I’ve been thinking a lot this week, as I’ve reflected on this text, about my recent trip to Israel. Our group took that short, 20 minute walk from the hill they call the Mount of Olives, down into the little valley and up the other side into the old city of Jerusalem, retracing Jesus’ path.
When you start out you are on the Mont of Olives looking across at Jerusalem, first you see the city wall, but the scene is dominated by that huge gold Dome of the Rock mosque. Actually the walls that surround the old city that you see today are built on the huge foundation stones that were there in Jesus day, but the rest of the walls were actually built by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century after he conquered the Christian Crusaders.
The Land of dispute
Jews, Muslims, and Christians – we three, and each of our long histories, all come together in that one small place, like crowded riders in an airport terminal shuttle. I would be willing to bet that more human blood has been spilt on that location in Palestine than on any other piece of real estate on earth. Jebusites, Jews, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, by the thousands and thousands and thousands have killed and have been killed over the centuries as that city has been built and captured and rebuilt and re-captured again and again. And of course it remains hotly disputed to this day.
No wonder that when Jesus took his ride that day, as the crowds started letting the word “king” sail from their lips, as in “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, the Pharisees got nervous. For heaven’s sake, it was Passover time – the place was crowded like downtown Mobile, Alabama on Mardi Gras – of course the situation was volatile. Passover was an independence holiday (remember Moses and the Red Sea crossing?) – it got people’s hopes up; the Romans knew that. Like Mobile, they put extra police on overtime to be ready for problems. The Pharisees told Jesus to tell the crowds to be quiet – in effect saying, “Tell them to cool it; do you want to get us all killed?”
Jesus was not standing still with a bullhorn in his hands when they said that – he was on a donkey, in motion, on a journey he had been on for a long time before that day, and now, the momentum was unstoppable. Have you ever tried to stop a donkey going downhill, half scared to death, carrying its first passenger, surrounded by people shouting and waving? Have you every tried to quiet a Mardi Gras parade crowd? It wasn’t going to happen.
But the Pharisees were right to be worried. The people out there on the parade routes were playing with fire: spreading gasoline and lighting matches. Riding on a donkey colt down the Mount of Olives and up into Jerusalem was acting out a set of blocking instructions that came right out of the prophet’s play called “Here is how the king and his new kingdom will come” (actually it’s called the Prophet Zechariah). Everybody recognized that play. It was like street theater out there.
And this business of rolling out the “red carpet” made of everyone’s coats: come on! You only do that for kings! This is a “to the barricades” moment. There is no way to stop the inevitable conflict to come. The only question is who will be standing when it’s over?
What were they thinking?
Looking back, it almost seems crazy that the people waving and shouting that day thought that they could actually beat the whole Roman army, win independence, and install a new king. But they did think so. After all, not that long ago, they had beaten the “whole” Greek army (at least the Seleucids). Their conquering hero of that revolt, Judah (or in Greek, Judas) Maccabee had ridden his victory horse into Jerusalem in a strikingly similar way to the roar of the crowds. People who beat the Greeks could beat the Romans; right?
Is that what they were thinking? Was Jesus just getting swept up in nationalistic revolutionary fever?
I love the way Luke tells us this story, because he enables us to see the story behind the story. This is not just an out-of-control mob scene.
The Point of the Preparations
Did you notice how much time Luke spends giving us details about the preparation for this donkey ride? There is more information about the preparation than there is about the parade itself! Luke lets us hear Jesus giving his disciples directions – where to go, what they will find there, what to say if asked any questions. And then, we hear it all as it happens – how they go, what they find, the answer they give; what’s that all about?
Luke is helping us to see that behind the story of the fervor of the crowds, the downhill rush to an enthronement of a national hero, new-king story is a different story. It is a very methodical story, intentionally crafted down to the minutest detail. It is the story of what God is doing that day in Jerusalem.
God has a plan for a king to come into Jerusalem. He has been planning this for a long time – yes, since the prophets first wrote the script, casted the donkey and blocked out the stage directions. God’s well-planned, well-prepared story is not being rushed or pushed. It is coming along exactly to plan, down to the detail. But it is a different story. God’s story is not about violent revolution in support of a nationalist agenda, but it is indeed a story about a coming king.
So, because this is a “king is coming” story, actually it is right celebrate with a parade. It is right to take of your coat and throw it down to carpet the king’s path. It is right to sing, “Hosanna” and wave palm branches (even if those details come by way of other gospels). It is right to shout out the words of scripture:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
It is right, as long as you know the second line that cannot be separated from it:
“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Sounds a lot like what the angels sang at the birth of this new king, doesn’t it? And it should! Let the praises ring!
Jesus confirmed that praise was fitting on the day of that fateful donkey ride; in fact, if people stopped praising, he said the very rocks would cry out.
Well, in some ways the rocks do cry out. The rocks in that wall around Jerusalem, the rocks of Herod’s foundation, the rocks of the “Christian” crusaders, the Muslim Ottoman rocks, all cry out. Throughout the centuries they have all dripped with blood. If there is any place on earth that has known less peace, I cannot imagine it.
It did not have to be that way. There is an alternative to this ugly, brutal world of violence and death. A new king rode in to the holy city, not a war horse, but a young donkey, to start a new kingdom; to be its new king. It is a kingdom of peace because it is the kingdom of God.
The King’s Kingdom
In this kingdom, people from East and West, from North and South will learn to call each other kin and sit at a common table together. In this kingdom, dark skinned and light skinned people will learn to beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks. They will share the land instead of filling it up with victim’s graves and building new dividing walls across it.
This will not be the kingdom of Me and Mine, and Us and Our Kind looking out for Our selfish selves. In this new alternative kingdom, God has planned down to the detail that there is special care for the weaker members of the family; the widows, the orphans, and the undocumented strangers.
Jesus has spent his whole adult life, up to this point, modeling the behavior that flows out of the values of this alternative kingdom. He has shared meals with outcasts, he has fed hungry people and brought healing to sick people. He has broken through barrier walls of gender and of age. And he has confronted every system of oppression that has been hurting people: traditions of discrimination, laws that enforced the status quo in favor of the powerful, and even religious institutions that existed mainly to perpetuate themselves rather than serve the needs of the people.
It did not have to be the way it was. By the time Luke wrote this story, those stones were crying out from blackened piles of rubble; the revolution finally found a champion who rode a horse into battle, and Rome was the one left standing at the end.
Today, Palm Sunday, is a day on which to celebrate the coming of the King, to sing Hosanna, to wave palm branches, and to shout “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” on one condition. That we have put our allegiance on his side. That we have bent the knee under his sword and become citizens in his kingdom. That we have repented of our selfish, waring ways, and have embraced his kingdom of peace. Perhaps the day should begin with surrender before the celebration. Perhaps we should wave the white flag before we pick up the palm.
Painting credit: GF [sam] W a g n e r