Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm Sunday, Year C, March 20, 2016
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
We showed a video to our youth Wednesday evening – a clip from a film done awhile ago about Jesus. The part we watched was the huge pilgrimage of thousands of people on foot, approaching Jerusalem. They were headed there to celebrate Passover – the annual festival of freedom and independence from Pharaoh’s oppressive Egyptian empire. In this film, you got the feeling of the claustrophobic crowdedness of the streets.
In the middle of the crowd was Jesus on the donkey. People were waving big palm branches and laying their coats on the path for him. Meanwhile big Marine Corps.-looking Roman soldiers stood looking down from the city wall, and someone I took to be an aristocratic citizen, from a dwelling high in the wall, scowled at the scene below.
The people were shouting:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
The Other Parade
What that film did not show was the other parade. Jesus was coming with the pilgrims from the East side of the city, just across from the hill we call the Mount of Olives. From the West, coming up all the way from his coastal headquarters about 60 miles away, Governor Pontius Pilate was coming along with a cohort of big, shiny, helmeted and shielded Roman soldiers. Unlike Jesus’ little donkey colt, Pilate approached on a big war horse.
He and his soldiers did this every year at Passover. There was already a garrison of Roman soldiers stationed at the Fortress Antonia further up the hill from the temple, keeping a watchful eye on everything, but for Passover, they always brought up reinforcements. Passover was, after all, an independence celebration, performed by people who were not independent, but who had been conquered by Rome.
A show of force, the Romans believed, would tamp down any new thoughts of independence – in other words – revolution. It was not just an imaginary threat. There had been big, bloody revolutions that Rome had put down with brutal force not long before.
So, there were two parades that day, both approaching the city from opposite directions, one with Governor Pilate representing the kingdom of Rome, and the other with Jesus’ supporters calling him the king who was coming in the name of the Lord.
Why no arrest?
One question you might ask is why Pilate did not simply have Jesus arrested right then and there? It is speculation, since we do not know, but easy to imagine the answer.
This was a powder-keg moment. A huge independence celebration with literally a couple of hundred thousand people already out on the streets. Any move against a popular leader – who was not armed – would almost certainly have been the spark that would have exploded into open rebellion. Pilate knew that, and so no arrest was made at the time.
But you have to ask – why would Jesus do that? Why risk getting yourself killed? What was the point of riding a donkey into Jerusalem at the same time of Pilate’s arrival. The answer is that Jesus’ parade was a purposeful mockery. It was an ancient version of street theater.
A Pre-planned Demonstration
We know that the Jesus parade was pre-arranged. The beginning of the story shows that Jesus had pre-planned with the owner to borrow the donkey. He had the coded conversation already worked out in advance. The disciples were to say, if asked, “The Lord needs it” and then they would get the green light.
It is also part of the plan that the donkey is a colt that had never been ridden. I have been around horses as they are being saddle-broken. Animals do not like things on their backs, not saddle blankets, not saddles, and especially not heavy adults. They resist. They react. And once you get on them for the first time, they do not cooperate at all.
The whole scene would have been comic. There is a full grown man on a little donkey who is trying to get him off, not obeying any commands, and certainly not cooperatively waking up the path, as it does in all the movies.
This is part of the mockery. Pilate, coming in power on his big, well-trained battle horse, contrasted with a poor peasant-dressed Jesus on an ornery donkey colt.
Jesus was enacting precisely the words of the prophet Zechariah about a king coming into the city in peace:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
But Why Do it?
But still, we must ask, why do such a dangerous thing as mocking Pilate’s parade that way?
Because Jesus was deadly serious about his opposition to everything that was going on in Jerusalem and at the temple. His opposition was non-violent; it was peaceful, but it was pointed and direct. Jesus was opposed to what scholars now call the Domination System.
I wish I had time to go into detail, but let me just summarize the effects of the system this way. Last week we had the youth take a circle, and make a pie-chart of where they thought their parents’ income went. They estimated what they spent on food, the house, toys, someone even suggested toiletries as an expense.
Then we asked the to take another circle that was pre-divided into thirds and color in two thirds. Then we asked them what would happen in their families if two-thirds of their parent’s money was taken from them each month? They were horrified at the thought. And they should have been. Loosing two-thirds of your income would certainly leave you broke. It is hard to imagine living that way for most of us.
The Domination System in Action
But that is exactly what was happening to the people – to the poor people, the vast majority who lived at subsistence-level. The wealthy elite, including the high priestly families, the aristocratic Sadducee class, and the court of King Herod were collecting the heavy tribute taxes that Rome had laid on them, as they did on all their empire’s peoples. On top of that, they also collected a temple tax.
Now when you hear the word tax, please do not make the school-boy mistake of comparing it to our taxes. These taxes did not build roads, schools, water systems and a justice system. Herod was living lavishly, building whole cities with colored marble colonnades, and palaces in a variety of places, including the famous Masada.
The aristocratic families were gobbling up peasant farms, forcing peasants into debt-slavery, and turning already poor people into virtual slaves. This was called the domination system because it completely dominated the lives of the people. It was oppression; it was injustice; and it was an evil.
The Prophetic Vision of Jesus
By dramatic contrast, Jesus had learned from the Hebrew prophets that God wanted an entirely different state of affairs. The prophets spoke of God’s vision of everyone living under their own vine and fig tree – in other words, on their own land, in peace and shalom, well-being, with no one making them afraid.
But the prophets of old were also highly critical, even oppositional to the kings and leaders who were unjust and oppressive. Here is a tiny example among many like it. These words are from Jeremiah who was specifically attacking those who thought that the temple, since God lived there, would keep them safe, and allow them to get away with almost anything. Jeremiah said,
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings… Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place.… Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
Den of Robbers
“Den of robbers” – that is exactly what Jesus said when, after this parade of mockery, he went into the temple, overturned the tables, drove off the animals, and shut it down. In a symbolic prophetic action, like the old prophets used to do, Jesus temporarily stopped everything. He was saying that the whole system was corrupt and oppressive to the core, robbing the people blind, leaving them in misery.
The Alternative Kingdom
Jesus’ alternative to this was the kingdom of God; the world as it would be if God were king. To people who can embrace that vision of a world of justice and righteousness, who can live as though God is king, then Jesus’ message is gospel: good news.
To those who feel threatened by justice, Jesus is a threat that must be eliminated. Within the week, the forces of Pilate, representing Roman domination, and of the high priest Ciaphas, representing the Jewish aristocracy, will form a coalition, and Jesus will die.
The Two Roads, Diverged
As I was reading this story this week and imagining those two alternative parades with the thousands of pilgrims swelling the streets, I imagined a fork in the road. I imagined the people who wanted to line up with Pilate heading off to the west, and the people who wanted what Jesus wanted moving to the east to join him. That parting of the ways only happened in my imagination, but the choice is real and present.
What is life about? What are we here for? What is the great good that we are living for? Is it wealth and power? Is that what life is about? If so, go join Pilate’s parade.
But if life is more than that, then consider falling in with Jesus’ parade. Maybe it looks ridiculous – with the juvenile colt and the thrift-shop clad emotional peasants, but maybe it is God’s dream. A kingdom of nobodies who know that God loves them, just as they are.
A kingdom of people who think that meekness is blessed. People who do not want to dominate anyone, but who turn the other cheek, go the second mile, who will give you the shirt off their backs.
People who want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and so will forgive you 70 X 7 if that’s what it takes.
A kingdom of people who work publicly and even at risk to stand in the face of the domination system and assertively but non-violently say, “No more.”
A kingdom of people who know that “the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains,” and so, who will “render to Caesar what is his and to God what is his” – leaving Caesar wanting.
A kingdom of people who welcome everyone to the table to share a common loaf and a common cup, without qualification, without any precondition.
Today we celebrate Jesus, who brought us this vision, right from the Hebrew prophets, right from Torah, right from God. Today we join our voices with the people on the Jesus parade saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”