The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Fear: the other Palm Sunday emotion (Palm Sunday sermon, 2008)

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Provoking the Gospel of MatthewKeenerThis sermon leans hard on Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary by Richard W. Swanson and A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by Craig S. Keener, both of which I gladly recommend. I don’t think I have any direct quotes from them—but I’ll bet I come pretty close! Swanson’s approach, especially, left me with a desire to “set” the story this year, and let it make its own points, rather than turn it into a “sermon,” in the modern sense. My hope is that doing so anchors the Easter story a little more clearly in the discomfort and confusion of its day. Thanks for reading! – Monte

Liturgy of the Palms; Sixth Sunday in Lent; March 16, 2008
Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2,19-29

[See also the 2006 Palm Sunday sermon Whose Kingdom, Christian?]

It’s hard to feel the background of Palm Sunday. To us, it’s fun. Light.

2,000 years ago, Palm Sunday was ominous. Life under Roman rule could be terrifying; a competing king was reason enough for slaughter. News of Jesus’ arrival brought both hope and dread.

The best cultural analogy I can think of is modern Gaza. Here’s a recent description:

Israel has militarily occupied Gaza for forty years. It pulled out its colonials in 2005 but maintained an iron grip on the area, controlling all access, including its airspace and territorial waters. Its F-16s and helicopter gunships regularly shred more and more of the areas—public works, its neighborhoods—and inflict collective punishment on civilians in violation of Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As the International Red Cross declares, citing treaties establishing international humanitarian law, “Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked.”

You understand collective punishment. It’s as if your neighbor were accused of murder. Rather than being arrested, an F-16 thunders past, blasting his house into flying splinters with a missle.  Your neighbor is instantly killed, along with his wife and children. Your house falls as well; some of your children are screaming in agony; some will never cry again. You’ll never know if your neighbor had actually hurt anyone.

According to The Nation magazine, the great Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, reports that the primitive rockets from Gaza, have taken thirteen Israeli lives in the past four years, while Israeli forces have killed more than one thousand  Palestinians in the occupied territories in the past two years alone. Almost half of them were civilians, including some 200 children.  [“Israel,” Mr. Bush says, “has a right to defend herself.” – M.]

The Israeli government is barring most of the trucks from entering Gaza to feed the nearly one million Palestinians depending on international relief, from groups such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The loss of life from crumbling health care facilities, disastrous electricity cutoffs, gross malnutrition and contaminated drinking water from broken public water systems does not get totaled. These are the children and their civilian adult relatives who expire in a silent violence of suffering that 98 percent of [our U.S.] Congress avoids mentioning while extending billions of taxpayer dollars to Israel annually. UNRWA says “we are seeing evidence of the stunting of children, their growth is slowing.” Cancer patients are deprived of their chemotherapy, kidney patients are cut off from dialysis treatments and premature babies cannot receive blood-clotting medications.

The misery, mortality and morbidity worsens day by day. Here is how the commissioner-general of UNRWA sums it up, “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and-some would say-encouragement of the international community.” – Ralph Nader in Counterpunch

Wonder what it’s like to be a Palestinian, heading down to the market, sensing a hushed buzz in the crowd: “More rockets last night. ” Do you glance at the sky? Do you rush home to your kids? Do you listen for aircraft—“Shh!!”—with pounding heart every time a truck passes?

It would be like that in 1st c. Judea. Not the poverty, but the fear. You want to be free, but you know any act that looks like rebellion will bring vicious, overwhelming revenge. “Somebody’s loved ones are going to die from this,” was the consensus at the market.

Into that atmosphere comes a country preacher with a big crowd. Jesus (whom they are calling the Christ) is in Jerusalem.


Matthew 21:1-11*
The Royal Welcome
1-3When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”

It’s the prerogative of a king to commandeer a pack animal – Jesus is acting kingly, and no questions are asked.

4-5This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised [gentle?] and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.”

girl on donkeyAnd it’s a fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah, that the coming Messiah would enter Jerusalem, not on a war-horse or in a warrior’s chariot, but on a pack animal.

Hard to be dignified on a donkey. It’s a symbol of humility – not of war, but of peace. Jesus is saying he’s a king alright, but a very different kind of king. And so it happens:

6-9The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”

And it happens in symbols, veiled meanings, because this is a city of fear. Crowds gather, palm branches are cut—the palm being the symbol of the Maccabeans—the leaders the last time the Jews were a free people. About as long ago as WWII is to usabout as long ago as the modern state of Israel is to the Palestinians, Pompey the Roman crushed them, and Jerusalem had been under Roman rule ever since. Palms were a silent symbol of revolt.

And Hosanna – Hosanna isn’t a word the Romans would understand, at least not well. It’s one of the few words in our Bibles that is Aramaic, not Greek. It means not “Hip hip hooray!” but “Lord, save!” And perhaps it is Aramaic so the Romans won’t get it. Among Jews there’d be no confusion: It meant “Save us from these Romans!”

The Romans may assume he’s a popular prophet that people like to hear, and that’s fine, as long as the crowds stay friendly. There’s another word: “Hosanna to David’s son!” Once again, the Romans won’t get it, won’t retaliate. But to Jews, David’s son means something very specific: this is the king. He is not just a prophet telling about the kingdom that’s coming. He is the king.

Now the crowd may be pilgrims from Galilee, who know about Jesus. But he’s not well known in Jerusalem. Watch the reaction of the city people:

10As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?” 11The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Unnerved? Why? “Uh-oh. Rockets last night. Listen for the F-16s.”

So Jesus makes his entry; and his identity is partly hidden from the Romans. He downplays confrontation.

And that would be a fairly simple story, but the gentle king seems to become someone else:

12-14Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:

My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.

Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.

Jesus had no credibility in the temple. He wasn’t a priest, and the temple was run by priests. In fact, Jerusalem was run by priests. The Romans were probably not the day-to-day government. As long as there was no hint of rebellion or riot, the Romans could stand back. So the priests, as much as they hated it, worked for the Romans. Keeping their jobs – and possibly their lives – depended on keeping things calm.

The outer courts of the temple were called the Gentiles’ Courts. It had always been the case that non-Jews were welcome in this part of the temple. But through the years, parts were fenced off, signs posted, and recently, the trade in animals for sacrifice and money changing for pilgrims had moved in.

So the gentle king gets rough. Dumps tables, money scatters—can you imagine the sound of coins ringing onto stone floors—chases the animals out. And then—

Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.

More than room was needed, for rules prohibited such people from being in the temple at all. So Jesus—who has no authority with the rulers—takes over their jobs, inviting in the unwelcome. It had to be a slap in the face. He rearranges the temple and re-writes the rules. They’ll ask him later where he gets the authority to do this stuff.

15-16When the religious leaders saw the outrageous things he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

What’s that mean – what the children are shouting? This is the King. And what’s that mean for the priests? They’re obliged to either shut him up or turn him in to the Romans. They move to shut him up, and quickly. But here’s what Jesus gives them:

Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?”

What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying, “Yup. I hear it. And they’re right to say it.” His implication could be “and you should be saying it, too.”

17Fed up, Jesus turned on his heel and left the city for Bethany, where he spent the night.

And with that, Jesus leaves. But the stage is set for the week ahead. Jesus has begun the clash that will result in his death at the hands of the Romans.

Some of the city rejoices. Most of the city trembles. Watch for the F-16s. Passion week has begun.

*Scripture is from The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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4 Responses

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  1. Thanks, imtindomeiel! That is a useful observation, indeed, that reinforces the idea that the Jewish government was mostly “the government” in day-to-day matters. And their unfamiliar presence certainly would ramp-up the fears at Passover. Thanks for coming by!


    March 14, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  2. Great comparison to modern Israel/Palestine for the level of fear of the Jews in 1st century CE. I think it’s also important to note that Romans usually did not occupy Jerusalem, but only did so during the week of Passover. Not only was there constant fear of the Romans throughout the year, but there was an elevated fear during Passover which is when Jesus had his triumph into Jerusalem.


    March 14, 2008 at 2:08 pm

  3. […] Fear: the other Palm Sunday emotion (Palm Sunday sermon, 2008) […]

  4. I’m so glad you bring attention to the plight of the Palestinians in your sermons. It’s such a lovely thing to do and very fitting given they are located just where Jesus was.

    Monte Says: Thanks, friend!


    March 11, 2008 at 3:18 pm

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