Sermon, April 17, “Clearer by Contrast”

Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

“Clearer by Contrast”

Matthew 21:1-11

             For these last several weeks, we have seen Jesus transform lives.   We have seen him give living water to a Samaritan woman so that she would not thirst again.   We have seen Jesus give a blind man sight and also a purpose for living.   And last week, Scripture took us to the house of Mary and Martha, where we saw Jesus give life to their brother, Lazarus raising him from the dead.  

             Today, on this Palm Sunday, scripture now takes us from these back roads of Galilee to the great city of Jerusalem.  And, we will see the transformation that Jesus brings move from something quite personal to something provocatively public. 

             But before we step into the text for today, let us pray:  Holy God,  we have felt your presence during this time of Lent as we examine our hearts and prepare for this walk into Holy week.  Give us the steadfastness, we pray, to face the truth that is revealed through your word made flesh. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.  AMEN.


            The contrast could not have been clearer.  On one side of town, Jesus makes his way down the Mt of Olives on the back of a donkey.  On the other, legions of Roman reinforcements stream through the city gates.[1] 

             It is the start of the High Holy Week of Passover and a million or more Jews from all over the Mediterranean basin have come to Jerusalem.  Passover is the time to remember and celebrate God’s mighty act of Exodus when God brought the people out from under Pharaoh’s oppression, and led them into the Promised Land.   The text tells us, the whole city is in turmoil, churning with a restless hope that once again God will act to free God’s people, not from Egypt this time, but from the heavy hand of Rome.  [2] 

             Fearing that Passover’s remembrance could tip into revolt, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, calls for these military reinforcements – a show of muscle to remind the populous who calls the shot and whose town Jerusalem really is.   And those legions and legions of soldiers on the move must have been an impressive.  War horses snorting and pawing at pavement, sun glinting off shields and sharp tips of swords and spears.

             And of course Jesus is aware of all this.  He knows how charged the atmosphere in Jerusalem is.  He knows that Pilate has sent for military reinforcements.  He knows how the festival of Passover kindles the people’s longing for deliverance.   It is clear that Jesus knows all of this, for he crafts his entry into Jerusalem in such a way that is not only in sharp contrast with the procession of Roman might across town, but that also provocatively evokes the Passover’s expectations.  His entrance is essentially an enactment the words from the book of Zechariah that tell of the battle to be fought on the Mount of Olives at the end of the age and proclaim “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). 

             And the crowd around Jesus that day clearly makes the connection to the Prophet’s words.  They sing Hosanna “O Save” a cry of acclamation reserved for one victorious in battle, for a king returning from conquest.[3]  They spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from the trees and lay them on the path as they cry “Hosanna to the Son of David!” 

              Clarity by contrast.   One comes in the name of the Lord, riding on the back of a donkey, bearing nothing more than a tattered cloak.  Many come in the name of Rome, riding on war horses bearing gleaming swords and sharpened spears.   The reign of God and the reign of Rome

             But at this crucial point in his ministry, Jesus has come to Jerusalem the apex of religious and  political power not just to clarify the contrast between the Gospel Way and the Way of what the Bible calls, the powers and principalities.   Jesus has come to this point in his ministry, to the great city of Jerusalem, in order to engage those powers[4], in order to enter into them so that their death dealing lies and abuses may be revealed and in being revealed lose their power to entrance and enslave the people.     

             In the days before us in this most Holy Week, Jesus will engage first the power of the religious authorities.  His teachings will expose their love of social status and power over their love of God.  He will reveal them to be preservers and protectors, not of the people and of the Jewish faith, but of their own their cozy alliance with Rome.    In the days ahead, the religious authorities will become so enraged by the truth that Jesus speaks that they will arrest him and put him on trial.  And the Gospel will show us quite clearly that these religious authorities who are both judge and accuser will look for testimony regardless of the truth of the claim.   So convinced are they that Jesus must go that truth becomes irrelevant and the gospel accounts shows us all of this quite clearly. 

             Jesus then engages the power of Empire.  He is brought before Pontius Pilate who is more than happy to set aside truth and justice in order to take advantage of the opportunity before him to make it brutally clear what happens to anyone foolish enough to try to fulfill the Passover longings.  And so when Jesus is taken to Pilate, the governor shifts Jesus offense from the religious to the political, implying sedition when he asks Jesus “are you the King of the Jews?  The Gospel tells us that Pilate goes before the crowd that the priests and the elders have persuaded to call for Jesus death.  He feigns detachment from any investment in the crowd’s decision to either have him release Jesus or release Barabbas and when they then call for Barabbas asks what should be done with the one who is called Messiah.  When the crowd calls for crucifixion, Pilate sends Jesus who he now terms the “King of the Jews” off to his death.  Pilate is more than happy to use violence as a means of social control, crucifying the King for whom the people had longed.

             In his book “The Trial Narratives”, new testament professor Matthew Skinner writes “The whole of Jesus’ trial both before the religious authorities and before Pilate pulses with injustice and irony; what began as the show trial of a man not guilty of the accusations originally brought against him ends with the condemnation of a man whose self-spoken messianic claims have been misunderstood but nevertheless ironically authenticated and rejected by those in power.  When Jesus is handed over to the authority of human beings, they exploit every available resource to crush him and cast him out.  He simply has no place within their system of power.[5]

             The irony that the Gospels make so powerfully clear is that while the religious authorities and Roman think they are on the ones trying and condemning Jesus, readers of the Gospel texts can see clearly that it is actually these same powers who are on trial and who ultimately are condemned, for Jesus passion reveals their self serving abuses of power for all to see.  When the way of Jesus, collides with the way of the powers and principalities, the light of truth reveals the human authorities’ propensities to overwhelm and tyrannize others in order to protect their own power and privileges.  When the early Christian communities read the gospel account of this Holy Week, they read it as implicit warnings to not co-opt the values and systems of empire, for these self serving, death dealing values and systems of empire are the antithesis to the life giving way of Jesus.[6]   

             So what does all of this mean for us in our walk with Jesus on this Palm Sunday? It means is that we are not only to live lives that sharply contrast with the abuses of power and privilege that are so rampant today, but that we, like Jesus, are to step into and engage these crucifying powers in order to expose them for what they are.  Whether that means exposing the greed that is seeping into so many dimensions of our national life.  Whether that means uncovering our culture’s rampant consumerism that is more than happy to gloss over abuses to workers and to the environment in order to feed our insatiable hunger for more and more.  Whether that means taking a hard look at the machinations of our prison system that does far more to degrade than reform.   Or whether means prying open the great American myth that anyone can get ahead with hard work and a little elbow grease to see the layers and layers of disadvantage that are heaped upon our nation’s poor.

             There are still far too many places in our lives and in our world where Empire rules.  Where might makes right.  Where violence gets you what you want.  Where the most powerful are considered the most important.  Where the prosperity of the many is sacrificed for the privilege of the few. 

             Jesus came into world to touch each and every one of us so that we may personally know fullness of life in him.  But he also came to touch and transform the structures that frame how we relate to each other, so that in our life together we may know the sweet Shalom of God.  On one side of town, Jesus is entering a Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  On the other side of town, legions of Roman soldiers are pouring through the city gates.  With whom will we walk in the days to come?  How will our living bring the abuses to the Way of Jesus into sharper and sharper view?  And how, through the Grace of God will we live into Easter’s light dawn.  Amen. 

[1] Marcus Borg and John Crossan.  “The Last Week” (Harper Collins: San Francisco, 2006). P. 2

[2] N.T. Wright “What Saint Paul Really Said.” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997) p. 26-27.

[3] Footnote, 9, page 39 NT in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael D. Coogan, Editor (Oxford University Press:  Oxford, 2007).

[4] From the title of the book “Engaging the Powers: discernment and resistance in a world of domination”. By Walter Wink.

[5] Matthew L. Skinner.  “The Trial Narratives: conflict, power, and identity in the New Testament.” (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisvelle, 2010)P. 48

[6] Skinner, P. 159