Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday, 20 March 2005
Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 by Luke Bouman
(->current sermons )
Matthew 21:1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away." 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!" 10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."
The Right Words
Churches all over Western Christianity will be celebrating Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday as it is called now in some places) on this day. (By a quirk of the calendar, Easter and thus Palm Sunday are celebrated over a month later in Easter Orthodox churches this year.) It is a day that I loved as a child, and if truth be known, it is among my favorite festivals even today. I imagine that the pageantry and movement of the liturgy this day, as we move about waving our palm branches, has something to do with this. We invoke the journey that Jesus took into Jerusalem thousands of years ago and we place ourselves with the adoring crowds. As I look at the text for today, and the text that follows, the Passion Gospel of St. Matthew, I wonder if associating ourselves with the adoring crowds is a smart move. Do our words of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” mean the same thing today as they did years ago? Do we even want them to?
I learned years ago that it is possible to say the right thing for the wrong reason. Sometimes this happens as a matter of good fortune, when, for example, when I answered a test question correctly, without knowing why. It also can turn out badly, when I gave another person affirmation, in order to give their self esteem a boost, only to have it backfire, when they discovered that my praise was disingenuous. Certainly as a pastor I have learned not to take the praise of others too seriously early in my tenure in a particular parish. Often the people who praise me the most initially turn into my harshest critics within a year’s time. We have to look no further than the crowds of Jerusalem for this pattern in the extreme. At the start of the week, Jesus hears the praise of the crowd. By Friday they are shouting for his execution.
It is certainly true, as Tim Rice’s lyrics to the musical “Evita” point out, that “the people belong to no one. They are fickle, can be manipulated.” Whether, as some of the Gospel accounts suggest, the Judean leaders have somehow manipulated the people behind the scenes, or they change their minds on their own we cannot know for sure. What we do know is that such a shift occurs, and it makes me wonder what God is up to that might cause such a thing to happen. Jesus certainly does not go out of his way to play to the crowds and their shouts of hosanna. It is clear that he understands the world differently than they do. They shout the right praises for the one who enters the city that day. But a close look at the expectations of the times lead us to understand that the reason for their acclamations is the very reason the crowd turns on Jesus at the end of the week.
The Wrong Reason
Jesus entry into Jerusalem is set up by Matthew to echo the coronation procession of the kings of Israel. Matthew is so fixated on getting this right, in fact, that he even reads literally the couplet of Hebrew poetry from the Old Testament, giving Jesus two animals to ride, rather than the intended one. Matthew wants the readers to see Jesus as the crowds did. Jesus is the Messiah riding in triumph to take the city of Jerusalem as his own. This is what Kings do in Israel’s lore. It is something that is so ingrained in our minds and in our culture that even fantasy literature like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” has Aragorn enter his future capital city in triumph and then leave to camp outside until the right time has come. It is the pomp and circumstance of empire and of power.
The difficulty of this pattern for the people of Jesus day is that another empire was in power in Jerusalem at the time. Rome was an empire so vast and powerful that Judea was just a province with an appointed Governor. In fact, it was not even a particularly rich province, thought it was crucial for trade routes east and west, north and south. Surely Jesus humble parade was in stark contrast to the parades of Roman legions that came to and through the area. Yet, it is a parade that sparked the patriotic hopes and dreams of the people of that day. It’s contrast to the Roman parades perhaps made it all the more clear that this was a person that the people hoped would challenge the Roman Empire on its own terms and bring about a return of the Judean empire of David, a hope that is alive and well in the Zionist movement today.
(At this point, a small disclaimer must be made that not all of the Judeans, or all of the Jews in Jesus day, were plugged into this political process, nor were the ones that were more culpable than any of us today for the death of Jesus. Just as today, there are many faithful and pious Jewish people around the world who do not espouse the hard line policies of Zionists in Israel. Thus, there is not implied or intended a kind of anti-semitism in the understanding that a certain group or groups of people had misplaced expectations then or now. Those groups do not speak for all of Judaism.)
When the crowds on this day so many years ago shouted Hosanna! to Jesus, they were certainly expecting great things politically, and perhaps militarily, from his arrival on the scene. They were buying into the notion that empire can and will offer them salvation of a certain type. They did not believe that Rome was capable of offering this salvation, since Rome was a nation that had many gods rather than the One. Only God’s anointed could rule God’s people with justice and righteousness. There are some who still await the coming of such a one.
The problem is that though they offer the right words, the hosannas that they sing invoke a salvation that is no solution to the world’s problems. A consistent witness of the Old Testament prophets was their condemnation of “empire” as a way of being God’s people in the world. Empire is the way of Egypt and its Pharoahs. Empire is the way of Babylon and Assyria. Empire is the way of Greece and the Seleucid Greek monarchs of Syria. Empire is Rome’s way of being in the world.
God’s people were established as a kind of anti-empire. They were formed in the Sinai wilderness around a covenant with a God whose desire was the restoration of a broken humanity. Israel was formed as an alternative to the pyramid class society of Egypt, with God dwelling among the people as sovereign, not an emperor or king. The people were seen as having equal standing, not with some occupying higher or lower status on the ladder. The power of empire to kill those who opposed it, supported by military might and religious belief was to give way to a power to attract all nations to the light of God, given in love to this special people. The hosannas of this day are misplaced when they expect a new Judean kingdom to supplant, but not replace the Roman Empire. Just as with the kingdom of Israel of old, the empire way would not work again. It simply replaces the masters, but keeps the people walking in darkness. (See Dan Erlander’s retelling of the Biblical Narrative, “Manna and Mercy.”) The New Testament writings are not less kind in their treatment of empire. The whole book of revelation is both warning about that the “empire way” is not what it seems, and a sort of encouragement to the early Christians who are just trying to survive the Roman wrath turned against them. But such a warning comes too late for the people who cheered for Jesus on this Sunday.
Given the empire aspirations of the Judean crowd, it is no wonder that they praise Jesus on Sunday, and cry for his execution of Friday. He disappoints, and not only that, but exposes those very aspirations as evil. He indeed comes to re-establish the line of David, but as it was intended by God, not as it became, not as it was hoped for. When Jesus is arrested, from the crowd’s point of view, he is no longer worthy of their praise because he cannot possibly fulfill the expectations. A dead messiah is no messiah. While they meant their hosannas on Sunday, by Friday they have already moved on, cut their losses and started looking for the next wannabe emperor.
A Personal and Private Jesus
Today, we face much the same problems in our expectations of what is happening in the world. We don’t use the word “empire” to describe our own nation, the United States. Instead we use words like “superpower,” relishing the idea that we are the only one left standing, whether that is indeed true or not. Indeed we are acting like empire, insisting to other nations that our way is the right and proper way for a while world to act, and willing to use our might to enforce it. We insist that our lives and security are worth more than others, and will do whatever we can to restore the illusion of security, even at the sacrifice of the rights of our own people. We are buying into the notion that empire, with its reliance on military might and religious correctness have more to offer us in salvation that Jesus Christ. It is a wonder that our hosannas do not also ring hollow. It is no wonder that we ignore the warnings of the Old and New Testament and remake Jesus and his mission in our own image. It is a luxury to have thousands or years to
forget and rewrite God’s salvation.
Now, according to some, we have a Jesus who is involved in a project not to redeem the creation, but rather to take as many of us as he can out of it before it is destroyed. Now we have a Jesus who supports our military might and helps us to stick it to other nations. Now we have a Jesus who wants us to vote for the next candidate for emperor or president. Now we have a Jesus who rewards the righteous with wealth, power and position, and punishes the poor, who wouldn’t be so downtrodden had they made better choices (I heard that on in a television sermon just this past week). I’m afraid that should we believe this version of Jesus, the imperial Jesus, then we will be as disappointed as the Judean mob, and likely add our voices to theirs at Friday’s condemnation.
The Gospel Connection
The good news is that Jesus comes with a different set of expectations then we have, then the Judean crowd. Jesus comes not with a replacement empire, but to replace the claims and the authority of empire itself. If empire’s power lies in the threat of death to those who oppose it, then destroying the power of death trumps empire’s claim. Empire offers salvation to those lucky enough to be at the top of the pyramid. Love and forgiveness are for all humanity. Empires can and do fail. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Our problem is that our worldview is too small. Jesus has nothing but the restoration of all creation in his sights. We think of ourselves, our security in life, our personal vindication in death. Jesus thinks of others and their needs first, and finally the restoration of all things into right relationship with the Father.
It is this salvation that finally wins the victory. Even though we do not always (or ever) see it among us, the death and resurrection of Jesus has brought it about. There, where God is finally most fully Emmanuel, God with us, is Jesus sharing our suffering and death on the cross. Here empire is finally exposed for its lack of real power and authority. Death will finally claim each successive empire. Only God can show death’s power to be limited. By doing so, God has dealt a final blow to empire, not with military might, as if to be a new empire, but instead by collapsing it from within. Even when Christianity took on the trappings of Empire after Constantine, still there remained a thin tradition within it that resisted and followed Jesus way. Paul was already formed in that tradition. So were Augustine and Martin Luther. Throughout the 20 th and on to the current century there have been many who have given their lives for the Jesus way, the anti-empire way, the way to wholeness: Bonhoeffer who opposed the Third Reich, Gandhi, who opposed the British Empire, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who opposed the empire of segregation and oppression 40 years ago as he and those who were with him marched from Selma Alabama, though battered by state troopers less than a month earlier. The way of loving resistence has proven more powerful than empire in each case. The way of Jesus comes to us anew each time.
The Right Words for the Right Reason .
It is for this reason, finally, that we sing our hosannas today. Not because we, like those before us, expect Jesus to follow the empire way. Instead we sing because we follow Jesus’ way. We resist the notion that the world is for us and for our kind. We resist the notion that salvation is something that God provides to take us out of this oppressive world. We resist the pyramid structure of society, backed by God and Military.
Instead we follow the way of the cross, this week especially, but also in our daily lives. It means a non-violent resistence to the oppressive powers of this world wherever it exists. Today it also means the shouts of hosanna that we say and sing. In fact, our joy, while muted this Holy Week, is not diminished, but awed by what God in Christ has done. We do well to sing, and now for the right reason. Jesus rides into Jerusalem in triumph and wins the victory on Good Friday. He does not establish nor destroy an empire. Nor, really, does he take away its power. Instead he destroys the power of sin and death to enslave us, and the power of empire to use that slavery for selfish gain or good. Instead he sets us free from this way of being in the world for ourselves.
It has always been the privilege of God’s people to sing the songs of freedom when oppression has come to an end. Miriam led Israel in that song by the far shore of the Red Sea. David sang and danced his way into Jerusalem as her king. The people of Israel sang on their way home from exile in Babylon, and still sing as part of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem today. Our lives are an endless song as we celebrate the joy and freedom of life in Christ. Each Sunday echoes the hosannas of this day as we meet the Lord in his supper. For Christ, the lamb who was slain, enters in triumph, into Jerusalem and into our hearts. Sing hosanna! Shout for joy!
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman