Palm Sunday A 5th April, 2020
We have arrived at Palm Sunday in our march to the Cross and resurrection- but it is such a strange experience, this year. We have no Palm crosses, no palm branches, no procession, we can sing, ‘Ride on, ride on,’ but we can’t hear each other doing it. It’s fascinating to me that here Jesus who normally does a lot of teaching, using words, is acting out the story for the people to see and indeed to participate in. And we have been re-enacting it, to some extent, ever since, but this year the Palm Sunday Rally for Peace and Justice is a virtual one and we are reduced back to words.
So let us talk about what Jesus does! Jesus makes a triumphant entry and he does it very carefully to make a couple of points.
First of all, Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and its foal from a particular person. This has been carefully arranged, even to the point of the password that might be necessary. Matthew, is very careful to tell us that Jesus took both animals, and rode them both, though the mind boggles a bit about how he achieved that! And furthermore Matthew tells us why Jesus does this- it is to fulfil an OT prophesy to the letter. In Zechariah, the King is coming on a donkey, and the foal of a donkey, so that is what Jesus does. The point Jesus is making is that HE is the King that they have been waiting for. There is more to it than that, however. He is also telling them what kind of a King he is- a humble King, coming in peace. If he had been a warrior king, coming in triumph he would be seated on a stallion. This is, as Eugene Boring says, a “conspicuously weak” entry. It is an entry that while it confirms Jesus’ kingship, and his Messiahship at the same time, tries to send the message that what Jesus is about is peace and reconciliation, not strife and conflict and overthrowing the Romans.
Jesus acts, riding into town on a donkey and the disciples and the crowd respond, also in actions. Jerusalem, in this passover week, would have been bursting with pilgrims- they think about 2.5 million of them, crammed into one small city. So there were plenty to form the very large crowd that Matthew describes here. First of all, the disciples take off their cloaks and drape them over the donkeys for Jesus to ride on, then the crowd begin to take off their cloaks and put them on the ground for their King to ride over. They also cut branches off the trees, and lay them down for him. This is a very interesting response. Just as Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, the crowd responds by treating Jesus just like Judas Maccabeus, who was the great conqueror who had driven out the Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes who was corrupting the temple and trying to make the Jewish people worship false gods. When Judas Maccabeus rode into Jerusalem in triumph the people cut branches from the trees and fronds of palm, it tells us specifically, and offered hymns of thanksgiving to God. And just in the same way- about 200 years later, this crowd sings out thanksgiving to God. “Hosanna”, which actually means “O Save us!” and comes from the Psalm we read earlier, Ps 118, but here is more like “Hurrah!” “Hurrah to the Son of David” which, as we know, means that they were hailing him as the Messiah!”. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven”. They are certainly quite carried away, aren’t they? They have their theology just right, this crowd. They understand who Jesus is, Messiah, King and “coming one” or the one who is coming for judgement.
This whole display, Jesus, the donkeys, the crowd waving branches and laying down their cloaks, has a profound influence on their city. As Jesus and the crowd enter from the Mount of Olives side of town, which incidentally also fulfils a prophecy, the whole city was “shaken”. This is a major event. The whole city, all 2.5 million of them, is shaken into a consciousness of Jesus. “Who is this?” they ask- you can imagine it can’t you? There would be some people in the crowd from the city itself who have encountered Jesus before, and lots of pilgrims who have come in from the Galilee region who would know him, but there would also be lots of people who had no idea at all, particularly if they came from the more southern regions. The authorities knew who he was and if they didn’t, they soon would after he overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple and healed lots of people in the temple also. The crowd, who are the well-informed ones, tell the others that he is the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is very much a prophet, in the line of Ezekiel but he is so much more and the crowd knew it- they weren’t treating him as a prophet but as a conquering hero or a Messiah. Is this the first moment of denial, to describe him as “prophet”?
Because that is what is about to follow. We all know it. The crowd who is shouting “Hosanna!” today is shouting “Crucify him!” come Friday. In between these two days Jesus does a lot of healing but even more teaching, particularly teaching that is against the scribes and pharisees, and the chief priests and elders do not like it. Perhaps this crowd who set out so gaily to welcome their King is already regretting their enthusiasm and they settle for calling him a prophet.
It is a sad fact that knowing the truth is not the same as doing the truth, and that is being constantly bourne out in our current crisis, isn’t it?. The actions of this large crowd proclaimed Jesus as their King even if they denied it in words. But unfortunately, their actions a few days later, spitting, taunting and deriding Jesus after calling for his death showed that their hearts were not really changed. They didn’t really believe in Jesus as the King who was coming to bring peace.
As I read this passage every year, I am saddened by the contrast between this triumphal entry and the humiliating death. It challenges me to make sure that what I believe about Jesus, my theology, is shown by my actions. I don’t want to be a person who claims that Jesus is my King, waves my palms and then behaves as if Jesus has no bearing on my life. I need to make sure that the way I act is in harmony with what I say with my lips. I believe in Jesus who is the King who came to bring peace and reconciliation, not strife and conflict, so in my actions I need to try to bring peace as well. I believe in Jesus who taught me to love my neighbour as myself and indeed to put myself out for another just as the Good Samaritan did. I believe in Jesus who through his death on the cross came to restore the relationship with God my Father and I need to repent and put myself right with God and with my fellow human beings. And I need to do these things more than ever at this perilous time.
We are in a very strange space at the moment. We can’t do Easter they way we usually do, but this week as we think about Jesus’ journey towards the cross and resurrection we have the opportunity to be people of love and peace, of faith and hope in these very difficult times. I pray that you will be richly blessed by the King of Peace.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton