Palm Sunday

March 29, 2015

Bible Text: Mark 1:1-11 |

And so we’ve arrived, and the story has begun again – this story of the final week of Jesus’ life. And like each year we begin with Palm Sunday, the remembrance of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem amidst shouts of praise and excitement: palm branches waving and cloaks being thrown before him as a red carpet of sorts.

But for us, there’s always something faintly embarrassing about this day – this conspicuous reenactment that we really don’t relate to. So we wiggle our branches at half-mast (hoping that nobody is looking at us) and wish that the rector would be content with just letting us slip our discreet little palm crosses into our coat pockets, and to leave it at that.

Typically, in this liturgy, the Palm Sunday bit is attached to the beginning of the service, and ends mercifully quickly. By the time we’ve gotten back into our pews, we make an enormous about-face and shift the liturgy to a preview of Good Friday. “Passion Sunday” we call it. We leave the palms behind and shift to an immediate retelling of the crucifixion.

But this year we decided to linger on Palm Sunday and those days before the end – on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday. Let Friday wait for Friday (which means you better come back later this week. Don’t come to Easter without first sitting at the cross). But I want to linger with this part of the story: What was Jesus doing? What were those palm branches all about? What happened between Sunday and the Garden of Gethsemane that would cause the authorities to have Jesus arrested and killed? This isn’t the day to explore ponderous questions about atonement theory – how God was at work within the crucifixion. I simply want to ask: Why did they kill him? and why did the disciples scatter?

Jesus spent Saturday night, most likely, with his friends who lived in Bethany –a village on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, just opposite Jerusalem. And it would seem from the text that he deliberately staged his dramatic entry into Jerusalem. You see, there’s a text in the Old Testament prophet Zechariah that describes a future king arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey’s back. The text was widely understood as being Messianic, that is, a description of a future hero who will liberate captive Israel from her overbearing conquerors. For years now the people surrounding Jesus have suspected that he was in fact the Messiah, but he was frustratingly coy about the whole thing; he wouldn’t give a straight answer. But on this day it’s as if he’s saying, “Alright people: you’ve been harassing me about this for a long time. So here’s your answer. Let’s get on with it.” So he arranges ahead of time for a donkey to be ready for him; the disciples go get it; and off they go.

But where did the crowds come from? Who were these people waving the branches and shouting “Hosanna!”? Here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t arrive alone; and he wasn’t just with his disciples. They’re arriving at Jerusalem in time for the Passover celebration, which means that Jewish pilgrims from all over are arriving at the same time. About 200,000 pilgrims would pour into Jerusalem each Passover, a city whose population was otherwise only about 40,000. Jesus is most likely arriving amidst a crowd of people from Galilee. And remember: Jesus is a Galilean. The bulk of his ministry has been in Galilee and they’re the ones who have been so enthusiastic about Jesus. He’s their local home-town boy whose been wowing them for three years with his teaching and miracles. And understand this: Galilee was a region of peasants and laborers and everything that Jesus has been doing and teaching has been good news for them. He’s been preaching the Kingdom of God, now present in himself, an “upside-down-kingdom” that is for them, where the weak and the outcast and the demon-possessed are lifted up and cherished in the eyes and intentions and deliverance of God. So here they are – finally! – flooding up the slopes to sophisticated, cosmopolitan, hoity-toity Jerusalem with their Jesus of Nazareth who has finally thrown down the gauntlet and is arriving in a deliberate posture as Messiah, and they’re killing themselves with excitement.

And there’s more to this whole donkey thing than simply a deliberate identification as the long-awaited Messiah. Riding on a donkey is an inherently modest arrival; it’s the opposite of arriving on a warhorse or chariot. The hope of the Messiah is that he is a king who ushers in peace – which coordinates exactly with the Kingdom of God that Jesus has been preaching: a kingdom where the poor are cared for and the least become great; where forgiveness and mercy are the true agents of power. Now on the surface this sounds very pleasant and welcome. But you don’t have to dig very deep before you realize that any vision that advocates for the poor is necessarily an affront to the powerful. Think about recent history. Think about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero, all who dared speak peacefully against the prevailing system with a vision of a better system, of a just system. Well we know what happens to them. They’re too dangerous because their message is undeniably true and resonates with authority.

And now, Jesus and his supporters are swarming up the slopes of Jerusalem.

Now here’s an interesting bit of history: around this same time another procession would be making its way up the opposite side of the temple mount. A contingency of Rome’s military might arrived every year during the Passover to make sure that the crowds were kept in order and that no zealots or revolutionaries disrupted things too much. And you can be sure, that this procession was accompanied by many war horses and chariots. They came with power.

But so did Jesus – but of an entirely different sort. The week to come would usher in a clash of ideologies and values that would shape the rest of human history.

In many ways, you could say that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem ready to pick a fight. He announced himself in a deliberately provocative way, drawing all sorts of attention to himself. And then, after scoping out the scene in the temple, he went back to Bethany where it seems like he spent the night stewing over what he saw, and made a decision. He returns to the temple the next day and creates total havoc. He drove out the people who were buying and selling; he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. “Is it not written,” he demands, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you’ve made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).

He’s picking a fight. He marched right into the center of the established society and is confronting and denouncing the whole thing. So what happens? Exactly what you’d expect.

“When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him.” Why? “Because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).

The Kingdom of God that Jesus has been preaching stands in direct conflict with the powers-that-be in this and every society. The power-base of Jewish religion (the temple system) and Jewish society (the wealthy and privileged) had wed itself to Rome. The system worked for them and they were a part of it. But before we get too accusatory of them, let’s just think a minute about what we’re saying. Roman culture was not distinctly evil in its day and age, any more than our culture is today. In many ways Rome was more civilized and more peaceful than any culture the world had ever known up to that point. Pax Romana and all that. Just like our western civilization is, in many ways, more civilized and more just than anything the world has known up to now.

But neither Rome nor the First World we live in are synonymous with the Kingdom of God. They’re nowhere close to being the Kingdom of God. Money and power and corruption and warfare and self-interest are still at the center of our government and the society that sustains it. This isn’t to say that we are all diabolical and devious in our behavior and intent. As individuals we can be “good people – responsible, hard-working, faithful to family and friends, interesting, charming, and good-hearted…. The issue is not [our] individual virtue or wickedness”[1] but our complicity in a system that is not the Kingdom of God.

And Jesus stands apart from all systems of dominion and power, all systems that divide and gather privilege for a few over the many, all systems that are about self-preservation, all systems that are about a retributive justice rather than a restorative justice. All week long Jesus is prodding at the powers in a relentless confrontation.

On Monday he creates chaos in the temple. And it says the chief priests and scribes want to kill him.

On Tuesday he tells a parable about the wicked tenants of a vineyard, equating them with the chief priests, scribes and elders. And when they realize he’s talking about them, they want him arrested.

On Wednesday he denounces them outright and publically warns his listeners to “beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats….They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:39-40).

He then points across the temple complex to a poor widow putting her scant pennies into the offering plate, and says that her gift is greater than theirs. As he’s leaving the temple that day, he threatens to destroy the entire thing.

Jesus is bringing everything to a head:

There is only one kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of mercy and justice and an always-looking-out for the weak and the vulnerable. Forgiveness and self-sacrifice are the not just nice ideas. They are required. You cannot serve God and Caesar. I stand before you today. Who will you choose?

But choose carefully, because if you are going to follow me, you will have to lay down your life.

And, oh sweet Jesus, he’s no longer saying this on some deserted hillside with nobody listening but his enthusiastic followers. He’s saying it in the center of Jerusalem in the face of the very people he’s accusing.

You know, we’re so used to entering into Holy Week, ready to let Jesus fight our fight with the cosmic powers of evil. Jesus has it covered and we can go ahead and fall asleep along with the disciples.

But what if Jesus really means it when he begs, “Sit here while I pray….I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake” (Mark 14:32-33)?

What if Jesus really means, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44)?

What if Jesus really means “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:34-35)?

The thing is, I think he really did mean it. And his disciples, who were so eager to throw palm branches in his path, never really listened to what he said, until the soldiers came to arrest him, and they all ran away in fear.

Jesus is going to die because he lived for a Kingdom that is incompatible with the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus is going to die alone, because even his followers are afraid to support him in the end.

 

[1] Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crosson, The Last Week: What the Gsopels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), p. 18.

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