Sunday, March 29, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Palm Sunday"

Mark 11:1-10

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” 4 They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Six

The pitch black t shirts, when put in context, looked horrifying: they had the skull and crossbones with the caption “Hardcore Rebels,” which by itself, maybe wasn’t such a big deal, something your goofy teenage son wears to show the world how badass he is.

Except that these shirts were distributed hundreds of attendees at a white power concert in Germany, where the neo Nazi movement is abysmally enough very much alive and well, especially in the former East Germany.

But a funny thing happened to the shirts after their first washing: the “Hardcore Rebels” caption faded to reveal a new one: “We can help you break with right wing extremism.”  It was revealed that the shirts were the work of a group called Exit Deutschland, whose purpose was to help neo Nazis who wanted to exit their life of Nazism: not an easy or safe task when you consider that those who defect from skinhead gangs are often at risk of being killed in reprisal for defecting.

But the t shirts at least put forward a choice, in a rather poignant way: you could continue to rebel against that which is good and just for humanity: equality and justice, or, you could leave that destructive past behind to follow a new way forward into a new future.

It is the choice that the citizenry of Jerusalem were proffered with on Palm Sunday.  And, as all four of the Gospels are unanimous on, a great many of them chose the way of Jesus.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, is rapidly approaching the climactic scenes of the arrest and the trials and, ultimately, the cross, so too do we hurry down that road.  But that road goes through the gates of Jerusalem first, and so we too will walk alongside Christ for His triumphal entry into the holy city on the day that we call Palm Sunday.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a couple of months ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.  We have gone through Monday to Good Friday of Holy Week, but now we rewind back to Palm Sunday, since today is, well, Palm Sunday on the liturgical calendar.

From Borg and Crossan, in their chapter on Palm Sunday:

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30…One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession.  From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by His followers.  Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, His message was about the kingdom of God, and His followers came from the peasant class.  They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north, a journey that is the central section and central dynamic of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark’s story of Jesus and the kingdom of God has been aiming for Jerusalem, pointing toward Jerusalem.  It has now arrived.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.  Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.  The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion (for) Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology.

This triumphal entry of a hero into a city that Pilate is executing on the same day as Jesus would have been nothing new to Jerusalem at the time—Alexander the Great held one such entry when he conquered Babylon, for instance, 300-some years before Jesus.  But such spectacles were reserved for kings, rulers, emperors, or their proxies—the people who represented imperial power to the masses—and certainly not reserved for a humble Jewish carpenter.  But those emperors, governors, and soldiers, they would have entered the city on their finest horse, not a donkey or a poor little colt that was boosted from its rightful owner in what might be the most holy instance of grand theft donkey, replete with the classic excuse—the Lord needs it!  And for a scene so comical that it would be like if the president were to show up in a motorcade of clown cars…which, depending on your political allegiance and whichever party is in  charge at any given time, may or may not be an appealing anaogy.

And so while scholars agree that Jesus riding in on the animal that He did was meant to fulfill Scripture and to fulfill prophesy (Zechariah 9:9), many will also say that there is a certain amount of theatrics that Jesus is employing here.  It is a spoof of the Roman power-that-be whom Jesus, or the Jewish rank-and-file population of Judea, probably didn’t much care for.  If Jon Stewart (or Stephen Colbert, or John Oliver, or Larry Wilmore…wow, satire news has taken off) were around back then, this entry by Jesus might have been something that they would have concocted!

In other words, Jesus is satirizing His earthly overlords, the Roman Empire.  He’s discrediting them publicly, something He has been so very good at doing time and again with the Roman Empire’s local puppets, the Pharisees and the scribes.

And on the other side of this, you have the Jerusalem people themselves.  And I’m not sure that they got the memo that this might have been a satirical stunt.  Notably, there are no palms in Mark’s version—seriously, go back and read it if you don’t believe me.  There are no palms.

Why is this important?  Because olive palms in particular are a symbol associated with victory, the exact same way a gold medal is today.  In the ancient Greek Olympics, victors would be awarded with, among other things, a wreath of olive laurels that they’d wear around their head.  You’ve probably seen pictures of that.  And that tradition carried over, in a manner, to Roman tradition in that victorious rulers or generals might also have palms to greet them, either as a wreath or to wave at him, when he entered a newly-conquered city as part of a victory parade.

Instead, people sacrifice their clothing for Jesus’ mount to have something to trod on, and they shout praises to His name.  In other words, this is the real deal for them.  Even if for Jesus this is a farcical poke-in-the-eye to the powers-that-be, for the people, this is real.  So you see…they are speaking two different languages, Jesus and the people.  Jesus is making a mockery of the imperial rulers who have taken the Israelites’ freedom, but to those colonized Israelites, Jesus is Himself real, and worthy of their sacrifice of their clothing in order to pay heed to His honor.

Think about the use of clothing today, with Exit Deutschland in its attempts to change neo Nazis.
Sacrificing clothing in order to send a profoundly important message about a profoundly important choice that each of us have to make: we can choose to join the procession of Christ, or we can choose to join the procession of Pilate.  Exit Deutschland sacrificed clothing to call people away from hatred and towards love, love that ultimately came from Christ and from God.

We can choose to follow Pilate and the source of his power: the imperial cavalry and legionnaires, the might of sword and spear to keep an oppressed people oppressed and a downtrodden nation downtrodden.  We can choose to embrace all manner of earthly power and anger in an ultimately vain attempt to assert our superiority over others, but they are exactly that: vanity.  Vanity, as Solomon says.  All is vanity.

Except that the nails are real.  The wooden crossbeam is real.  The crown of thorns is real, and the crucifixion is real, because that is the only way the resurrection too one day will be real!

So, we can choose to embrace the surrender of all earthly power, status, fame, and glory, and follow this comical donkey all the way to its ultimate and final destination: the cross high atop Calvary.

The choice is yours, and ours, to make, and to make alone (I really want to make a Legends of the Hidden Temple joke, but that’d be just a tad irreverent, and I’m not sure anyone outside the ages of 25-35 would get it.  Oh well.  Olmec, you were the best).

So the onus is upon each of us to make that choice wisely, with care and with deliberation, with compassion and with love.

Fortunately, Jesus is about to give us a pretty big clue as to which way to go one week from now, when the news arrives that the tomb is empty, that the stone has been turned aside, and that life reigns over death once more.

Such is the power of God.  And such is the power of the choice we are offered to make

Hosanna, hosanna in the highest.  Amen.

Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 29, 2015


  1. You mentioned that a great many of the citizenry of Jerusalem chose the way of Jesus as he entered (the "triumphal entry"). Actually, the Gospels place the crowd singing Hosanna (to the new king) outside Jerusalem, as they approached the city. The account of Mt. 21:10-11 is especially revealing. When Jesus actually entered Jerusalem, the whole city was "stirred" ("shaken," as in an earthquake, the same word used in Mt. 2:3 for the reaction of King Herod and all Jerusalem at the news of the wise men that a new king had been born). Thus Jerusalem silenced the celebration by asking, "Who is this?" And the crowd gave a watered down version as they hesitantly answered, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee" (Mt. 21:10-11).

    So it was more of a triumphal approach (of a crowd that hoped Jesus would be the king to conquer Pilate and the Jewish collaborators), followed by a suspicious Jerusalem that ended the crowd's celebration.

  2. You make a very interesting point. Yes, the procession definitely began outside the gates of Jerusalem, and geographically, the Mount of Olives overlooks the city gates towards the east, and coming down from it, the procession would have been quite visible on a clear day to anyone who cared to watch, which is probably what got the temple authorites' attention. The entire city was shaken (also very interesting to me that you mention Matthew's use of Greek vocabulary here, shaken as in an earthquake, since Matthew is also the evangelist who says an earthquake accompanied the moment of Christ's death on the cross).

    I agree, in that way, the triumph was of the crowd and of their expectation that Jesus would conquer Pilate and the Jewish collaborators--an expectation that Jesus repeatedly disavows, especially in John's Gospel. So I'm not sure it was a triumph for Christ beyond the fulfillment of Scripture...besides, His true triumph is yet to come with the empty tomb.

    Thanks for commenting!

    1. The triumph was indeed in the minds of the crowd, not Jesus. As they shout Hosanna, and bless the one coming in the name of the Lord, they are quoting and alluding to Ps. 118, which does speak of triumph and victory.

      But Jesus has a different passage in mind, Zech. 9:9-10. It is interesting that some translations (like RSV and NRSV) use the phrase "triumphant and victorious" in 9:9, while a translation like the NIV is closer to the Hebrew, translating "righteous and having salvation." (Did those former translators attended too many Palm Sunday services?) Anyway, Mt. 21:5 quotes Zech.9:9 without using the phrase. What Matthew emphasizes is that this king comes in a humble/meek way. The Greek word is the same as in the beatitude, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. So it's meant to be a contrast, as in Zech. 9:9-10 between a humble and meek (gentle/kind) king on a donkey, even a young colt, and those proud and mighty harsh kings who now rule the earth on their war horses.

  3. Interesting. My Biblical Hebrew is bad, bordering on nonexistent (I took Greek instead), but a quick scan of a number of the translations on BIbleGateway shows a pretty even split between "righteous" and "having salvation" in Zech. 9:9, including among Jewish translations (like the Complete Jewish Bible versus the Orthodox Jewish Bible), whose translators probably haven't attended too many Palm Sunday services. :)

    But you're right that Matthew is emphasizing a humble/meek king, and how it sets up a powerful juxtaposition between this humble monarch and the proud and mighty kings upon their warhorses. The other Gospels do so as well, because they too are accounting for a fulfillment of Zech. 9:9, but they're more implicit about the meekness on display; Matthew's use of the Greek praus/praeis to describe Jesus makes his account much more explicit about that dimension of Palm Sunday (interestingly, Matthew also actually quotes Jesus as describing Himself as "praus" in Mt. 11:29; we tend to remember 11:30, the yoke being easy and the burden being light, but not what immediately proceeds it and how unique an occurrence it is in the Gospels).