Power in indignity (Palm Sunday sermon)

Palm Sunday 2014

Zechariah 9:9-10
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

This week my intern bible class finished a short series on a handful of the stories that all appear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and we spent wonderful long times talking about the idiosyncrasies in each gospel, and what each gospel writer might have been trying to communicate by including them.

It was with that lens that I looked at our gospel for this week, and I noticed a few peculiar things about Matthew, and this is the one that stood out most: the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is told in all four gospels, but it’s only in Matthew that Jesus comes riding on a donkey, and on the donkey’s foal.

Try to imagine what that looks like!  Maybe you can help me out, because I have some trouble getting the logistics to work in my head: did Jesus have one leg astride the mother donkey, and one draped over her foal?  Was he sitting sidesaddle, and resting his feet on the little donkey like a footstool?  Was he doing some lopsided stunt riding?  Can we maybe just kinda massage Matthew’s insistence that Jesus was riding both animals into a situation where Jesus was really riding the mother donkey, and the little foal was scurrying along so close to his mom that it looked like Jesus was riding both?  Whatever the scenario, I have a hard time imagining that it looked very dignified.

It’s hard to look dignified on donkeyback. Even if you have your own pith helmet.  (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So why does Matthew insist on this picture?  Well, as you get to know Matthew, you realize that he, more than any of the other gospel writers, likes to quote the Old Testament, and here he’s quoting a section from Zechariah we just heard our lector read for us.  Of course, the OT was written in Hebrew, and in Hebrew this weird use of the plural isn’t weird but is actually kinda normal, but what Matthew had on hand when he wrote his gospel was a Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the Greek didn’t bother trying to make things look normal.  So neither did Matthew.

So was Matthew just being a biblical literalist?  “The Bible says it will happen like this, so by gum, it happens like this?”  Or does he have an even deeper agenda when insisting that Jesus comes riding on a donkey and on her colt?

I rather suspect it’s the latter.  I think Matthew may actually be trying to make Jesus look a little bit silly here.  Not to be disrespectful, nor because he thinks it’s necessary in order to remain true to Zechariah’s prophecy, but because the humor behind Jesus on two donkeys is a subversive kind of humor, a powerful kind of weakness.

Recent scholarship suggests that triumphal processions were pretty regular affairs in Jerusalem.  In fact, there’s a theory that Pontius Pilate may have processed into the city once every year, with the full power of Rome’s pomp and circumstance around him.  Into Jerusalem he’d march on the main street into town, the one that entered the city from the north, mounted on a war stallion, with ironclad hooves ringing on the stone streets. He’d have been surrounded by an honor guard of Roman soldiers, whose gleaming armor and precision of movement spoke of imperial strength and control.

And it’s likely that Pilate planned these processions specifically around the times when the Jews under his governorship were most likely to get restive: around high holidays, especially Passover, when Jews celebrated their liberation from another, more ancient imperial power.  In fact, some scholars have suggested that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem happened around or even on the same day as Pilate held a fabulous Roman procession.

Imagine that: through one gate marches the emperor’s official, mounted on a warhorse, the very picture of unassailable power and dignity.  Through another, cutting through the olive groves, comes a parody of that procession: a man wearing a garment that’s dusty from the long walk from Jericho, sitting on someone’s borrowed cloak, somehow straddling not a beast of power, but a beast of burden and her foal.

Don’t miss the element of satire in Jesus’ entrance.  Don’t miss how dangerous he is in his indignity.  Don’t overlook the reaction he causes: the whole city is thrown into turmoil not because a minor celebrity has come to town, but because by entering the way he did, it looked like Jesus was trying to upset the Roman empire on purpose, and that was shocking.

Reverberations of that shock are still with us two thousand years later as we celebrate Palm Sunday, but unlike the crowds in today’s gospel, we know what happens later this week.  We know that the one who comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is more than a revolutionary, and more than a prophet.  We know that he has bigger fish to fry than Rome: he has come to Jerusalem to take on the power of sin and death itself.

And we know that that kind of victory isn’t going to look like triumphant.  That kind of victory is, in fact, going to look like losing.  It’s going to look like death on the cross.

I don’t know if you know this, but there’s actually a bit of a tug-of-war that happens in our liturgical calendar today.  Today is Palm Sunday, but in many churches it’s also Passion Sunday.  Our gospel reading today is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but many other churches who usually read the same parts of the Bible we do every Sunday are instead reading Matthew’s account of the Passion today.

That’s because not everyone makes it out to the services that happen later this week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  (Though I know everyone here is planning to come out for all three days.)  Some people come only on Sundays, and for their sakes, Passion Sunday comes before Easter Sunday, because you can’t go from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without missing something pretty huge in the middle.

But just because we’re having Palm Sunday instead of Passion Sunday doesn’t mean that we’re missing out on the reality of the cross in today’s worship.  What Matthew is teasing out for us with his weird note about Jesus riding two animals is that Palm Sunday is inextricably linked to the indignity of what happens on the cross.  Jesus of Nazareth riding into town mounted on a donkey and the foal of a donkey cuts a ridiculous figure, as kings go.  But you know what?  So does the idea of a God who’s willing to become flesh.

Here comes Jesus, riding two animals at once, sweaty and dirty and tired, sitting on a borrowed cloak, living, he knows, on borrowed time.  Here comes Christ, who thought that equality with God wasn’t something to be grasped and hoarded, but who instead emptied himself so that he could take our form, the form of a slave, in skin that could be, and would be, touched and bruised and embraced and scourged and finally pierced by nails that held God to a cross.

Today we sing hymns that are set to the tunes of coronation marches, just a few days before Jesus is nailed up beneath a sign that reads “King of the Jews.” We sing about crowning Jesus as Lord of all, when on Friday Jesus will have a circlet of thorns pressed onto his head.  We hold in our hands palms that remind us of the triumphal entry, but they have been woven into a symbol of the instrument that was used to torture and kill our Lord.

It’s all in rather poor taste—to put it mildly—if we don’t remember that Palm Sunday is not about the power of God revealed in majesty.  It is about the power of God revealed in weakness, in humility, in indignity, and even in death.

That’s how Matthew’s detail about the donkeys turns this around for us: it reminds us that today, Palm Sunday, isn’t about Jesus’ majesty: it’s about his self-emptying obedience to God’s will, which was so strong that it let him walk into Jerusalem looking not so much like a king as like a target; so strong that it led him to walk the way of the cross.

We read in the hymn from Philippians that it was for this obedience that God highly exalted Jesus and made it so that at his name every knee should bend.  But notice this: God does not simply exalt Christ as a reward for his obedience.  Instead, God looks at the way of the cross and says, “Yes.”  The way of the cross is how God expresses God’s love for us: it is the “essential character, action, and attitude”—not just of God, not just of Christ, but of all who participate in God’s kingdom. [From Rick Carlson’s commentary on Philippians 2:5-11 over at workingpreacher.org]

What does that mean for us?  It means that as we bend our knees at Jesus’ name, as we shout “Hosanna!”, as we sing our hymns and worship Christ our King, what we worship is not a vision of imperial power and worldly glory: it is a God whose clearest act of self-revelation is in death on the cross.

And through our worship, we pledge to conform our lives to the shape of his, just as these palms have been reshaped.

Are you ready?




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