Lectionary: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
This day is traditionally known as Palm Sunday. If you go to church today you will probably be asked to shout ‘Hosannah!’ an unnatural number of times and may be given a palm branch of some sort to wave in the air.
At the time of Jesus, the city of Jerusalem was the hub of Jewish nationalism/faith, and in Jerusalem was Herod’s Temple which was the centre of Jewish worship. It was a volatile time: Rome was a world superpower and it controlled the conquered Jewish homeland with an iron fist. That fist was controlled regionally by Pontius Pilate who was housed in a beautiful palace on the shore of the Mediterranean.
With the Jewish holy time of Passover approaching, hundreds of thousands of people would flood into Jerusalem to participate in the worship activities. Because of the large gathering it also was a time of heightened Jewish nationalism which elevated the risk of a rebellion.
In anticipation of that threat, the Romans would frequently lead a highly visible military force into Jerusalem the week before Passover which would remain in place until the festivities had dispersed.
On this particular day Pilate mounts his steed and leads an impressive military processional into Jerusalem: banners, trumpets, hundreds of chariots and soldiers on horseback precede a sea of foot soldiers. They march en masse into the city cheered by a crowd of willing and unwilling natives. Pilate’s military parade naturally enters through the western gate, the front door of Jerusalem, a strategy designed to strangle-hold the city with a highly visible show of force.
Meanwhile, in what could only be seen as an oppositional parade, Jesus of Nazareth also rides into Jerusalem. In doing so he fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy. Unlike Pilate, Jesus enters through the eastern gate – the back door to the city – riding a donkey … one donkey … a slow donkey … no shiny weapons … no banners or trumpets … a handful of fishermen as foot soldiers.
Palm branches for banners and the voices of believers as trumpets.
This is more than enough attention for the dusty, ragtag group walking through the eastern gate. The anti-parade is disruptive enough for authorities but it is what the crowds are shouting that they find especially unsettling. The people are calling Jesus a king, even calling him Lord, though everyone knows that Caesar is king and lord. This is treasonous. And very, very dangerous.
That is the background to the following verses. It is also the beginning of the end.
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (NIV)
There are a mind numbing number of ways to think through this sharp and notable piece of history. I’m drawn to the socio-political inferences: power, humility, human organization, perspectives.
Then those words. Those puzzling, haunting words from Jesus: ‘… if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ Everything else stops when I come to those words and my mind struggles to imagine how they should be heard.
Is he exaggerating or being figurative, as is often his way? Is he saying that praises are as important and as natural as our other earthly tasks?
Or is he being literal? Is he warning us that stones and mountains and trees and lions and atoms have a deeper intimacy with God than we have? Will they literally rise up and shout praise if we do not?
Yet here we are, two thousand years later, still praising earthly ‘rulers’. Still worshipping power, still oppressing the poor, still ignoring the ways of peace. Here we are in the twenty-first century watching the political parades but not seeing the more important anti-parade of Jesus’ Kingdom.
What does shouting his praises look like in our time and place?
Are the stones readying themselves to shout out?
In the final week of Jesus’ life, religious authorities will surrender to the lure of power, they will arrest Jesus, a kangaroo court will convict him, he will be humiliated and tortured to death, and Rome will fulfill its promise to crush its enemies. And all will be well; all will return to normal; the ways of the world will triumph again…
But wait. Not this time. On this occasion there is something more happening.
The anti-parade is only beginning.