Yr C ~ Palm Sunday ~ Luke 19:28-40
Try to picture the scene. Jesus is with his disciples on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and they and thousands of other faithful Jewish folks are making a pilgrimage to the holy city for the biggest and most important religious festival of their year – Passover – an event that Jesus and his disciples are journeying to attend.
Jesus has been toiling away for a couple of years, preaching, teaching, and healing all over the region, spreading his message about this alternative way to live in and experience the world – a way he called the Kingdom of God.
This kingdom would be very different from the one that seemed to be ruling the day in their time.
It wouldn’t be about “power-over” it would be about “power-with”!
It would be a way of living that was fully grounded in love for God and love for neighbour.
Sadly, it was a kingdom that was pretty impossible to imagine actually happening considering their current status as being occupied by the Roman Empire and being oppressed at every turn.
And, perhaps most significant for today’s scripture reading, it was a kingdom that was fully resonant with the ideas that the festival of Passover celebrated – remembering how the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and how God was said to be displeased by that, and at Moses’ instruction those who were faithful and put sacrificial blood on their doorways would be “passed over” when the power of God came to punish those who were not faithful.
Now, there’s a whole lot of theological ground to cover in the Passover story, and we don’t have the time to unpack it all right now – suffice to say that it’s a story where the faithful win and the oppressors are defeated in the name of God. It’s an alternative to the conventional understanding of power in the world.
Jesus is a smart guy!
He knows he can leverage the Passover vibe and that it will amplify his Kingdom of God message.
The Romans are pretty smart too, and they know that the Passover celebration is a direct provocation to their imperial power, so they allow it to go on but they establish a formidable and intimidating military presence in the city to remind the pilgrims that they can have their festival but the Romans aren’t going anywhere!
Jesus knows that the Roman military procession will be parading in full regalia through the streets to establish their dominance.
So Jesus decides to organize what one might call a bit of political street theatre.
You could make a case that the jubilant parade Jesus and his followers are having is just celebratory and innocent.
But I don’t think you have a very good case!
I think he’s doing political street theatre here.
Now, he can’t actually hold a protest march where they carry signs denouncing some malevolent oppressive system. He can’t make placards that say “Romans go home!” or “Caesar is a geezer!” That kind of thing would get squashed in a heartbeat.
Jerusalem is teeming with Jewish pilgrims and it’s also teeming with legions of heavily armed Roman soldiers who will keep the peace by any means necessary. So Jesus cannot actively protest and confront.
But he can practice a little passive aggressive behaviour!
He can have what looks like a simple parade, but when the symbolism of it is looked at we start to realize that he’s actually being quite provocative.
He instructs his disciples to get him a colt, a donkey, so he can ride into the city. Why a donkey?
Could it be because Jesus knows Pilate, the Roman governor, will be riding in on a mighty steed? The powerful, and the royal, ride on stallions – Jesus will ride a donkey. He’s turning power on its head.
Plus, in Zechariah 9:9-12 the prophet wrote about a vision of a new king ushering in a new era by riding into town unconventionally on a donkey. Symbolism matters!
Bystanders to the Roman imperial procession might bow their heads as a sign of deference to power – Jesus’ followers lay their cloaks down before him, symbolically giving him the red carpet treatment, but it’s all voluntary and out of love.
And more than that, one’s cloak is one’s protection, so removing it makes one vulnerable – not the usual response to encountering power.
As they crest the Mount of Olives and start the final leg toward the city it says, Luke 19:37-38 – the whole multitude of the disciples [notice it’s a huge group now!] 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!”
They’re quoting Psalm 118 – a victory psalm that celebrates defeating enemies while enjoying God’s favour. Again, this is no accident. It’s calculated street theatre. Psalm 118 also includes the “Hosanna” language – which means “save us now” – and talks of waving branches (which is where we get much of our Palm Sunday imagery from). I’m not sure why Luke’s telling doesn’t include that when it clearly includes other aspects of the psalm. Nonetheless, the connection to the psalm and the prophets would have been clear for the other hundreds of Jews making the pilgrimage along that same road.
What I find fascinating in this is that while I argue that this is calculated political street theatre the only people in on it are Jesus and his core disciples, and possibly some of the wider group of followers. By and large, what happened was that as they enacted this theatre piece pilgrims along the road were swept up in it and joined the parade.
I don’t know about you but if a commotion happens along a road I’m walking and a large, boisterous crowd appears I’m not sure I’m going to be very quick to jump in unless I understood the reason for it and agreed with it.
But that’s the genius of this theatre piece!
Jesus chose symbols that clearly communicated to those along the road, and it was a pointed anti-oppressors message, and one that was done right under their noses.
It’s no wonder that some in the crowd – some Pharisees no less, suggesting possibly that even some Pharisees were sympathetic to Jesus’ Kingdom of God movement – some were worried the parade was too loud and too overtly provocative, so they suggested to Jesus that he turn down the heat a bit.
Jesus’ response is epic!
Luke 19:40 Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
God’s kingdom, this alternative to how the world’s power works, this restoration to how the world’s power is supposed to work but has been corrupted, is so interwoven into the very fabric of existence that if we weren’t proclaiming it with our lips and actions that even the stones, and the trees, and the animals, and all of creation would be shouting, shrieking even (as the Hebrew suggests here) about the truth and reality of it!
If only we’d listen!
That’s where our reading today stops. The next scene though is really important, because then, at the gates, Jesus paused and reflected for a moment.
He realized that the task was too great.
He knew that no matter what he did or said he could not bring about this Kingdom of God that he so passionately embodied.
He knew that the people were cheering and singing now but when the street theatre piece was over they’d probably all go back to what they were about before.
He saw that the Romans would continue to oppress and the religious authorities would continue to hold up their systems – maybe because of power, or maybe because change just seemed too hard.
And in that moment Jesus looked at this holy city of Jerusalem, and wept.
And he said, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, just after today’s reading)
And realizing that his teaching and actions weren’t going to change the story Jesus turned his donkey around, shook the dust off of his sandals, and went back home.
No. That’s not what happened.
Despite all that opposition and impossibility he didn’t retreat to safety – he ingressed.
That’s a fancy way to say he went in. And his going in meant everything.
Later that same day of Jesus’ now famous ingression, in Luke’s telling Jesus went to the Temple and engaged in some active aggression! He kicked over tables and chased people out – possibly with a whip!
So much for the subtlety of passive aggressive street theatre!
I guess he snapped. I’m sure we can all relate.
But that’s not our story today. Today we’re still at the gates, choosing.
If we go in, we know that there will be incredibly hard things awaiting.
Every year we tackle this story on the Sunday that begins Holy Week.
Every year we stand at the gates.
Every year we have to make the same choice that Jesus faced.
Will we ingress?
Jesus’ decision to enter through the gates may have been the greatest silent sermon ever.
His mere presence, standing physically for a new way, meant everything.
His mere presence, a provocation, because it challenged the powers that be by exposing their lack of integrity, compassion, and humanity.
His mere presence, even without preaching a word, spoke volumes.
His mere presence, stepping through that gate, making that simple ingress, changed the world!
I don’t know if he had foreknowledge of the coming week’s events or not, but he wasn’t stupid – he certainly knew his provocations would come at a price.
The difference was that he was willing to face the consequences.
He was willing to give his all for this Kingdom of God.
He was willing to enter in, no matter what.
Instead of being passive aggressive you might say that he was being passive ingressive!
His willingness to ingress, to simply move forward, to have the courage of his convictions, is a tremendous message – to everyone – to his followers that day, to pilgrims along the way watching, to the powers that be (both the imperial powers and the religious establishment that he was now challenging, again merely by his presence).
And it’s a tremendous message to us, today.
We’re at the gates too – the gates to Holy Week.
We’ve made the long journey through the season of Lent, digging deep into the theology of psalms and pondering what they mean for us today.
And now we have a choice to make.
Will we make the ingress?
One advantage we have is that we know how the rest of the week goes.
We know about the coming challenges, gifts, connections, betrayals, and agony.
And we also know how the story ends a week from now – in glorious Resurrection at Easter.
Every year I make this joke (with a little hashtag of #kiddingnotkidding) – and yes, it’s a little passive aggressive. I joke that people shouldn’t be able to come to Easter Sunday unless they’ve had their Maundy Thursday and Good Friday ticket punched.
In other words, Easter Sunday really doesn’t make any sense if the journey doesn’t first go through Thursday and Friday (and whether you do that in-person here or elsewhere, or whether you at least read the scriptures and reflect on them doesn’t matter – either way you’re making the journey).
No one gets Easter without Friday – no one gets resurrection without the cross – not Jesus, not us.
It’s the hardest part of the journey.
And it’s completely necessary.
I acknowledge that some of our journeys are already in the midst of the hard parts of Holy Week.
I don’t want to suggest that you have to expose yourself to something that will cause you harm in any way.
But for most of us I’d suggest it’s a matter of preference, and often we prefer not to go there.
That’s up to you.
You’re standing at the gates.
You’re a follower of Jesus.
Will you follow him even when the way is hard?
Will you ingress?