Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11
It was a strange, even surreal event when it happened. What we now call Palm Sunday. But what did the people call it then? A non-local rabbi comes to the city gates, surrounded by a rabble of poor rural folks cheering as if he’s their conquering hero. There’s no word for that kind of crowd, except maybe, deluded…dangerous…ridiculous.
When the rabbi Jesus from Galilee entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey it’s a sure thing that some people laughed in derision. It was such a farce; a weak imitation of Caesar. The emperor was no stranger to spectacular appearances. He would ride into the city on a great steed of a warhorse, dressed to kill, accompanied by charioteers in ceremonial garb and ranks of foot soldiers. It was a display of utmost wealth, power, and authority.
Matthew is the only gospel that says Jesus came riding on both a donkey and her foal. It’s an impossible image, sort of like straddling both a motorcycle and a sidecar. Some say Matthew didn’t understand Zechariah’s use of a typical Hebrew poetic device called doubling. It was used to emphasize the image – like saying: riding on a donkey, a young donkey.
But it’s also possible that Matthew was referring to another tradition – that kings would arrive on the scene of a glorious victory carried on the backs of two horses. In which case, Matthew was deliberately signaling that this rabbi Jesus, acclaimed as the Son of David, was somehow already a hero, and came clothed in a glory that only his followers could see.
To those with a keen awareness of symbolism the Galilean rabbi’s laughable entrance signified a different message. Something much, much greater than Caesar’s pomp. Those who knew the words of the great prophets might have seen something far more than a popular Jewish teacher.
Matthew quoted Zechariah 9:9, nearly word for word. “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble…” This is paired with Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant, “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced…I know that I shall not be put to shame…”
The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem was deliberate and purposeful. Riding through the city gate on a donkey paired with her foal, Jesus came vulnerable. He came without pretension, and peaceably, without weapons of any kind. His powerwas from God. His motivation was love. His means was by God’s healing word of grace and forgiveness.
Jesus entered the great city of God to reclaim the throne of David and redeem it from Caesar and all like-minded rulers of the world. But he came to do this as a servant of all. And his way of redemption was to be though suffering and obedience.
Jerusalem was shaken to its foundations by Jesus’s entry. Why? Because the city’s foundation was God. Every single thing that had been built upon that foundation was a mere monument to human pride and aggrandizement. Remember how Jesus said once that Jerusalem’s very stones would fall, until only its foundation remained. It was a spiritual promise, not a political one.
Jesus was a prophet. The crowd was correct.
Jesus entered the city by a minor gate, near the garden called Gethsemane. Not through the larger main gate. It is the gate at which all the true-hearted followers of Jesus have ever stood. On one side are those whose minds are set on Jesus. As Philippians said, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who…did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
On the other side are arrayed all the powers, the structures, the systems that did not – and still do not –understand this rabbi. But Jesus was unafraid, crossing the boundary with only his rag-tag band of disciples.
Paradoxically, the great city of God did not know her own king as he entered “Who is this?” the people kept asking. Meanwhile, the ones who loved Jesus, however imperfectly, kept singing their highest praises, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We want to be the happy crowd, waving branches.
To go through the gate as the disciples did.
Beyond this gate is the upper room; a last meal with bread and wine and fellowship
with One who will die too soon, though at exactly the right time.
Then, back out to the Garden of Gethsemane.
And on toward the high priest, the elders, Pilate, and Herod,
to the place of The Skull, to the foot of the cross.
In the strange surreal world that surrounds us right now,
this Pandemic-burdened World,
there is time, such as never since many lifetimes ago, to pay attention.
There is time now to follow Jesus through a long week of hard stories.
The inner discipline of Holy Week is more demanding than wearing a face mask,
asking of us far more obedience than twenty seconds of handwashing.
It is infinitely longer than weeks of quarantine.
Now, as we begin this holy week we pray:
God, we surely cannot go alone.
Yet our friends cannot be with us. Nor can we go to them.
Help us remember that Jesus, too, walked alone through the hardest time in his life.
All the way to death.
But he believed that you, God, did not ever leave him.
And so we ask you to go with us also.
Along the way, though this gathering darkness we will still sing:
Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us, we beg you!
Save us from our pride. Save us from our fears. Save us from forgetting the burden and the glory of serving this crying, broken, beautiful world. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.