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Palm Sunday 2022

Updated: Mar 18

 Luke 19:28-40 (NIV)
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “The Lord needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

I wonder how this story makes you feel? I wonder which part seem most important?

Today is known as Palm Sunday, on account of the palm leaves waved by the crowds, but you may have noticed that there are no palms in the reading we have just heard. There are no hosannas either, and that is particularly interesting given that Luke’s account is almost word for word the same as Mark’s account, except that there the crowds cry “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The biblical scholar Fred Craddock suggests that palm branches and cries of hosanna were associated with parades with nationalistic overtones, and so Luke deliberately leaves them out.

Perhaps he wished to distance Jesus from these symbols of nationalism, rather than using this story to appropriate and transform them as the other gospel writers seem to do. Luke in particular associates Jesus’ kingship with peace - we see that right from the beginning of the gospel, as the angel that appears to Mary to tell her of the child she will bear declares that his kingdom will never end, and then the angels that appear to the shepherds to pronounce his birth declare “peace on earth” - so perhaps he wanted to avoid any negative connotations with the trappings of political power.

Luke may have wanted to remove any hint of nationalistic pomp from his telling of the occasion, but that perhaps only strengthens the sense that this parade was in reality a protest march, and it was very much planned by Jesus. He doesn’t decide he’s getting a bit tired and stop along the way to borrow a donkey. He isn’t offered a ride which he accepts out of politeness. He sends his disciples ahead of him with very precise instructions, suggesting he has had this planned in advance, and his actions have significant meaning. But why? And what meaning? There are two possibilities we might suggest, and the truth may well be that both were at play.

First, we must look back into the scriptures Jesus knew. Luke doesn’t really go in for presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy because he was writing for a primarily Gentile audience, but Matthew refers in his account to the words of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” We do have to be careful when it comes to applying the words of the prophets to Jesus, recognising that our Jewish siblings for whom they are holy scripture do not read them in the same way, but the connection here seems strong. If Matthew was familiar with this verse then it seems fair to assume that Jesus, who was scripturally literate enough to debate with the scribes when he was twelve, knew it too. He may therefore have chosen to ride into Jerusalem on a young colt specifically as a declaration that he is the king that was promised.

Interestingly, given what we have just said about Luke associating the kingship of Jesus with peace, the text from Zechariah continues like this: “And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem, and the bow of war will be broken. Then He will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will extend from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.” If this is a declaration of kingship then it is also a proclamation of peace, Jesus signalling that he is not like the warmongering kings the people have known, but a different kind of king altogether.

That leads us onto the second possibility, and here we must look not back but around, at what else was happening at the time. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan note that it was traditional for the governor of Judea to travel into Jerusalem for the Passover, not to celebrate the festival so much as to make sure there was no trouble. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from oppression in Egypt, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the latest oppressors got a bit anxious that the people would be inspired to once again try to liberate themselves, as indeed they often did. The governor at the time was Pilate, whose headquarters were on the coast, but we know from the events later in Holy Week that he was in Jerusalem for the festival.

None of the gospels mention Pilate’s entry into the city, but they wouldn’t have needed to, because their contemporary readers would have known about it. Many would have witnessed the spectacle of Pilate entering Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers, perhaps seated himself on a warhorse. It must have been a sight to behold. Weapons and armour glinting in the sun, flags fluttering in the breeze, the thunder of hooves and marching feet, the crowds awed by or resentful of this show of force by their oppressors. Compare that to the parade Jesus leads. He arrives not on a powerful warhorse, but on an untrained donkey. The crowds are not silent or forced into cheer, but burst into praise. The people are not dressed for war, but cast their cloaks to the ground.

Pilate would have entered the city from the west, while Jesus entered from the east. We don’t know that they arrived at the same time as Borg and Crossman imagine, although it would make for a great scene in an old fashioned biblical epic, but nonetheless they were leading two opposing processions in every sense imaginable. Borg and Crossan say this: “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God.”

So what more might we learn about that alternative vision, about the kingdom of God, from this story? I want to suggest three things. First, the kingdom is intentional. This procession did not happen by accident, but because Jesus had a plan and his disciples helped see it through. They may not have understood exactly what was going on, but they trusted Jesus and they followed his word. The kingdom won’t come about by accident either, but because God has a plan and we are called to help see it through. We might not always understand exactly what is going on, but if we trust enough to follow God’s leading then we will see the kingdom being established.

Second, the kingdom is irrepressible. Jesus may have planned the donkey, but he doesn't seem to orchestrate the praise. The shouts of "blessed is the king" and "glory in the highest", and the carpet of cloaks, seem to be a spontaneous outpouring from the crowds who accompany him. And I love the response Jesus gives to those who try to quiet the whole thing down, when he says "if they keep quiet, the rocks will cry out". Or as the Storyteller Bible puts it, “Can’t you see? There’s so much happiness here that even if I could make the people quiet, the stones in the street would jump up and shout for joy!” Last week we saw Mary quite literally pour out her worship without restraint, and there is a similar energy here. I wonder how often we allow ourselves to be swept up in the joy of the kingdom. I wonder if we may need to give in to that joy more often.

And finally, the kingdom is universal. In preparing for this morning, I came across an observation that, aside from Jerusalem, Jesus didn’t really spend time in cities, despite the fact that there were major cities close to Nazareth where he grew up and on the Galilean shore where he gathered his first disciples. Instead he chose to visit the small and seemingly unimportant places, and so it is likely that the crowds that accompanied him were largely peasants. I think this signals a particular care for the overlooked and the underprivileged, but I think it also reveals a keen strategic mind. Jesus couldn’t be everywhere, and people from the towns and villages were more likely to visit the cities than vice versa, so news of his teaching and ministry would surely have spread more quickly, reaching people of all places and all backgrounds. And to return to Jesus’ words, I'm not sure the rocks would actually have cried out if the crowd had stopped, but there is a sense here that the whole of creation is being brought in, that the kingdom reaches into and has the power to transform every aspect of our world.

I will give the final words of this reflection to Borg and Crossman, who remind us that: “Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold.”

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