A sermon for Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Psalm 31:9-16, Matthew 21:1-11, 12-17 *
It is the best Saturday Night Live bit ever, and its presented years before SNL was, years before TV was a glimmer in some scientist’s eye. Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem leaves no authority unscathed.
Ever since Jerusalem got conquered the first time, there is a tradition of the conquering king or general entering the city mounted on war horse and parading through the city, with troops behind, as a symbol of dominance. It’s common throughout the history; look at depictions of conquering forces, and most always there is a parade of some sort. I recall seeing photographs of German forces parading through Paris in WII. Jesus mocks it all. He enters Jerusalem; riding a donkey the colt of a donkey, (no he’s not riding two animals like a circus artist, that’s all a poetic structure Matthew muddles up). [i] However, he chooses Zechariah’s prophecy because of its reference to a king’s humble entry, a reflection of Jesus teaching about humility. The donkey also evokes the story of Solomon riding David’s mule to Gihon to be anointed King over Israel. [ii] The cloaks being spread before Jesus draws from the celebration of Jehu becoming king. [iii] The palms and tree branches are reminiscent images of Simon Maccabeus entry into Jerusalem after driving Antiochus Epiphanes [iv] from Jerusalem [v] and Judas Maccabeus purifying the Temple[vi] by removing all foreign idols and so on. [vii] At one level, everything draws from Israel’s history seems to be, as Matthew says, been spoken through the prophet. However, it’s also parity against the established order who shares the same history; even speak similar words, but whose behavior does not reflect the righteousness and justice God demands.
Immediately after entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple and starts throwing tables and coin boxes around. We imagine Jesus totally disrupting the whole place. Not likely, one: the Temple complex is just too large, two: had he disrupted everything he would have been arrested on the spot; no government tolerates a disruption of the flow of tax dollars. It’s also common for us to miss that the buyers are also driven out! [viii] So if this is not about dishonest bankers, what’s going on? The key is the phrase robbers den which is a place robbers / thieves retreat to, it’s a place of safety. Jesus is referring to Jeremiah’s charge [that was] directed against those who came to worship in the Temple” [ix] after returning from a day of thievery, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, offerings to Baal, and going after other gods that you have not known, [x] Douglas Hare writes:
The allusion to Jeremiah … suggests that the market represents to Jesus the secularization of the temple by worshipers (buyers and sellers) whose lives do not conform with their religious profession but who claim nonetheless to find security in their religiosity (“We are delivered!”). [xi]
Having made a mess of things, and made yet another parity of establishment behavior Jesus turns to the margins of society, by healing the blind and the lame. This healing does not allow them into the Temple, they are already there. It does demonstrate a proper work of the Temple, healing – restoring to wholeness and the extraordinary inclusiveness of God’s House. [xii]
The children get it, they sing about it, drawing attention to Jesus. The chief priests and scribes, a combination that ought to get our attention since they are not natural allies, take offense. So much so, they are drawn into a week long series of confrontations with Jesus.
A historical note: When Matthew writes his Gospel account, the Temple has already been destroyed by the Romans. There is no discussion about it being rebuilt. There is lots of discussion of what will take its place. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ humble entry, his reference to purifying the Temple, the proper use of the Temple, and the powers at be misuse of the Temple shift[s] the focus from the temple itself to the Lord of the temple. [xiii] Jesus himself replaces the Temple as the locus of God’s presence. [xiv]
There are always two steps to homiletics: first is exegesis or the explanation of texts; most of the above. So we now have a more informed milieu of the context in which Matthew wrote, and in which his original audience received his gospel. The second step is to ask: So what? Hare notes that throughout history this story has given rise to fierce anti-Semitism that is grossly misplaced. He continues:
We are best served by taking the passage as challenging us to self-criticism. Does secularism invade our churches? Do we use our religion as a source of security instead of allowing ourselves to be remade by it? [xv]
We have journeyed with Jesus into Jerusalem for the last time. This week, we walk with him to Golgotha. It’s a time to shed all our pretenses, a time for naked truth, a time to discern do we see with eyes clouded by established values, do we speak, or not, with voices of exclusion, have we prepared praise for ourselves? or do we see, do we sing, with the delight of children, Hosanna, save us, Son of David.
* St Stephen’s extends the Gospel reading of the Procession into Jerusalem for the Liturgy of the Word, and end the day’s worship with the Passion Gospel.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, MATTHEW A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING, James Luther Mays, Editor, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor, Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor, John Knox Press, LOUISVILLE, 1993
[ii] 1 Kings 1:31
[iii] 2 Kings 9:13
[iv] Illustrated Bible Dictionary: And Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature.
[v] 1 Macc 13:51
[vi] 2 MAcc 10:7
[vii] M. EUGENE BORING, New Interpreters’ Bible, THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[viii] Hare, Ibib
[ix] Boring, ibid
[x] Jeremiah 7:9
[xi] Hare, ibid
[xii] Hare, Boring
[xiii] Hare, ibid
[xiv] Boring, ibid
[xv] Hare, ibid