Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm Sunday, Year A, April 9, 2017
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“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.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The 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!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin is famously concerned about his image. Kiosks in Russia sell posters of him looking macho. He rides horses bare chested, he scuba dives, he carries a hunting rifle with a scope, he is victorious in martial arts; clearly, he wants to be known as a man’s man: the very image of masculine authority.
Which is why his government recently outlawed photo no. 4072 which depicts Putin wearing makeup, false eyelashes, red lipstick. Authoritarian rulers do not take well to mockery. They never have.
Part of our anti-Nazi propaganda effort in the Second World War included spreading a rumor that Hitler survived an attempted assassination plot. The bomb, meant to kill him, merely blew his pants off. The image of Hitler with his pants blown off was a mockery, and planting that image in everyone’s mind undermined images of him in his his stiff-armed, invincible-looking, Nazi salute.
Palm Sunday Mockery
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, which is many things, including a mockery. Jesus rides into the city on a donkey. The crowds are his people; they are the ones that have been following Jesus in large numbers.
They are on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Jewish Independence Day, which is what Passover celebrated: Independence from slavery to the Egyptian Empire.
You can imagine that the authorities might be tense about large crowds of oppressed peasants commemorating the history of their liberation, especially since the Roman Empire was now their master.
Every year, during the Passover festival, governor Pilate and a whole unit of Roman troops marched into Jerusalem on their big white war horses to tamp down any thoughts of revolution, and so far, it was working.
What was Jesus doing on that donkey, that day? This whole scene was pre-arranged. Matthew tells us all about the set-up with the donkey and its colt and the owner. In fact, most of the words in this story are about the donkey.
Jesus was riding a donkey into the capital city accompanied by cheering crowds and their hymns of praise. They are waving palm branches like their ancestors had done in another historic occasion of liberation, and naming Jesus “Son of David, ” which sounds a lot like calling him the heir apparent. But he is on a humble little donkey instead of a big white horse. It looks like mockery.
The New King Arrives
Everybody in those days knew what to expect, when a new ruler came to town. There was the grand entry parade, accompanied by cheering crowds. There would have been acclamations in musical hymns, followed by speeches of welcome, by the local elite, who were positioning themselves to have power in the new administration. There would be a sacrifice at the temple as the newcomer takes power.
Jesus makes the grand entrance, but there are no welcoming elites making speeches. In fact Matthew tells us that the Jerusalem-ites are in turmoil. The local aristocracy has long been allied with king Herod, the Roman client-king, so they share Rome’s anxiety about peasant revolutions.
Neither does Jesus go to the temple to make sacrifice. In fact, he goes to the temple and shuts it down, at least temporarily, or, we could say, symbolically.
What is going on here? Jesus, from the beginning has been proclaiming the kingdom of God – or kingdom of Heaven, which both mean the same thing. Jesus has been preaching the gospel, or literally, “god news” that there is an alternative to Caesar’s kingdom and an alternative to Herod’s kingdom.
Empire’s Deadly Reaction
Most historical Jesus scholars agree that it was that donkey ride, and what Jesus did at the temple, that got him killed. The Roman governor and the local elites both got the message that they were being mocked. The crowds were huge. They felt threatened.
It appears that they took about a week to decide how to act. Probably they were trying to figure out if Jesus’ people were armed for a violent revolt. Having concluded that they were not, all they had to do was go after Jesus.
In the case of violent movements, Roman policy was that you have to find and kill everyone. For non-violent movements, you just take out the one at the top (as they had recently done in the case of John the baptist).
According to the gospels, Jesus expected the reaction he got. He understood that an open and direct confrontation with the powers that be would be fatal. But he also believed in resurrection. He believed if he died, God would vindicate him. To quote from another protest movement,
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
We are here to celebrate today. The empire of Rome has come and gone. The kingdom of Herod would not even have been remembered if it were not for his role in the story of of Jesus, the story the kingdom of God. Today we celebrate Jesus as our king.
King and kingdom seem archaic, even quaint in the world of democracy. But as a direct alternative to a political power structure called a kingdom, as Rome was called, it is perfect.
But if the kingdom of God is a kingdom, then it is unlike the kingdoms of the world. The king rides a humble donkey.
The king, instead of living off the backs of the peasants, feeds the multitudes.
The king, instead of making life harder, shorter and more painful for the people, heals their illnesses with compassionate embrace.
Instead of walling himself off in a guarded palace, he walks among the poor, eats their food, blesses their children, and reaches out to them regardless of their gender, their nationality, or their purity status.
This is called love. This is compassion. This is God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
You cannot love someone who is hungry, and not feed them. You cannot love someone who is a slave, without working for their freedom. You cannot love someone who is suffering, without asking why they are suffering. And once you know why, you cannot love without addressing the cause of their suffering.
So it was not enough for Jesus to stay up in Galilee, teaching, healing, and showing the way of compassion. He had to go the source of the plundering of the peasants and to mock it, saying, we do not accept your authority. God is king; and God wills justice. God wills liberation.
God and Liberation
God wills our spiritual liberation from guilt-based, shame-based, fear-based religion. Jesus taught us to know God as Abba, God is love.
God wills our personal liberation from discrimination, from exclusion and from alienation. God invites us all to the banquet table of inclusive community, as Jesus demonstrated.
God wills our material liberation from oppression, injustice and violence. Why, after reading the, huge biblical narratives of the exodus from slavery in Egypt did we not see this for so long? Why, after Jesus’ direct confrontation of Rome and of Herod did we think he was just about personal salvation?
The empires of the world have one ultimate weapon: death. Jesus stared down the power of empire to intimidate into non-action, by walking, eyes open, into the jaws of death. Without embracing their methods of violence, Jesus looked empire in the eye and said, “God alone is king.”
So, if God is king, as Jesus taught us, then blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, and those that hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are those who work to make God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. If God’s care can best be seen in creation, in “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field,” then blessed are those who care for God’s creation.
And if Jesus rode a mocking donkey into the capital city on Independence Day and confronted the powers that be, then blessed are those who bear the fruit of the seeds they tried to bury by killing him. Blessed are those who today confront the powers that be when they work against the values of the kingdom of God.
Today we celebrate the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. We still say,
“Hosanna! God save us.”
And we still say,
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”