God. It is a complete challenge to the way things are: Amos, Isaiah, Hosea— the spirit of all the prophets walk with him. There is no reason to think the empire will not strike back if we are true to his message, and if, for some reason, we come to its notice as a nuisance, or a convenient victim. "The life of grace must dodge between the powers." (Loader)

What will happen if we live as though he is the Prophet still, is beyond our control and our foretelling. But if he does not march into our hearts, and cause some severe turmoil, then Easter is just an old story. And we will be unmoved.

Andrew Prior (2017)
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!

Previously on One Man's Web
Matt 21:1-11 - Two Kings in the Land - Sermon Draft based on this page.
Matt 21:1-11 - The Palm Sunday Flash Mob
Matthew 21:1-11 - The Sermon Draft: Palm Sunday 
Matthew 21:1-11 - Tell the Story

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