Palm Sunday

The Procession - Matthew 21, 1-11

Before the blessing of the palms, and the procession with them, the gospel passage is read in which Matthew describes Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.

The two donkeys – Matthew

Pope FrancisMatthew’s text seems to assume two donkeys, with Jesus riding both. That is hard to imagine!  Many scholars think Matthew is misreading a text from the Hebrew. I think Matthew knew his Hebrew better!

Could we take the question seriously?  Were there two donkeys? Is it a mother donkey with her foal? Has a birth been happening?  Is this mothering a symbol of gentleness and new life?   Does this put a different mood into Palm Sunday? And into Holy Week?


The Gospel of Holy Week

The Passion narrative of Matthew - Matthew 26, 14-27, 66

At this time, Jesus went up to Jerusalem and twin demonstrations took place around him, one against Roman control of the city of peace (Pilate), the other against Jewish-Roman control of the temple of God (Caiaphas).   He was protected by a crowd that had come from Galilee, and by Jerusalem people who had invited Jesus and some of his followers to bring his message there for maximum publicity at Passover.  During these days he lived there in nearby Bethany with friends. 

The first demonstration was on Palm Sunday.  He entered the city, from Bethany, to the east of the city, on a nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.  Pilate had entered, from Caesarea, to the west of the city, on a powerful stallion. This was as Zechariah had prophesied.

The second demonstration was on the Monday. A great golden eagle had been placed above the western entrance to the temple by the Romans. Around the time Jesus was born, a Pharisaic group had been martyred for their attempt to remove that eagle.  Jesus called the temple a den of thieves: a refuge, asylum, safe-house, hideaway for the Roman thieves who had claimed the temple.  Jesus overturned the tables where monies were changed into the standard donation-coinage. This was as Jeremiah had prophesied.

By Wednesday morning the chief priest and the scribes had, seemingly, decided not to arrest Jesus, because it might cause a riot among the people.  But by Thursday evening they had discovered where they could intercept him as he went back at night from the city across the Kedron Valley to Bethany. 

This they did, and they had him crucified him as quickly as possible on Friday.  A small group of perhaps six or seven partisans came to Pilate to get Barabbas released.  They got their wish.

Various gospels and extended passion narratives

Passion Week according to historians now

If we were to write a passion narrative (or gospel) along the lines of present day thinking, it might go something like this.

What did Jesus do to deserve crucifixion?  He was always a threat to the status quo, both religious and political.  His cleansing of the temple was the last straw.  The physical expulsion of merchants and moneychangers from the Court of the Gentiles was the final, dramatic manifestation of Jesus’ scandalous message through his ministry: God loves everybody, unconditionally. 

This subversive theology started with John the Baptist offering forgiveness free of charge on the banks of the Jordan.  Do you need grain and doves and sheep to sacrifice, if God only requires repentance to grant forgiveness? 

If you meet God in the desert through a prophet, what purpose is there in priests in a temple?  Why go to the temple if you have been to the river?  Jesus takes this to a further level, not just forgiving but also healing.  He touches the lepers and brings them home, healed, to their families and villages. 

Jesus, time and again, puts people above religious proscriptions, healing on Sabbath, touching the bier of a dead child, talking to a Samaritan woman, dining with tax collectors and sinners, saving an adulteress, holding up a tax collector as more righteous than a Pharisee, and a Samaritan layman more virtuous than a priest or a Levite.  He declared that a Roman soldier had more faith than all the faith in Israel.

He lived with blatant disregard for social norms and religious sensitivities.  It had to provoke a harsh response from the authorities.  He kept on doing it anyway. 

This is the motif behind his crucifixion.  He had to be removed, cast out.  The authorities never imagined it, but as a result of their getting rid of a local problem they made him the cosmic outcast so that all sinners, misfits and outsiders, in other words, all of us, might identify with him and so be included in God’s real people. 

We live in a world that excludes and divides people into us and them.  We live with laws and customs that do that.  If we want to imitate Jesus, we must violate these arbitrary things, and accept the consequences for doing so.   That is what Paul means when he asks us to be crucified with Christ.   

But is that the whole story? Is that the deeper story?

There does seem, in the canonical gospels, an underlying dimension of peace in Jesus as he goes to, and endures this exclusion in his passion and death.

This peace is what I want to examine this Holy Week and Easter.  I do not see Jesus as a kind of pacifist preacher of good religious works with no interest in the ordinary lives of ordinary people.  Had he been so, he may well have passed unnoticed by Rome.  He was crucified.  Crucifixion in those times was reserved almost exclusively for criminals against the state.  Jesus was crucified because he was made out to be in favour of sedition, rebellion, insurrection.  That was how the high priest presented him to the Roman authority.  But there was something deeper in him….

In these sacred days, we will see what it was.