This year it’s Luke’s turn to tell the familiar story we expect to hear in church on the Sunday before Easter, which marks the beginning of Holy Week:
[Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples 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!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. –Luke 20:28-48 NRSV
There’s more included here than the suggested lectionary passage, but then this is known as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, and so I’ve fudged a bit to lap over into events of the ensuing days. There’s multiple layers here, filled with literal as well as metaphorical and symbolical meaning. Sometimes it may seem that this “happy day” is recounted only to contrast it with the tragedies and heartbreaks to come on Thursday and Friday. Of course, it’s appropriate and meaningful to wave palm fronds overhead and leave them lying in the church aisles. Yet there’s so much more going on, especially behind the scene Luke (and the other Gospel writers) brings us.
By the time Jesus makes his entry in Jerusalem it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody reading Luke, Mark, or Matthew where this story is headed. In other words, this isn’t just a big celebration, the first-century equivalent to a flash mob. No, Jesus isn’t merely going into the city, he’s entering the holy city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion to confront his destiny and the principalities and powers lined up against him.
There is in this scene more than passing allusion to the coronation parade of Solomon (see 1 Kings 1:32-40), who rode King David’s mule into Jerusalem amid great fanfare and accompanied by the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan. And, of course, there is Zechariah’s familiar prophecy:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, 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” (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Matthew, for his part, goes to what at first appears to be rather awkward lengths to perfectly match up Jesus’ triumphant entry to Zechariah’s prophetic description, right down to having Jesus ride on a female donkey and its colt. The image naturally arises for us of something like a circus entertainer entering the big top astride two matched horses. What is probably more likely is that Jesus rode the female donkey, its nursing foal tied to and following as close to its mother as possible. Luke simplifies it to a single animal. As fascinating as this speculation may be, we miss the point if all we can do is argue about donkeys, though.
It was Pontius Pilate’s traditional practice to enter Jerusalem (his Roman provincial capital in Judea, Caesarea [Maratima], a city on the Mediterranean coast, was about 75 miles northwest of Jerusalem) at the beginning of Passover by riding in on a magnificent steed, accompanied by row upon row of centurions. Let’s throw in a few dozen chariots, too, just for good measure to complete this picture. The purpose, of course, was not only to impress the Judean locals with Rome’s imperial might but to reaffirm once more who was really in charge in the city.
For all we know, that impressive parade could have been taking place across town at the same time as Jesus’ arrival. The Gospel writers, no doubt, were aware that Zechariah’s central figure was a peacemaker who had “conquered” the powers-that-be and instituted his peaceable rule/dominion from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. The differences between these two “kings” could not be more striking.
Eventually Jesus headed to the Temple whose ruling class cooperated with their Roman masters in subjugating and keeping in line the masses of people. He knew what he was doing by upsetting the moneychangers’ tables and the almost-certain consequences. Later in the week, praying mightily and alone in Gethsemene, Jesus would encapsulate his earthly life and ministry: “Let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless may your will be done.”
Walter Brueggeman in The Prophetic Imagination has written:
“Directed by Rome and Temple, this oppressive [Domination] System was responsible for Jesus’ death and for the hunger, poverty, violence, and despair that were part of daily life for the vast majority of his contemporaries.” (chapter 1)
That Domination System had a three-fold identity: (1) A politics of oppression, (2) an economics of exploitation, and (3) a religion of legitimation. In confronting that system Jesus risked it all and prepared the way for his disciples and followers. And how well have we disciples done with that? As Bishop John Spong put it: “Most churches will die of boredom long before they die of controversy. They are unwilling to risk death in order to engage the search for truth.” (A New Christianity for a New World, 125)
Many a church-goer buoyed up by triumphalism would happily jump from the “Hosanna, the Messiah has come” on Palm Sunday to the “Alleluia, He is risen” on Easter without having to deal with all that uncomfortable mess in between. Nevertheless, the intervening days of Holy Week are still there. True, there are also those Christians who appear to be stuck permanently in the pain and suffering of Good Friday, maybe because that’s all of life they’ve ever experienced. Or maybe because for them a theology of the cross explains more of “real life” than a theology of a risen Lord Christ. We need both.
And so is this Sunday’s parade about Jesus offering himself up as a sacrificial lamb (and it’s certainly not hard to find that theological perspective) or a defiant act against not only the imperial power of his day (Rome) but the equally imperial, autocratic, dictatorial, hate-filled, violence-fueled principalities and powers of all eras?
I tend toward the view that Jesus was not killed by God’s hand (as some sort of metaphorical replaying of Abraham and Isaac sacrifice–only this time God went through with it) or even by God’s plan. Maybe there could have been another way, but that’s not how it turned out. Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state, after some of his own people (the “rulers of the Temple”) connived against him. We can as easily get caught up in the details of all that as debating how many donkeys were involved in the Palm Sunday parade.
Yes, this is a story about a joyful entry. It’s also about bringing this world closer to the peaceable reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. And so this coming week, wave those palm fronds. Recall Jesus throwing money-changers out of the Temple. Share with Jesus’ disciples in a remembrance meal. Go with him to the agonizing questions waiting in Gethsemene. Wonder just how much of “Peter the Rock” is in us when he’s arrested and taken away. Kneel by the cross, and hurry to an empty tomb. This is a story for each of us, individually and collectively, to ponder and treasure. It is the week that changed the world.
*Some portions of this were adapted from previous ForeWords blogs for Palm Sunday.