The date is around 30 CE. We find ourselves in the city of Jerusalem, the Holy City, the walled city with twelve gates. One at each point of the compass: North, South, East, and West. Smaller gates are set in between. On this spring day, the weather is warm. Buds are bursting from fresh growth on ancient trees on the Mount of Olives. New-born lambs cavort in fields outside the walls of this great city.From our high vantage point we see down and across the bustling city scape . Look! Two processions are approaching. One from the East winding down the hills of olive groves, and one from the West along the straight efficient functional road.
The eastern procession is made up of peasants, tradesman and merchants with their wives and children. They carry their bundles: clothing and food. They are on foot, dressed in their rough woven cloaks. They are pilgrims coming from the surrounding region, by the thousands, to celebrate the highest festival in their Jewish calendar, the Feast of the Passover. They will find places to stay with relatives and they will join with their extended families to share the special meal that commemorates their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the Seder Supper—the Feast of the Passover. As the week progresses, these pilgrims will continue to pour into the city. Jerusalem, a city of 40,000, will swell to over 200,000 inhabitants, filling the streets and public spaces as they make their way to and from the temple or move about visiting.
Many of the pilgrims are pious adherent Jews who have come to observe the rituals required by the Law. But many more interested in the social aspects of the occasion.
But, for all, solemn observers and social occasion types, it is a time of celebration. All have come to celebrate their deliverance from the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt about thirteen hundred years ago. They have come to celebrate their freedom and their identity as a unique people. God’s people. Today, these same people live under another form of bondage, the oppressive yoke of Rome. It is not a stretch to reflect on their historical, Egyptians oppression and their deliverance then, to their current reality. Then it was Egyptians. Today it is Romans. Then the hand of God delivered them from Pharaoh. Today, they pray that God will somehow deliver them from Caesar.
God has promised a Messiah, an anointed one, one who will be drawn from the lineage of the royal household, the unifying servant of God, King David. This one will lead them as Moses did. This one will impose God’s will on their oppressors and lead them to freedom from their burdens -- forced taxation, fear and coercion, the brutal reality under which they suffer.
As the pilgrims mill around the East gate, shouts are heard. The crowd is squeezed to force its way through the narrow passage. “Look, someone on an ass, coming down from the hills up there. Look up, the Mount of Olives. Look, there is someone mounted on a donkey ; we can see him above the others.” A sudden rush down to join the throng that has spread cloaks on the ground and is parting before this rider. They are making way for the donkey and the rider. They join in the shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
It seems some know this man. They say he’s the prophet from Nazareth, in Galilee, Jesus. Yah-shuah. This must be him. Yes it is him, “Son of David, save us! Hosanna.” Look they’re climbing trees and chopping branches. Go get some for us! “ Hosanna, Save us! Save us! In the name of God Almighty! Save us in the name of heaven!” “ Hosanna! Hosanna!”
At the West gate, another smaller crowd has gathered. They too, are squeezing through the narrow passage into the city, but now they have stopped and begin to clear the way for another mounted rider. This one sits astride a white stallion. He leads a formation of cavalry followed by spear-carrying foot-soldiers in full battle dress and arms. Except for children marching in parody and jousting noisily, the crowd is silent.
One can hear the rhythmic treads of heavy sandals above the grating scrapes of the horses’ hooves on the pavements. One can hear sharp commands for new formations as the column approaches the narrow gate. Through the still tension, one can hear the barking of dogs and the curses of the advance guards, shouting to clear the gawkers off the roadway.
This procession, more a military parade, has come up to Jerusalem from the coast, from the port city of Caeserea Maratima. After a two-day march of 100 kilometers, it has arrived at its destination, the walled city of Jerusalem -- to Jews, the Holy City. To the Romans there is nothing holy about this place. Jerusalem’s status as a capital of a people, the Jews , the chosen people of Yahweh , God, this has no validity. This city means nothing special. Jerusalem, as a capital, has been replaced by Ceaserea, the new harbor and trading city built by Herod in honour of Julius Caesar. It is from here on the coast, where access to by sea to Rome is more efficient It is from here that these ancient traditional lands are now governed
Back to the West-gate procession.
Mounted on the war-horse, is Pontius Pilate. He is in his third year as governor of Judea, and he is still in the process of defining his leadership in an effort to impress the Emperor Tiberius. His mission this day is to take charge of this city during this chaotic time. He must ensure law and order during the potentially tumultuous days ahead, the highest Jewish festival.
He has been reminded by his superiors about what had occurred in Jerusalem thirty years earlier during the time of Emperor Archelus. At that time, at this same festival, a riot broke out and 3,000 “celebrating” Jews were slaughtered in one day after their demonstrations of resistance got out of hand. Other, smaller disturbances have occurred in the intervening years. Pilate’s mission is to see that this potential breach of the Pax Romana does not happen again. There will be peace. “I will make sure there is peace in Jerusalem. Believe me!”
Yet, there seems to be a heightened probability of public unrest. The reputation and power of the Jewish ruling family, the house of Herod, has been diminished by an immoral marriage of one of Herod’s son, Antipas. There is infighting and bitterness between the four half-brothers too. Pilot’s informers keep him abreast of the local gossip. There are rumors of messianic figures circulating. One was recently beheaded. But now some kind of Savior King, who hails from Galilee, seems to be gathering followers. Pilot has many reasons to be concerned. The, “so called,” festival cannot be allowed to turn into a bloody riot, once again. “Not on my watch!”
The scene’s that have been described are not historical accounts but they do bear plausibility. They are drawn from history and from the four versions of this “Palm Sunday” story in our Bible. Each gospel account brings a particular point of view. Matthew makes no mention of palms, for example.
Only John specifically refers to palm branches. In the Gospel reading from Mark we don’t have support for the notion that there was upheaval in the city, because Mark is sparse and brief. But, here in today’s reading from Matthew we read the whole city was in turmoil. (v. 10) The Greek word used here, seiseimos, means more than “turmoil”-- that is, some kind of aggressive confusion. It means “earth shattering,” seismic, as when a tornado sweeps through or earthquake strikes – to shake, to tremble. It’s a near riot, like the Stanley Cup riot. People are caught up in it, a mob. Many don’t know what is going on. They are caught up in the energy.
And the people are asking, “Who is this?”
Matthew reports that the answer is, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Previously, Matthew has cited a scripture reference from the Hebrew prophet Zechariah. Here, in this reference, the triumphant king’s arrival is depicted as the bringing in of a peaceful monarch, “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey who will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 9:9-10). The prophet has contrasted the war-horse with the donkey. And we too can see the difference in our two scenes.
We, too, should be asking that question: “Who is this?”
“Who is this Jesus?”
“What kinds of people are his followers?”
“What does his presence, here, on this day, mean to us?”
“How would we know them, his followers, from their everyday behavior and their vision for the future?”
Who is this one attracting all the attention in this procession?
Remember, we have two processions entering the city. We have two distinct purposes. The purpose of the Roman procession, the one entering from the West is clear. Everything about it addresses authority, power, might and terror. The collaboration between King Harod and Rome trickles down into the management of the population. This is all about power -- power to subjugate, power to impose the will of the state, for taxation. for drawing off the wealth of the land for a few individuals—1%, while leaving the people—99%, in poverty. This is about the elevation, about domination and maintenance of law and order so this corrupt and immoral regime can flourish. This is about confrontation and punition. This is bold brazen and in-your-face ego-driven triumphalism.
The purpose of the procession led by Jesus, the one entering from the East, seems less clear. From the people’s point of view it too resounds with a kind of triumphalism. These people have been waiting for their King to return and now he is here. He rides above them, elevated. To some, his reputation as healer, miracle worker, prophet, and as a resistor of authority, Temple and Roman, is well known. Many, simply join in enthusiastically, hailing a celebrity, someone who appears to them to be a hero, a winner.
But the scriptural reference to donkey and war-horse from Zechariah serves to heighten the irony of this event.
The shouts of “Hosanna” “Save us, save us we pray.” -- these sound like shouts of joyous expectation. What do these exhortations mean? These words are taken from a hymn of praise in the Psalms, from Psalm 118, “Save us we beseech you, give us success!” Hosanna, the words literally mean “Lord , save us!”
At the East gate’s procession to Jerusalem, those who have gathered into a pulsing mob, throwing down their cloaks and waving their palm branches cannot be faulted if they perceive the one mounted on the donkey is their savior from the oppressive terror that is Rome. They, these ordinary hard- working folks, have been expecting a savior. They have been expecting an earth-shattering event that will rid them of their evil oppressors, a liberator King, like David, the conqueror, the unifier. They want a champion. Release from the boot of Rome!
They will have their champion, but the “earth shattering” event will come in a different form. The one on the donkey will achieve victory in a manner they cannot imagine, perceive or contemplate. Even those closest to him, his closest friends, cannot comprehend it, cannot accept it, even when they are told as insiders. What is his purpose? What kind of King? All is about to be revealed in the days ahead. It seems that in the East gate gathering of ordinary people we can identify two elements, two realities, a procession within the procession-- two processions: one, the biggest by far, is cheering, haling, loud and enthusiastic. It hails a deliverer, a king and conqueror. A spirited mood resounds from the crowd -- rousing, boisterous and assertive.
But at the center of this enthusiasm there trots another mood, the other “procession,” within. It’s smaller, just a donkey, with a suckling foal, a man astride the mare. Though at the center of the cheering crowd, he is solitary and solemn. He rides alone, accompanied only by a nuzzling foal. A threesome – passive, interconnected.
Today, we who claim to be believers in this Jesus of Nazareth can’t be faulted if we understand that the success we seek is deliverance from our enemies. As a church we can’t be faulted if we apply this success we pray for to mean triumph over the enemies of the faith. We would like to have a Jesus that rids the world of all its evil. “Let’s have a King! Let’s make him Lord!” We would like to have a Jesus that will establish the rule of God here now and for all time. ”Let’s make God’s world Great Again” on the baseball cap. We want be in charge the way we once were.
But, that is not to be. The days of “Christendom“are in the past. We need to go deeper toward Christ. We need to accept our weakness.
On this Palm Sunday ,we also know the days ahead will bring us into the presence of a different kind of Savior. A different kind of King.
In Psalm reading we heard, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. God chooses the stone. We don’t choose the stone. Our ways are not God’s ways Presuming our will, asking God to affirm it, is different from allowing God’s will to be done.
In our Palm Sunday procession, down the hill toward Jerusalem, we hail a different kind of king, a king that will call us to walk in another less jubilant procession very soon. Today we join and shout “Hosanna.” Soon we will follow him as he bears the cross toward the hill of Calvary.
We will be required to bring meaning to the contrasting processions – the one of celebration, exultation and praise will converge with one of agony, grief and loss.
Here, only in Matthew, we have a suckling colt added. The suckling colt, seeking the milk of its mother. It’s a poignant image, a hint at the kind of ruler who rides above. He is a ruler whose reign is founded in relationships, in bonds of intimacy. It hints at weakness. It points to love. Love written on the heart, not on stone. He is a ruler whose laws are governed by generosity and compassion. He is a king who is first a servant, not a master, and a savior, not a vanquisher.
He is not bold, but humble. He is not boastful, but humble. He will not raise his arms in triumph, but rather, offer his hand in compassion. He will not pursue conflict. He will submit, submit to the will of God the Father. He will pursue peace. He will suffer and die for all humankind to secure the victory. He will serve the rejected and despised. He will say ,”Go and do likewise.”
We, the world, have been given a choice: two processions. Which one will we join- the one with the donkey or the one with the stallion? As people of faith, as people who follow Christ, we really have only one choice. We know whom we must follow. We know whose procession to join.
And as we join him, Jesus, in his procession may we be moved to raise this hymn of praise:
O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory height, to power, wealth and fame.
You walked a different, lowly way, another’s will your aim.