Gospel for Palm Sunday: Matthew 21:1-11
20:17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’...
Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord,* have mercy on us, Son of David!’ 31The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ 32Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ 33They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ 34Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
21:1 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.’
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry 16and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once.
By the way...
Passover is celebration of what has happened: an ancient life-giving and nation-defining moment of salvation. The Passover was also, and is now, hope for the future. It is re-enactment and remembering in the hope of better life, despite the cruelty of Empire. Just so, Easter is a celebration of what has happened: a celebration of an ancient, life-giving event, which defines a people of God, and saves them. And Easter is hope for the future. It is re-enactment, and remembering of our hope for a better humanity despite the cruelty and failures of Empire, and despite our own many personal failures. So as we enter Jerusalem this week, for what do we hope, and how do we act as life parades before us?
On the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem just prior to Passover. He does not walk in, as a Passover pilgrim would, and should. He rides in as a king. But not as the king of an Empire, on a warhorse; he rides humble on a donkey. The crowds know and do not know, see and do not see, what this means. In Jericho the crowd rebukes the blind men sitting by the Way (kathēmenoi para tēn hodon[i]) – two men they imagine cannot possibly see anything– when those men call him "Son of David." But the crowd shouts "Hosanna to the Son of David," on the way into Jerusalem. The crowds are not only fickle (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, Davies p341) but unseeing, and uncomprehending.
The irony in Matthew's telling of the story is savage. Davies says
in the Talmud, 'outside the wall of Bethphage' means 'outside Jerusalem',
[Bethphage] was therefore ritually part of the Holy City. (p343)
So at the place where the Messiah will stand to rescue Jerusalem— Matthew says Bethphage is "at the Mount of Olives," the place where
when the lord will become King over all the Earth... his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives— (Zechariah 14:9, 4)
at that place and time, Matthew already tells us the city is a house of unripe figs. (The meaning of Beth-phage). And then, in the city, Jesus finds the 'fig tree' of Israel and its temple lacks any fruit at all. (Matt 21:12-14, 19)
Davies says that immediately he enters Jerusalem as King
Jesus, now playing the prophet, next enters the temple, the centre of the world, and the symbol of Jewish national identity, and there, through violent deed and scriptural word, declares divine disfavour. The disfavour is not directed against the temple as such but against those who have corrupted the institution, who have prevented the temple from being what God intended, a house of prayer. (p350)
This seems to me to be not quite accurate. There is divine disfavour, and certainly corruption, but the temple has not merely been corrupt. The temple, and the people, have not yet seen, nor have they understood— not fully, what it is that God offers humanity. The temple, even at its best, has not yet seen its purpose; it has not yet reached that for which it aspires; at its best it confesses it is straining towards an approximation of mystery, but that it does not know.
And the crowds, even those who most clearly see some difference of Jesus, still hail him in the mode of Empire. They have not yet seen that he is the end of Empire. The laying of branches and clothes on the road— to mark out his Way (en tē hodō) signifies this.
as clothes represent their wearers
their position beneath another feat means submission. (Davies p306)
But there is not only submission here; the clothes and branches seek to mark out the Way of Jesus who should by rights enter the temple and make sacrifice so that he is vindicated as King and Messiah. Instead, as Davies says,
Jesus does not sacrifice in the temple but there protests against the abuse of the cult. So [making sacrifice in the temple] does not validate him; he rather invalidates it, or rather those who run it. (p343)
[Addendum: I have added this bracketed paragraph after further reflection. Firstly, to make clear what Davies is saying about is entry to Jerusalem, I have added more of his text:
Matthew 21.1-11 is one of many texts that recount the triumphal arrival (parousia) of a ruler or military hero. Such texts, which mostly depict military triumphs, tend to exhibit a cluster of motifs, including the approach of the king, public acclamation/celebration (sometimes with song), entrance or city, and cultic activity (including the cleansing of cultic pollution) – all items found in our passage and its sequel. Moreover, 1 Macc 13.49-53, like Matthew 21.8, refers to branches. Thus the synoptic story belongs to a type. Three points, however, should be observed. First, Jesus' entry is not one of military triumph. Indeed, our story gains much of its force from the fact that the central figure, the kingly son of David, is 'meek' and has not in any conventional sense conquered anybody or anything, nor is he about to do so. Second, the synoptics lay great stress on the king's animal(s), and this has parallels only in 1 Kings 1.32-40 and Zachariah 9.9. In the other sources cited the mode of transportation is not so much is mentioned third, Jesus does not sacrifice in the temple but there protests against the abuse of the cult. So this last does not validate him; he rather invalidates it, or rather those who run it. (p43)
I related the third point to my partner, and my thought (above) that the crowds actually seek to direct him to make sacrifice and uphold the cult, so that the cult validates him, where as he, in fact, invalidates the cult. She said to me what he does is be the sacrifice himself, just a little later on— that very different sacrifice made by one who has "dis-covered" the hidden nature of our violence. (cf Alison The Joy of Being Wrong p66ff for his use of the word dis-cover) Jesus, the one who is innocent, the one who truly was God's son, (Matt 27.54) shows the arbitrary nature, and the unfairness, and the injustice, of the sacrificial system, and therefore he destroys it. He shows it is based on a fallacy, the fallacy of guilt. Whereas, we are all guilty, no one is more guilty than another, and the only answer to all our mess is God's abiding and lavish love for all people just the same. If we are to follow him into Jerusalem— carry the cross— we are finally, if we are unlucky, called to be one more showing of innocence.]
Davies is too gentle. The temple, as it was conceived, is invalidated on Palm Sunday. It's just that no one has learned, yet, that humble— God's Way— means the end of hierarchy. No one has understood, yet, that
it will not be so among you;
but whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant
and whoever wishes to be first among you
must be your slave;
just as the son of man came not to be served
but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28)
The Palm Sunday crowd still sees the coming King as one who will 'Lord it over them' and as 'a great one' in some way. (Matthew 20:25)
It is only after his death and resurrection that the crowd— that we— can understand what they have witnessed on the way to the city. He has already told his disciples
the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes,
and they will condemn him to death;
19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and flogged and crucified;
and on the third day he will be raised.’ (Matthew 20:18-19)
But it is not until this actually happens that they, too, can begin to understand what a humble entry to the city is, and that they can understand just what it means when the lord stands on the Mount of Olives. Only then can the temple, the centre of the universe, be seen for what it is: life lived humbly as Jesus lived it; life lived— beginning to be lived, seeking to be lived— without deference to death, and without being in the thrall of empire and death.
Which brings us to the passing parade of life lived in the presence of COVID-19, and all its complexity and confusion.
The crowds are fickle and lost. They are looking for a leader, panic buying toilet paper with all its symbolic cleansing, but then flocking to the crowded beachheads of infection; keeping the kids home from school, but then buying ice cream from a van going house to house while its driver hands over cash and ice cream in the same hand; crying for leadership and safety, but then spitting and coughing on those seeking to keep them safe.
And entering our city on TV screens and phones come the messiahs. The loudest of them all is terrifying to watch: dissolute and sybaritic, he is at best narcissistic, rambling, and disengaged; at worst, we wonder if he is showing signs of cognitive decline. Yet the crowds have given him his highest ever approval rating. Who is this!?
Davies says the question 'Who is this?' on the way into Jerusalem does not ask for a name, whether it be a Trump or a Bolsonaro, or a Morrison, or an Ardern. It asks, "What should we make of this person?" (p347)
The clanking of legionnaires armour behind Pilate and their trumpet blasts; the acolytes massed behind Caesar on TV, with their carefully bland faces; the blaring loudspeaker with its insufferable rendition of Greensleeves promising ice cream instead of death, as it rolls past my house— all this passing parade is distraction and denial. It is empty promise that we can have glory without humility, and without the way of Jesus.
We can only claim any inkling of what it means to welcome Jesus to the centre of our universe if we practise our social distancing to keep others safe; if our heart burns with anger and quails with fear around those who place us at risk, but we help them anyway; if we go full of fear to our hospital job or our checkout counter, but serve anyway. In such humility and compassion, perhaps we will see a little more of the meaning of Easter, and comprehend a little more of life's parade, and choose more wisely which Way we will follow.
Andrew Prior (2020 – Palm Sunday)
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!
Also on One Man's Web
Matt 21:1-11 - The Palm Sunday Flash Mob (2011)
Matthew 21:1-11 - The Sermon Draft: Palm Sunday (2011)
Matthew 21:1-11 - Tell the Story (2014)
Matthew 21:1-11 - Palm Sunday Misgivings (2017)
Matthew 21:1-11 - Two Kings in the Land? Who is our King? (2017)
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