A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Palm Sunday ~ Matthew 21:1-11
The whole city was in turmoil!
I read this verse and I thought to myself, “Are they describing Jerusalem in 0030 or describing us today?” I mean, I don’t need to tell you, the city, the world is in turmoil. And it is colouring how we’re hearing this story today. It has to.
A huge crowd is with Jesus.
Crowd? No, we can’t have a crowd! We can’t have more than 5 people together right now, and they had better be properly physically distanced from one another.
And then I got this visual.
Imagine Jesus was entering the gates of our ‘city in turmoil’ right now. There would be a crowd with him. Well, 5 people, each 2 metres apart. And technically that should be 10, I guess. That’s how many you’re allowed at a funeral – and a good argument can be made that Jesus arriving at Jerusalem that day was a funeral procession!
If so, that certainly wouldn’t be the spectacle we’ve come to expect like in all the Jesus movies. In the movies he’s always perched up on the donkey, smiling away as the hordes wave palm branches and sing songs about him.
You can picture it, right?
But if you read the story in Matthew carefully that’s not actually what’s going on.
It says that the people laid their coats on the road, and cut branches off trees and laid them on the road before him. It doesn’t say they weren’t palm branches, but it doesn’t say they were either. And they apparently weren’t waving.
In Mark’s version it says the people also did the coats and branches on the road thing.
In Luke’s version it only mentions the coats – no branches at all, waving or paving.
Only in John’s gospel do we get actual palm branches waving around (but no coats on the road). That’s the scene that makes all the movies.
I think most people just blend them all together and create a picture that they like. And that’s ok.
But if you do that you need to be conscious that you’re missing the theological point of the writers of each gospel. They wrote four different versions of this story to emphasize four different aspects of theology. Everybody’s got an agenda. So it’s probably best for us to try to figure out what Matthew was trying to communicate to us here.
The tone is really important.
In Matthew’s telling there’s no waving and jubilant singing.
It’s less of a parade and more of a political protest rally – and the people are not happy.
They aren’t happy because they are terribly oppressed.
They aren’t happy because they’re entering Jerusalem for the huge Passover festival and the Romans are ruling with an iron fist.
Passover came from Moses’ time back in Egypt. It’s all about how God saves the people of Israel by having the angel of death ‘pass over’ them and only kill all the Egyptian children. It’s a horrific story. Now imagine if you’re a Jew entering Jerusalem for a festival about how God kills and punishes the oppressor and sets you free – and the thing you want most in the world in that moment is for God to do it again!
And imagine there’s a guy riding a donkey – just like in that story from the prophet Zechariah that you know so well. (Well, you would if you were around back then.)
Here’s the story – Zechariah 9:9-10
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, 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; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Put it all together. Humble king. Overthrow the “war-horse from Jerusalem”. Return to power.
It’s not joyous, celebratory singing you’d be doing. It’s a battle cry!
And that’s exactly what Matthew says it was. Matthew is all about showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures. Well, this one’s a doozy! And the crowd desperately wants Jesus to fulfill it.
So what do they do? It says they shouted “Hosanna!” Not singing – shouting. And actually, not just shouting. The Greek word means to “cry out loudly with an urgent scream or shriek, using “inarticulate shouts that express deep emotion.” They’re not shouting – they’re shrieking! Screaming! [Aaaaarrrrggghhh!!!!]
Ever been at a church Palm Sunday parade where they did that?
And what are they shrieking? Hosanna!
Now, one meaning of hosanna is about praise.
But the fuller and truer meaning of the word is, “Oh, save now!” or “Please save now!”
[like a protest rally] What do we want? Save us! When do we want it? Now! [Aaaaarrrrggghhh!!!!]
[meekly wave some palms – for effect]
“Save us now, son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Save us now – in the highest heaven!” [Aaaaarrrrggghhh!!!!]
(Man, I wish you were here so I could see your faces right now!) 🙂
Verse 10 – When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil [how’s that for an understatement? A whole crowd of people shrieking for some guy to save them – now!], so it’s perfectly understandable that the people not in the crowd would be asking, “Who is this?”
Remember, the people in the city were also Jews. They would also have known the story about the humble king on a donkey. And they could hear the crowd shrieking. So if you put two and two together – which I’m sure they did – they’re really asking “Is this guy really who he looks like he is?”
Remember too, Jesus set the scene. Jesus carefully orchestrated the whole thing.
It’s political street theatre of the highest order.
By using powerful symbols from the people’s shared history of oppression he’s communicating on multiple levels at once.
Who is this? It’s the messiah! There’s no other explanation in Matthew’s view.
“But really? This guy? I mean, isn’t he kinda tilting at windmills here? You can’t overthrow an oppressive regime by having a parade, can you? And do you think it’s really wise to be so openly provocative with all these soldiers around. This city is in turmoil. It’s a powder keg waiting to go off. Is this guy and that scraggly crowd really going to pick that fight? Who is this?”
To this day this remains one of our most important questions.
Who is this? Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for you?
Is he the messiah? Yes, but not the version the shriekers may have been hoping for.
Will he save them? Now? Yes, but not in the way the crowd may expect.
And what of us? What of our current turmoil?
We could really use a messiah to ride in and overthrow our oppressor (pandemic) and save us. Now!
Is Jesus that messiah? Yes, but not the version we’re probably hoping for.
Will he save us? Now? Yes, but probably not in the way we may expect.
Because the thing is, and it was the same on that long ago day in Jerusalem, it’s not what Jesus is going to do for the people, for us – it’s what he’s going to show to the people, us.
He’s not going to fight the bad guys, or swoop in and cure Covid-19, and take all our troubles away.
He’s never been that kind of messiah.
No, what Jesus is going to do is show us what walking the path of faith, loving and trusting in God, and living out those kingdom values that he first shared on the mountainside when he and his disciples were just starting out – to show us what all that looks like. Why when the going gets really tough it’s even more important to love, love, love.
He’s going to show us that this faith stuff isn’t just fancy talk.
It’s not academic.
It’s not just theological mumbo-jumbo.
It’s a world subverting and inverting way of seeing what’s really real.
And for Jesus, it’s worth dying for.
The very first thing he does after getting off the donkey in Matthew’s gospel is walk straight into the temple grounds and start kicking over tables and chasing out the people who are profiting from an unethical financial system.
He doesn’t overthrow the Romans.
He literally overthrows the tables of his own system – because it was operating in the name of God but wasn’t practicing kingdom values.
Who is this?
This is the guy who’s showing you how the world is broken, and saving you from it. Now.
But won’t living that purely, and being that uncompromising and unyielding from God’s kingdom values – won’t that be really uncomfortable and get you in a lot of trouble?
Tune in this week for the rest of the story and see.
And as we go through the gates and enter Holy Week we have one big question still haunting us.
Who is this? Who is Jesus for me?
Am I willing to walk the hard path with him?
Is he, and his Way, this kingdom Way, worth dedicating my life to – even when it’s costly?
If you tuned in today looking for a happy ending and a cure for Covid, well, I guess you’re going to leave unsatisfied. Palm Sunday is always ambiguous.
I have no answers or happy endings today.
All I have is a guy on a donkey who’s willing to do whatever it takes to show you the kingdom of God and save you from all those lesser kingdoms that oppress you.
And he’s going to save you now.
All you have to do is walk the path with him – even when it’s hard – like this week, and this difficult season.
Come on – join the crowd!