A Sermon for Palm Sunday (05/04/20): A Political Drama – Part 1

The lectionary offers two gospel readings for the 6th Sunday in Lent. The first is the obvious one, the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the second is the Passion Narrative. So for Palm Sunday I have two connected sermons. The first, here, on the Triumphal Entry and the second, later, on Jesus’ trial.

A Political Drama – Part 1

Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday flowers by Sylvia Fairbrass

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is the opening act of a political drama that will play out in the coming week. The events of Holy Week revolve around a number of questions. These questions are essentially political in nature:
Who will lead this people? 
What kind of leadership will they provide? 
What kind of people will they be? 
What is the destiny of this people? 
We would recognise these as “political” questions. They form part of the discussion that lies behind the politics of any and every body of people who gather themselves together with a shared identity for a common purpose. These questions apply to any nation, just as they apply to the people of God.

Overall, throughout his ministry, Jesus has been quite reticent about the claims he has made of himself. The most obvious he has been is to have spoken of himself in the third person using the enigmatic title: the Son of Man. But now his claim has become bold, it becomes obvious. Jesus makes a very explicit claim to lead the people of God. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a claim to leadership and it is a kind of acted manifesto. It is his declaration before the nation of what he offers to them. Riding into a capital city is a very explicit claim to authority. The one who rides into a capital city claims to rule from here and over all the people whose lives are focused on this place. Jerusalem is home to the temple to the only true and living God. In claiming authority here, Jesus claims authority over all who look to God.

But Jesus’ entry is more than a claim simply to rule, it also portrays the character of his rule. Jesus rides into Jerusalem but he does so on a donkey. First of all this is the boldness of his claim. He wants the people to recognise an allusion to a promise made to them by God. A promise which Matthew helpful reminds us of in his recollection of the event:
“Look your king is coming to you humble and mounted on a donkey” 
A promise made by God that their true leader would come to them in this fashion. Jesus could hardly be more blatant in announcing himself Lord over God’s people How can you have a triumphal entry and yet remain humble at the same time? You do it by riding on a donkey. The point is that it is not a horse. Triumphal entries were a familiar event in the ancient world.They were displays of power. Conquering Roman Emperors rode back into Rome display their strength of their military force and bringing with them the spoils of their victory. Or victorious generals entered conquered cities, surrounded by their army mounted on their war-horse, to further humiliate those they had vanquished. A donkey is not a horse. The contrast is a deliberate one. Jesus claims to rule. But his rule will be the opposite of that of emperors and conquering generals. Their rule is legitimated only by overpowering force. There is no coercion in Jesus’ claim to rule. Jesus’ claim to authority is not that of conquest. He doesn’t simply destroy and replace one tyranny with his own reign. He makes a moral and spiritual claim to authority among God’s people. Jesus’ authority is based on his access to the truth, his insight into what is really happening.

Time and again Jesus is shown in the gospel knowing things that others don’t and can’t know. This insight is one of the characteristics that mark him out as distinctive and special to those who meet him. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem we glimpse this again. Jesus grasps the world and its working and understands people with unmatched clarity. So he can send disciples into a village and know that what he needs will be available for him there. It is divine insight. Jesus sees the world and its people as God sees them. The prophets were prophets because they were given glimpses of the world as God sees it. Jesus possesses that vision for himself. Just rule can only be established by complete knowledge of all the circumstances in each situation that arises. It is Jesus alone who possesses that knowledge. There is no coercion to Jesus’ rule. His authority is established on the truth. And those who recognise the truth respond to Jesus’ claim to rule.

And the crowd does respond. They answer Jesus’ claim with recognition and acceptance of that claim: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The crowds with Jesus aren’t all, explicitly, his followers. This isn’t simply the crowd of fisherman and tax-collectors and outcasts, the cleansed lepers, the walking lame, the hearing deaf, the seeing blind, and women, who have followed Jesus everywhere he has gone. These people haven’t come to Jerusalem because of Jesus. They have come for the same reason anyone would go to Jerusalem. To be with God. They have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the great festival of liberation. They are people who have come from all over – out of the countryside to be here. They are the ordinary folk. To use Jesus’ own phrase they are “the salt of the earth.” They are the humble, the faithful and the pious. They are the people amongst whom all of Jesus’ ministry has taken place. So in another sense, they are his people. And they are the people on whom the burden of rulers weighs heaviest.They are the ones who would answer those those political questions:

Who will lead this people? Someone else.
What kind of leadership will they provide? A just and kindly one.
What kind of people will they be? To be people like us at our best, a community of mutual love and support.
What is the destiny of this people? To live life and life in all its fullness.
They are people who want change. People who have a reason to want to see a transformation in the way the world is ordered. They want that new direction that will take them away from the oppression and deprivation they experience into a community that frees them from economic and social burdens. They know what Jesus is about, even if they aren’t formally his followers. They have been witnesses to everything Jesus has done so far. They have seen his deeds of power. They have heard him teach about the Kingdom. And now they see yet another sign from Jesus, that confirms what they had longed and hoped for from him. He rides into Jerusalem. On a donkey. They know the prophecy. They know what this means. He has come to claim the throne of David:
Hosanna to the Son of David.” 
They are caught up in the excitement of the moment. They find expression in the hope of the reestablishment of an ancient kingdom. But their hope goes far deeper than than that:
“Hosanna in the highest heaven”
Hosanna is a word that loses something in the lack of translation. We lose sight of what it means. So we lose sight of what the crowd is asking from Jesus. Hosanna means, “Save, please.” The crowd are calling on Jesus to bring about salvation. They call on Jesus to establish the Kingdom that brings about heaven’s reign on earth. They call for the transformation of the world that they long for. This is what they want to see happen and they can see that their hopes could be about to be fulfilled. Jesus is the leader they want.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
They acclaim Jesus and give him the “red carpet” treatment.They are looking for him to transform them into that holy nation that knows no king but God.

Passing through the gate into the city itself the crowd perhaps could have expected the story to end there. Immediately the Kingdom of God established for them and everyone else right there. But this is not a fairy story. As we observed, this is a political drama. And there is no drama without opposition. To begin with opposition to Jesus in Jerusalem is not obvious, but it will quickly emerge. The citizens of Jerusalem observe the arrival of the crowds and their excited mood.

When he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil asking, “Who is this?”
In contrast to the people from the countryside, Jesus is as yet unknown to the citizens of Jerusalem. But his arrival has an unsettling effect. They see the crowd, its energy, its excitement. And they sense its desire for change. And at its centre they see someone who they don’t know.
Who is this?
Jerusalem hasn’t heard Jesus speak? Jerusalem hasn’t seen Jesus’ deed of power? They know nothing about him? But what they do know is that they are happy with the way things are. The fundamental contrast between the crowd and the citizens of Jerusalem is their desire or lack of it for the revolutionary change that God’s kingdom will bring about. It is this opposition which creates the drama in the story. It is what determines people’s reception of the Gospel. It is what determines how the rest of Holy week plays out. The citizens of Jerusalem have something to lose. They have wealth. They have prestige. They have power. And because they have these things and they are afraid of losing them they dislike disruption and they resist change. One thing people with wealth and prestige and power love above all is order. Order means their position is secure. Disruption threatens what they have. The reign which Jesus is announcing and the crowd is demanding is one based on justice and on truth. But the citizens can’t accept such a reign because it exposes the fact that their position in society is based on falsehood and injustice. The citizens of Jerusalem and especially the Priests at it centre claim that the way things are, are the way God intended them. Their wealth is a sign of God’s favour. Their prestige is so that they may be an example that others may aspire to or be judged by. And their power, is power which God gave them to use as they please. The drama which plays out in the following days is a contest between truth and justice claimed by people with no power against the falsehood and injustice of those in power. And we already know how such dramas always seem to turn out!

A note of thanks to Sylvia Fairbrass, from Normanby, who made the flower arrangement and provided the photograph at the start of this page. She says: “This arrangement at home is my attempt to tell the story for Palm Sunday using materials from the old railway path and my garden as I am self-isolating. The arrangement is made up the following:Gold Heart & Variegated Ivy, Lawson Cyrus, Pussy Willow, Euonymus, Purple Everlasting Wallflowers, Rosemary in flower, Orange Broom, Yellow Wallflowers, Green Hellebore, White Piris Bells. 3 Purple fir cones donated by my neighbour Jacki Severs represents collaboration of churches. Did you spot the following? Purple candle, Sacrificial lamb, Ass /Donkey the final Journey, 30 pence in Silver coins, Bread & Wine last supper.”

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A Political Drama – Part 1 by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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