Palm Sunday 2011




Matthew 21:1-11

(1) Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,

(2) saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.

(3) If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord needs them,' and he will send them at once."

(4) This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

(5) "Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'"

(6) The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.

(7) They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.

(8) Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

(9) And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

(10) And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, "Who is this?"

(11) And the crowds said, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee."


This week I was looking at some old photographs. Back in 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II was the Emperor of Germany, and he made a visit to Jerusalem. This was a major event of the time and photographers took lots of pictures. The Kaiser wanted to ride into the city on horseback with flags flying, so the Turks who controlled the city at the time, tore a big hole in the city wall by the Jaffa gate, for the convenience of the German Emperor.

In the old black and white photographs, you can still see the Emperor's triumphal procession. It looks like something out of a movie. The Kaiser and his entourage were all wearing the military uniforms of the day, covered with braid. They had on parade helmets with plumes. Flags were flying everywhere. And of course they were all riding horses--except the Kaiserin, the queen, she rode in a carriage.

The Kaiser's triumphal entry represented the powers that be in that day. It represented all the movers and shakers of worldly things. It was the most impressive parade of 1898.

Everybody loves a parade. This morning, Palm Sunday, we celebrate a parade. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, before his trial, before his betrayal, and before the Last Supper, he made his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

However, on that day almost 2000 years ago, there were two parades in Jerusalem. One must have been impressive. The leader was on horseback. He was followed by a company of the tough Roman soldiers. The leader of that parade was Pontius Pilate. According to recent scholarship [by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The Last Week], on that first Palm Sunday, Pontius Pilate also rode into Jerusalem—with cavalry, foot soldiers, clanking armor, and gleaming weapons.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judaea and the center of Jewish religious life, but the Roman Procurators chose to live in Caesarea, which was about sixty miles to the west on the coast of the Mediterranean. Caesarea was a Roman city. Jerusalem, to the Romans, was a backwoods podunk town.

But the major Jewish festivals, like Passover, stirred up so much Jewish pride that rioting could erupt, and even rebellion. To forestall such turmoil, the Procurator would ride in from the coast to remind everyone who was in charge. The Jewish people were a minor part of the Roman Empire. Pilate's parade was a reminder of this fact. In effect, Pilate looked down from his horse and said to them, “You people are losers and your lives and your opinions are worth nothing. Rome is right and Rome is might, so pay your taxes and shut up.” The Jews were just about to celebrate Passover, the central festival of their faith, which reminded them of how God saved their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Pilate's parade reminds them that things have not changed that much. They are still slaves only now in Palestine.

However, while Pilate was having his parade, over on the other side of town, something else was going on--another parade. A young Jewish rabbi rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus’ followers spread cloaks on the road and waved branches in the air, reenacting the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Unlike Pilate's procession, this was not a parade meant to demonstrate power. Jesus’ parade was a demonstration of love and peace.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pontus Pilate with their parades were telling us who they were. They were people of worldly power. They commanded armies which would enforce their will. They came with pride and arrogance. Pilate could say, “I come from Caesar, Emperor of Rome.” Incidentally the word “Kaiser” is the Germanic form of Caesar. So Wilhelm II could also say, I come from Caesar. Actually he was saying that he was the German Caesar. Pilate and Wilhelm were much the same, but Jesus is altogether different.

Jesus fulfilled the words of Zechariah that day. The prophet says, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” While Pilate is saying through his actions, “Look how powerful I am,” Jesus is saying, “Give peace a chance.” I know that is the title of a song written by John Lennon back in 1969. Jesus is saying by riding into Jerusalem on this fateful day, that the world does not have to be about power, the world does not have to be about domination. Instead, in a world where all people are created in the image of God, the world should be about love and peace. To quote Lennon again,

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout

Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism

This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism.”

All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Jesus would take a radical notion of love and peace through the streets of Jerusalem, to the temple courts, in front of Pilate’s judgment seat, and ultimately to the cross.

Now we are not first century Jews. We are not subjugated by a foreign power as Israel was, but we do live in a time of destructive alienation, and dark powers are still at work in the world around us. They may not ride horses any more like Pilate, like the Kaiser. They do not wear gleaming steel helmets with flashing plumes, but they wield imperial might.

Have you ever wondered how the President got the power to wage war without consulting Congress? When did that happen? I know that technically they do not call it a war, but they just call it something else--“A humanitarian mission”--and then they commit American troops to some godforsaken place, and we are told we are not patriotic if we ask questions. If that is the way it is, we might as well call the President Pharaoh or Emperor.

Another quarrel I have with the way things are done now. Nobody has civil discussions anymore. It used to be that we could disagree agreeably. We could recognize that people on the other side of any argument were good people, they just happened to disagree with us on that issue. Now everyone is so polarized, and the debate is so heated, that we regard an opponent as the devil incarnate who ought to be shot down like a rabid dog. For example, I see this in the debate about Abortion. I am pro-life. I think living things ought to have as much chance to live as possible, but I flinch when I hear the hatred and bile which some pro-life people pour out the other side. After all, they are also human beings, made in the image of God.

I blame a lot of this hating attitude on TV. TV ratings come from confrontation. The TV people want to see toe to toe nose to nose bitter conflict. That is the way they sell programs. That is the way of the world.

But Jesus shows us another way. Instead of power and divisiveness, Jesus’ embodies Godly love and heavenly peace. We do not have to live in discord; instead, we can live in harmony and reconciliation. We can be open to one another and value one another as God’s creation. And if we are vulnerable and open, who knows what kind of miracles might be possible. To dominate is easy and simple, but the love of Christ will always be the better way.

There is an old story that in 1898, after Kaiser Wilhelm's parade, someone climbed up and attached a large sign to the gate. The sign read, "A better man than Wilhelm came through this city's gate. He rode on a donkey."

What made Jesus a better man, do you think? What was it about him that compelled the people to spread their cloaks and wave their branches in the air? What is it about him that still inspires millions of people to give their lives to him and even for him?

The answer is simple. They saw God in him. In what he taught, in what he did, they found something divine. More than that, they saw that in Jesus God comes down to us.

In the Apostles Creed, which we say every Sunday, we say Jesus "was crucified, dead and buried." and then we say, "He descended into hell." this is a powerful way of saying that Jesus entered into every aspect of human experience. There is no height, no depth, no loss, no pain, not even the farthest reaches of hell where Jesus has not been there before us. Again, in the Apostles Creed, the phrase “he descended into hell” is followed by the glad affirmation “he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven.” It is here that the great reversal takes place. The servant becomes Lord. The humiliated one becomes the exalted one whose name is above every name. “He ascended into heaven,” and on Palm Sunday, and during this Holy Week ahead, we remember that he did not get there the easy way.

What a journey he had. Before the suffering and the crucifying and the dying, he entered Jerusalem and all the city was in turmoil, so Matthew tells us. In other words, Jesus comes into town and the whole world shakes. A fundamental shift takes place at the heart of things, and nothing is ever the same again. Maybe that is what we need. We need for Jesus to parade our street today. We need Jesus in our hearts and our minds so that we can shout hosannas to highest heaven.

Remember that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark on their desks when they wrote their respective Gospels. In this case when Matthew copied Mark’s account of Palm Sunday, he adds in Matthew 21:4 that, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet,” and then Matthew quotes Zechariah to make certain that we understand the prophet's message. But here is where the story gets really strange. Whereas Mark simply has Jesus riding a donkey colt, Matthew oddly switches into the plural. In Matthew 21:6-7 if you read closely, you’ll notice that it says, “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.” In other words, Matthew’s version sounds like Jesus rode in of both beasts at the same time, straddling two animals like some circus act.

On this point, John Dominic Crossan has an interpretation in his book The Last Week. Crossan writes that Matthew:

wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”

I find Crossan’s reading compelling because Jesus riding an unmilitary mount matches the rest of the Zechariah prophecy—that the one who comes riding on a humble donkey into Jerusalem comes in peace and love.

Perhaps Jesus knew about Pilate's parade across town. That is not a stretch. Probably most people in Jerusalem knew that the Procurator was coming to town. So Jesus is deliberately saying, my parade is something different. Pilate is about brutality and oppression. Jesus is about peace and love. I suppose that over the centuries Jerusalem has seen more than its share of military leaders. Most parades are Pilate parades, displays of power and aggression. Do you remember the parades the Communists used to have in Red Square in Moscow? Aircraft, tanks, artillery and thousands of marching soldiers. The purpose of the parade was to intimidate, to strike fear into the hearts of the beholders.

Jesus is offering a direct challenge to this way of looking at things. His donkey ride is a rebellion against any authority based on intimidation and fear. He comes riding on a humble donkey to show us the love of God.

If we look at the events of the next week of Jesus' life, we find him saying and doing controversial things in Jerusalem in the middle of Passover (the height of the pilgrimage season). He had said much the same in the villages of Galilee but this is on a larger stage. I do not think that Jesus wanted to die, but his passion for justice, his rage against injustice, led him to take increasingly large risks to show the contrast between the status quo (where Herod was king, where Pilate was procurator) and the kingdom of God. These risks led directly to Jesus’ tragic death.

This is not to say that following Jesus necessarily means we will die a tragic death. There are those like St. Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Teresa who followed Jesus in radical, controversial ways and died of old age, but there are also those like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi who — like Jesus — were killed when they followed Jesus. That is the risk of following Jesus, nevertheless, it is a risk we must take. Jesus is not like the world. That is the point of the parade. Jesus calls us to be not like the world. The world admires the haters and the oppressors. Jesus calls us to be a people of love and peace.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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