The Challenge — 2 April 2023, Passion Sunday and the Liturgy of the Palms

Pastor Adrianne Meier
2 April 2023 — Passion Sunday and Liturgy of the Palms
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

The Challenge

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Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
            “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.”

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. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
            “Hosanna to the Son of David!
            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
            Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


On the first Palm Sunday there were actually two triumphal entries., one from the East and one from the West, according to Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. One was all about power—having it, maintaining it, whatever the cost—and one was about liberation from power that binds and oppresses, maims, and kills. One was a display of crushing military might, and the other was of peace. One was pomp and circumstance—a reminder of what belonged to only a few—and the other was topsy-turvy, a carnival, a parody.

Ahead of the Passover, Pilate, the governor of Judea, would come from his preferred palace on the sea at Caesarea to Jerusalem. His presence in Jerusalem was meant to signal to the Jewish people who was really in charge. Pilate would come into Jerusalem just as preparations for the holiday were ramping up, but after most people had arrived. His arrival was choreographed to make a statement: he’d ride in on a steed with soldiers at his side. He’d kick up dust and throw aside anyone in his way. And for the week or so, he’d reside in the garrison that overlooked the Temple mount, looking down, as it were, on those he ruled.

On this particular Sunday, however, as he rode in from the west, something else was happening in the east on the other side of the city. A comedy of sorts. It begins with a donkey ride. It is true that there are deep biblical roots describing the donkey as a symbol of peace. Mostly, because it is a parody. Parody—at least, according to the humor scholar I live with—exposes something by imitating that thing’s opposite. Imagine a donkey in battle or in a military parade—steady and so slow. With something heavy on its back, it wouldn’t walk faster than a person. Now imagine a grown man on its back, his feet barely off the ground. And then, as Matthew adds, imagine adding a foal into the mix. Does he sometimes try to ride the smaller animal? Does he ride them both? Ridiculous. It would conquer nothing. Yet, on the other end of the city, Pilate arrives with his “peacekeeping force” on their horses with their military might.

And then there is the matter of the cloaks. Clytemnestra rolled the red carpet out for Agamemnon when he returned triumphant from Troy—the first red carpet—so creating a carpeted roadway isn’t unheard of. However, the people aren’t, like, wearing puffer coats. We’re talking about Jerusalem, not Juneau. Richard Swanson, professor at Augustana College, points out that if they take off their outwear, then they’re left in their…underwear. Now, obviously, the ancient clothing system is different than ours, but there is a comedic underpinning here, an absurdity that is meant to challenge the pomp and circumstance of Rome. And not just Rome’s rituals, but what the ways the rituals are designed to instill fear and maintain the status quo, Rome’s unending power and might.

Unsurprisingly, Rome doesn’t take kindly to this challenge. As this week goes on, Jesus will talk with the people—plainly and in parables—about the corrupting consequences of power. He expose the Empire’s spectacle, its insistence that it brings peace through violence, love through hate, abundance through scarcity, when it only brings violence, hatred, and economic exploitation. Eventually, Rome will have enough and execute Jesus for sedition. And yet, Jesus’s words and examples, indeed Jesus’s own life, will remain, renewed and resurrected, promising true peace, and love, and life—abundant life.

For thousands of years, Christians have continued this ritual. But we should remember that it isn’t a reenactment, it is a ritual. What we did today—waving palm branches and shouting our hosannas, our “save nows”—is participating in a millennia-long challenge to the way things have always been—violent, oppressive, exploitive—by celebrating the peaceful, freeing kin-dom of God. Today, we gave notice to those who plunder the poor and use the rule of law to fearmonger and consolidate power, who valorize violence and reward those who prey on the vulnerable. Today, we made clear that we oppose those who would shrug and surrender to the things always being the way they are because they’ve always been that way. This ritual, and indeed our whole faith, challenges all who would blithely offer thoughts and prayers in the face of tragedy without any intent of letting God answer those prayers—let alone that they might have the position and power and policy to be a part of God’s answer. This ritual helps us tell the truth about ourselves, and our own quest for power, and our own brokenness, and our own false trust in systems that will not save us. What we have done today is shouted our most fervent prayers—proclaimed our Hosannas—that God will save us from ourselves and restore us in love toward one another.