Sermon for April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday A
Audio will be available here for several weeks.
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 fulfil 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.”
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. He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Why does it matter to keep telling the Palm Sunday story in the context of a global pandemic? It does matter. This story goes directly to the heart of the issue raised by the Coronavirus pandemic: the problem of suffering, pain, and death.
This story is one of the most misunderstood stories of the Bible, in my opinion. What kind of story is it? Is it the story of a triumph?
It has been called the Triumphal Entry story; is that correct? In the days of the Roman empire, a general who had just won a war was rewarded with a “triumph;” a public parade in which he was honored as king for a day, and given a laurel crown to wear.
You may have seen pictures of the great arch in Rome commemorating Titus’ victory over the Jews after the Jewish revolt which started about 30 years after Jesus walked the earth.
On the arch are reliefs showing the parade; the victors are carrying the spoils of war, like the menorah taken from the sacked temple in Jerusalem.
Is that what Jesus’ donkey ride was; a triumphal entry? I think it is obvious that it was not.
As I was trying to think of a similar story, I remembered another parade that may help us understand this text. On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat, then president of Egypt was attending the annual victory parade which celebrated Egypt’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal which helped launch the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
As he watched his military ride by, one soldier suddenly turned to face the grandstand, shouldered his assault rifle, and emptied it, killing Sadat, along with eleven others. So, that parade of celebration is now remembered as a time of death.
Jesus did not die during his donkey ride into Jerusalem, but it was likely the event that sealed his fate, according to some scholars.
Why did the Roman government arrest and execute Jesus? We are all familiar with the gospel stories which tell us that it was the Jewish leaders who conspired to convince Pilate to crucify Jesus, but why did those leaders want him dead, and on what basis did Pilate comply? Why was Jesus such a threat?
For years, Christians have read this story with a theological explanation in mind. We have read it as a story of a parade honoring Jesus, whom we call “King.” We say, with the crowd, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But that theological reading makes it hard to see what is going on here and why it matters so much. Let us put the story in context.
Jesus and tens of thousands of other people were in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. It was Passover. Passover was like the 4th of July for Jews. It was their Independence Day. Passover celebrates the night on which the Jews escaped from Egypt where they had been enslaved for over 400 years.
But what was the context in which they celebrated that memory? In the time of Jesus, Israel had been conquered by the Romans. For the Israelites, it was almost like being back in Egypt. They were under occupation, like France under the Nazis during the Second World War.
The Germans prohibited their celebration of Bastille Day during the war for obvious reasons. Remembering your independence from your overlords makes people under occupation more likely to revolt.
The Romans did not prohibit the celebration of Passover, but it did make them nervous. So, although there was a permanent garrison of Roman troops in Jerusalem, during the Passover festival, Pilate reinforced them with troops from his headquarters down on the Mediterranean coast.
Imagine Pilate, on a big white warhorse, leading his troops with their swords, shields, spears, and helmets all shining in the sun, clanking and stamping into Jerusalem from the West.
Meanwhile, perhaps even simultaneously, Jesus comes from the East, from the Mount of Olives, riding into the city on a little donkey colt. If you have ever seen someone try to ride an animal that has not yet been saddle-broken, you can imagine what it must have looked like; it was probably ridiculous — especially to see a full-grown adult on an untrained donkey colt.
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. Most of the words in this story are about the donkey.
Jesus was riding a donkey colt into the capital city accompanied by cheering crowds and their hymns of praise.
They were waving palm branches as their ancestors had done in another historic occasion of liberation, and naming Jesus “Son of [ancient king] 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, like Pilate’s. It looks like mockery. It was a mockery. It was intentional parody.
Was Jesus being celebrated as a King that day? Yes, he was. And remember, “King of the Jews” was the mocking title Pilate ordered to be displayed on his cross.
This is the point Matthew was trying to make when, as he wrote this story, he said, “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.“
But was that all a mistake? Was Jesus an actual threat to anyone? Wasn’t his kingdom, as the gospels report him saying to Pilate, “not of this world” and therefore, without anyone fighting for it, as Jesus pointed out?
Wasn’t Jesus’ kingdom all about “turning the other cheek” and “blessed are the meek”? Why would that kind of a king threaten anyone? Why would anyone want him dead?
Because of what he did when he arrived. He went directly to the temple, and, Matthew tells us, Jesus
“drove out all who were selling and, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
New Testament scholars have pointed out that the den is not where the robbers are robbing people; the den is where they hide the loot. By driving out the money changers and the dove sellers, Jesus was temporarily shutting down the temple.
Why? To make a long story short, the temple was also the national bank, the place where the records of debts were kept, and the repository for taxes.
The people running it and benefiting from it were the minority elite aristocratic class. These were the landed families who were, in the time of Jesus, increasing their estates by driving peasants off their land through debt foreclosure.
These were the ones living in luxury from the temple taxes everyone was obliged to pay.
These were the ones who were collaborating with the Romans, just as the Vichy government did with the Nazis.
These were the ones, in other words, who were instruments of oppression; these were the ones who were the reason that the people who gathered to hear Jesus were hungry and needed to be fed with fish and bread.
These were the ones who show up in Jesus’ parable as day-laborers who got paid whatever the landlord wanted to pay them.
In other words, the “meekness” that Jesus advocated did not mean passivity in the face of injustice.
The love of enemy that Jesus called for did not include turning a blind eye to oppression. Jesus’ methods were non-violent, that much is certain.
But Jesus was leading a resistance movement that had direct economic implications for the power-elites running the system. He confronted them on the Passover day of independence, and they got the message.
So, this parade of mockery, and the temple action that followed, provoked a backlash of violence. The elites got Jesus crucified.
But the violence did not snuff out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Jesus’ words and his vision of a reconciled humanity live on, as people gather around inclusive tables, celebrating God’s unconditional love that binds them together into a new humanity.
So, it is not wrong for the church to think of Palm Sunday as a day of celebration, a day to honor a king. But we must not make the mistake that has been made for so many years of triumphalism — as if Jesus’ kingdom was of this world.
Jesus is king, but his kingdom, as he said, is “among us;” it is “within us;” it is “at hand.” That is what we act out as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even in this awkward way, each of us at home.
That is what we live-out, as we make 1400 muffins, as the team did this week, for the Sack Lunch Program that feeds so many in this city.
That is the kingdom we show our allegiance to every time we pick up the phone or write the email or send the text to people we are checking in on, in this time of physical distancing.
This is the kingdom we affirm as we hold up each other in prayer.
Why did Jesus die? Jesus died fighting injustice and oppression. But his death was not a tragic failure. Two thousand years later, all of those elites in Israel are long forgotten.
But in Jesus’ name, millions of meals have been served to the poor. In Jesus’ name, people have marched for justice, for freedom, and full inclusion.
In Jesus’ name many people have embraced the ethics of non-violence. Because of Jesus’ vision, many people have engaged spiritual practices like meditation that helped them confront their self-seeking egos.
In Jesus’ name, thousands of hospitals and clinics have been started all over the world.
We are not triumphalist. We do not believe that celebrating Jesus as king excludes the notion of God’s work in other religions.
Neither do we believe that the Spirit is unable to lure people of no particular religious faith to act in loving, even in self-sacrificial ways, just as so many are doing in response to the pandemic.
But this is the day we celebrate Jesus’ demonstrated willingness to sacrifice his security on behalf of the people he loved.
In that sense, we can join the crowds saying, “Hosanna! God save us” and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”