This is probably the most confusing day in the church year. Some churches celebrate Palm Sunday by waving palm branches and shouting hosanna to the king of kings. Other churches observe Passion Sunday, with its emphasis on Jesus’ death on the cross. But maybe these two emphases belong together, because they reflect the tension that exists between how humans view power and how Jesus viewed it. The reading from Matthew describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which suggests that we’ll be focusing on the triumphal part of the story. But, there is a catch, because Jesus’ vision of triumph is different from the way most humans understand it.
The story begins with Jesus and his disciples drawing near to Jerusalem, which will soon be celebrating Passover. When the group arrived at Bethphage, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent out his advance team to locate a donkey and her colt, and then bring the animals to him. When the animals arrived, Jesus mounted them and headed into the city. As he rode that donkey and her colt into the city, a crowd began to gather. Some of them spread out their cloaks on the road in front of him, while others cut down branches and laid them in front of him. The crowd began to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It would seem that the crowd sensed that something special was afoot. Perhaps the promised Messiah had arrived to save them from their oppressors.
It’s clear from Matthew’s account, that his appearance in the city shook everyone up. It was as if an earthquake hit the city. Everyone in the city, whether residents or visitors, wondered who this man was riding into the city, and what he would do next. Some of them may have picked up on the similarities between his entrance and the words of Zechariah the prophet, who spoke of a king entering the city, triumphant and victorious, humbly riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9).
If his entrance into the city hadn’t stirred things up enough, if you continue reading in Matthew, you will follow Jesus to the Temple, where he caused quite a ruckus. He drove out the merchants and the money changers who had set up shop in the Temple. He turned over tables filled with money and goods, and scattered the animals that were being offered for sacrifice. There was nothing meek or mild about this Jesus who began shouting in the Temple: “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:12-13). Once he cleansed the Temple, he began healing people who gathered in the Temple.
As you might imagine, the authorities were not happy with this Galilean teacher entering their city and turning it upside down. It was one thing for Jesus to go around preaching and healing in the backwater region of Galilee, but it was quite another thing, to start shaking up things in the capital.
This is how Holy Week begins! It begins with Jesus upsetting the status quo. That leads us back to Zechariah’s prophesy, as laid out by Matthew. Here is Matthew’s version of Zechariah’s message: “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
This reference to Zechariah gives us a hint as to how Matthew viewed Jesus’ messianic vision. While there is a sense of triumph here, it’s interesting that when Matthew quoted Zechariah he left out an important phrase. That phrase was the declaration that the expected king would come into the city “triumphant and victorious.” I don’t think that was because Matthew misread the passage. I think it was intentional. That’s because his readers, living under Roman rule, had experienced Roman military parades. The city of Rome still displays Titus’ triumphal arch celebrating his victory over the Jewish people in the year 70. Yes, Matthew’s readers knew what it meant for a king to ride into a city “triumphant and victorious.” While Matthew left out that line, he kept the line that spoke of the king coming into the city: “humble, and mounted on a donkey.”
This is where I like to stop and imagine the possibility that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, might have been riding into the same city, at that very same moment, “triumphant and victorious.” I can imagine Pilate riding into the city mounted on his war horse, leading a legion of Roman troops into the city as a demonstration of Roman Power. The Roman promise was “peace through strength.” They had the biggest and best equipped military in the world. They instilled fear in their enemies at home and abroad.
Jesus, on the other hand, displayed a different kind of power. He came into the city “humble, riding on a donkey.” This doesn’t make Jesus any less triumphant or powerful; it’s just that he had a very different vision of power. He might be a humble king, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exercise his God-given authority. Remember that as soon as he entered the city he headed for the Temple, where he sent all the commercial entities packing.
Down though history, Christians have struggled with Jesus’ understanding of power and authority. This is especially true in the years that followed Constantine’s embrace of the church. Once the church tasted power, it didn’t want to go back to being humble. That is true even here in the United States, where, in theory, church and state are separate from each other. Even here, we have celebrated the triumphal part of Jesus’ message, while setting aside his message about humility.
As we ponder the true meaning of Palm Sunday, with its story of a humble king humbly riding on a donkey instead of a war horse, it would be good to consider Paul’s use of a hymn in his Philippian letter that celebrated Jesus’ humility. The hymn goes like this:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11).
There is definitely authority and triumph in this hymn, but it starts with Jesus’ decision not to exploit his equality with God, but instead to take on the role of a servant. He even went as far as dying on the cross. According to Paul, Jesus experienced God’s glory by embracing downward mobility. That’s not the normal path to power, but it is the way Jesus chose to go. As Isaiah put it:
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near. (Is. 50:7-8a).
There is no shame in Jesus’ path, because God is the vindicator. But, it starts with an act of humility.
This hymn helps us understand the journey that takes Jesus from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and on to Easter and his Ascension. As Bruce Epperly suggests, this picture of Jesus painted by Paul is very different from the one that Greco-Roman society painted of Zeus, whose engagement with humanity is “motivated by injured pride and revenge.” It differs greatly from the Imperial Religion of Augustus and Nero, which was “motivated by violence.” Instead, as Bruce writes: “the Lordship of Jesus is gained by hospitality and healing, not destruction and distance. Christ’s sovereignty elevates rather than diminishes the value of human life and responsibility” [Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide, pp. 36-37].
Our Palm Sunday celebration invites us to wave palm branches and celebrate the coming of the Messiah, but even as we sing “all glory, laud, and honor,” it is important that we remember that Jesus’ path leads through Good Friday, and with it the cross. That means Jesus is no ordinary ruler. He took a very different path from the superpower of his day or our day. I believe his way is different from modern superpowers, including the one we inhabit. We may have the biggest bombs, but that doesn’t make us great!
So, I close with the fourth stanza of Thomas Troeger’s Palm Sunday hymn, which can be found the Chalice Hymnal. It reads:
Lest we be fooled because our heartsMay we remember that Jesus’ messianic vision is revealed in the one who rides into the city humbly, mounted on a donkey and her colt?
have surged with passing praise,
remind us, O God, as this week starts
where Christ has fixed his gaze. [Chalice Hymnal, 193]
Picture Attribution: Entry into Jerusalem, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55431 [retrieved April 8, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Entry_into_Jerusalem_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 9, 2017