This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day were: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; and Matthew 21:1-11. In addition, Zechariah 9:9-12 was read at the Liturgy of the Palms, and the Passion story, Matthew 26:14-27:66, was read at the conclusion of the Mass. Except for the Zechariah text, these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
That’s one of my favorite pieces of verse, The Donkey, by G.K. Chesterton, in which he captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is somewhat confusing because he pluralizes the donkey. Did you notice that in the reading of the Gospel lesson? “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.” Why does Matthew do this (when none of the other Gospel writers do so)? Some have speculated that it is because Matthew wants to tell the story in a way that precisely mirrors the prophecy in Zechariah: as you can see in the Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of Zechariah is that the Messiah will come “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
That argument presupposes, however, that Matthew does not understand Jewish poetry which uses what is called “parallelism” to underscore or highlight a particular idea, saying the same thing in two or more ways, often connected with the conjunction “and”. But Matthew was an educated Jew, so that argument doesn’t float. Others have suggested that Matthew is the first Christian biblical literalist, but that doesn’t hold water either since Matthew’s Gospel is full of metaphor and allegory. No, the likely reason Matthew does this is to present Jesus as the least military, the least kingly, the least imperial of all possible messiahs. Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus the Messiah (and Matthew the Gospel writer)
. . . want 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.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke also make point of telling us that Jesus approached Jerusalem from the east. They do this be situating us to landmarks: Matthew tells us in today’s lesson that it was “when they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives” that Jesus sent two of the disciples to get the donkey and the colt. This direction of approach is important.
At the time of the Passover, as pilgrims made their way into the city for the ritual observances, the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 (about twice the size of Medina) to well over 200,000 (more than the population of Akron). We know from secular histories that it was the custom for the Roman governor to make a militaristic triumphal entry to Jerusalem — with war horse, chariot, and weapons — each year in the days before Passover to remind the pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Because the Passover is a celebration of liberation from imperial Egypt, imperial Rome was very uneasy about so many people being in town. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology, according to which the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.
The Roman garrison was on the coast at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the Great to honor Caesar Augustus, so their approach would have been from the west. So there were two processions into Jerusalem. One — the procession of the Roman army — coming from the west, demonstrating imperial might; the other — those with Jesus — coming from the east, making a clearly anti-imperial witness. Jesus’ subversive donkey ride reminded all those waving Palm branches that Rome was the new Egypt, and the Emperor was the new Pharaoh.
And, obviously, the crowd got it! People began to spread their cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over like a red carpet; they remembered, perhaps, the story in the Second Book of Kings, which tells how the crowds spread their cloaks on the ground when Jehu was anointed King of Israel. They cut palm branches or other leafy plants as Jews did at other celebrations and festivals and strewed them in Jesus’ path; perhaps they remembered the admonition of Psalm 118: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” (v. 27) They must have, for they began chanting verses of that psalm:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord. (Ps 118:25-26)
This is what Hosanna means. Hosanna is not a shout of exultation, though we have made it one; hosanna is a prayer for salvation. The Hebrew is h?shi `?h nn? and it means “Save now, we pray.”
Recognizing Jesus as the “Son of David,” the crowd chanted the words “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and others respond, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
The scene was set for a clash not only with the authorities of the Jewish nation, but with imperial Rome. The first Holy Week had begun. And ever since that first Holy Week, the followers of Jesus have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Sara Miles of St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco says, “it’s kind of confusing: there’s a lot of different stuff going on in Holy Week. You could get whiplash” and she explains:
Think about it. During Holy Week, we wave palms in the air and hail Jesus as king, the long-awaited messiah who’s going to save us from our oppressors, then we change our minds and scream that the oppressors should crucify him; we share a loving last supper with Jesus and he washes our feet, then we sneak out after dinner and betray him. Jesus begs us to stay with him, we promise we will, then we don’t. We abandon him, he’s arrested and beaten; he forgives us, then we run away. Then Jesus is killed; we lay him in the tomb and weep; we go back for him, then he’s gone, then he’s back, and then — wait! — he’s not dead at all.
Spiritual whiplash, indeed!
But necessary whiplash, I’m afraid . . . . If we just skip from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday, without stopping to ponder the days between, Jesus’ last supper with his friends, his night of tormented prayer in the garden, his scourging and crucifixion, the fear and anguish of his disciples, and their confusion on finding the empty tomb, then we will have misunderstood the whole thing. We’ll be lulled into believing that the Christian life is just one triumph after another. We will have failed to appreciate that triumph often comes with suffering and death. Palm Sunday is only the opening act of the drama of redemption; it takes courage and commitment to enter completely into the fullness of the story.
It is so much easier to come for the pomp of Palm Sunday and then go about our business for the week, ignoring Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, before coming back in for the trumpets, the lilies, the bells, and all the rest of the great show on Resurrection Sunday. But this year somebody needs to stand by Jesus. Somebody needs to hang in there with him. Somebody needs to stay at his side as he is humiliated, beaten, mocked, and killed. Holy Week is our annual confrontation with that choice.
The donkey had no choice facing her
One far fierce hour and sweet:
[When] There was a shout about [her] ears,
And palms before [her] feet.
She and her colt had not choice, but we do. If we don’t have the courage to stand by Jesus, who will?
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.