The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, 13 April 2014, St Francis Church, Potomac, Maryland. Based on Matthew 21: 1 – 11.
We admire their literature. We use their laws and legal vocabulary. Their architecture and engineering are on proud display in our beautiful city everywhere you turn. Their political principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances are our principles. Yet as classicists to this day acknowledge, the boot heel of Roman tyranny, the brutality with which they subjected their enemies, is legendary. And in terms of their culture — and I’m talking about the period after the Roman Republic — the time from Octavian on was characterized by moral decay of unbelievable proportion, increasingly decadent even in the minds of Latin philosophers and the most popular writers of the day.
That’s the Rome Israel is subjugated to when Jesus rides into Jerusalem; a lethal occupying army, severe hardship, economic privation, and things were going to go only from bad to worse. The people were at a crossroads. The question was how to secure real peace. In the minds of many there was only one hope: revolution. Overthrow the Roman tyrant.
A few decades after that first Palm Sunday, in 70 AD, the Roman general Titus would be collecting his armies and marching against Jerusalem. He would soon surround the city and eventually take it, plunder it for all it was worth, and then destroy it. He went to the Temple and, after desecrating it, he leveled it so that not a stone was left upon another. The so-called ‘wailing wall’ was a retention wall. It had nothing to do with the Temple itself. It just held up the platform on which the Temple was built. Nothing left, and it has never since been rebuilt. The people were wiped out. The atrocities were astonishing. A hundred thousand Jewish men women and children were taken captive as emblems, trophies of the victory, and, according to the historian Josephus, over one million Jewish men women and children were killed.
It’s not surprising that Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he approached the city and then said, “If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace but now it is hidden from your eyes.” They thought the answer was a political solution and, emboldened, eventually they did in fact revolt against Rome, and it was suicidal. “The days will come upon you,” Jesus said, “when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you against the ground, you and the children within your walls, they will not leave one stone on another because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
As Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, Pontius Pilate represents Roman authority. His contemporary Philo describes him as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self will and relentlessness.” If you were a Jew living in Jerusalem at that time you would definitely suppose that life would be better if we could get rid of him.
Pilate had full powers of life and death over the people. All capital crimes had to be referred to him. That’s why when Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas and found guilty the imposition of the death penalty could not be made until the case was referred to Pilate. The prosecuting attorneys had to change the description of the crime. Pilate in Roman law would not have imposed a death penalty for blasphemy against the Jewish God. So now the complaint was this man was making himself the equal of Caesar. Pilate takes the bait and ultimately condemns him.
So when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, what is going on? When you’re on a donkey — in terms of the symbolism of the ancient world — you’re laying claim to that which is rightfully yours. In the Book of Judges it says that Jair had 30 sons who owned 30 donkeys and they ruled 30 cities in Gilead. You’re on a donkey, that means you’re in charge, that you rightfully rule over a city. Or King David himself as an elderly man, his son Adonijah couldn’t wait for the old man to die so he makes a bid for the throne and announces himself as king, the successor to David while David was still alive. Word came back to David that Adonijah is pretending to be the king and David responds by commanding his trusted officers — he convenes Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah who was one of his mighty men — and he says this to them, “Take your Lord’s servants with you and set Solomon, my son, on my own mule, and take him down to Gihon. There anoint him king over Israel. Blow the trumpet. Shout, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” Not Adonijah but Solomon, of the Lord’s choosing, who rode in on a pack animal.
And so we come to that original Palm Sunday. As they approach Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples with instructions to bring a donkey to him. And that rang bells in their minds. Jesus is not being meek and mild; he’s deliberately staging this with the most audacious gesture imaginable. He does what only a megalomaniac would do, or one who truly is the rightful King of Israel. He is fulfilling the promise of Zechariah. The false claimant is on the throne. Pilate pretends to be the governor of Israel, Herod’s sons ruling other parts of the community. And Jesus is now asserting his rightful rule over against the phonies. He’s going to ride into town on a donkey. He exercises the kingly right of impressment, demanding an animal that isn’t his, because you see if the Lord needs it, if the King requires it, that’s all we need to know. Everything we are and have belongs to him, so it’s put at his disposal to use as he sees fit.
Luke and John just tell us about the colt, one that hadn’t been ridden. Matthew tells us that there were two animals, the unbroken colt but also its mother that would comfort the little guy being ridden for the first time. And Matthew tells us that the disciples brought the animals and “put their cloaks on them.” They take off their garments, and place them on the animals. Why?
In the ancient world your garment represents your inheritance, everything you are, your status. When Jonathan wanted to abdicate the throne and allow David to be the king, he takes off his garment and puts it on David. And so we take off our garments, we get off the throne of our own lives, and recognize Jesus as Lord, the only one who can run our lives the way they were meant to be. That’s what they were doing taking their garments off as they welcomed and received him into the holy city. And they waved palm fronds. That was a wonderful symbol in the ancient world. It came originally from the celebration of tabernacles where we made a little tent out of palm branches to remind ourselves that we’re sojourners in this life and we don’t want to live without God tabernacling among us. It became a symbol of liberation, too; they stamped it on coins saying “Free Us!” We’re oppressed. We need the king of glory to set us free. And so I want you to take that palm frond you have in your hand today and ask yourself, ‘Do I want God to save me?’ “Hosanna!” That cry is the Hebrew word “Save Us!” It’s the ancient near eastern equivalent to an SOS signal.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem during a festival assembly. He stuck out like a sore thumb doing so. No one rides into the holy city at Passover. The Mishna forbids it. What about the disabled? Maybe they rode the hundred miles or whatever it was to get close to Jerusalem, but just as they were about to surmount the Mount of Olives, just before they would see the first glimpse of the Temple, they would dismount and, if necessary, crawl the rest of the way. The tens of thousands of worshipers who came into Jerusalem on that original Palm Sunday, none of them rode except this one who was fulfilling the promise of Zechariah, declaring himself to be the promised Son of David, the righteous one bringing salvation with him.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. So Christ comes, not breaking down doors, but not milquetoast either. Just the King, that’s all. Just the King who comes in the name of the LORD. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. If the Son sets you free, then you will be free indeed.”
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus deals with the Syrophoenician woman up there in Tyre and Sidon. He begins, as all the conquerors of Israel did, up in the north. One heart after another is won to him, then he sets his face like a flint to Jerusalem, heading with every step closer to the place where he will finally defeat his enemy. If you didn’t know better you’d think it doesn’t look like much, this conquest. But here’s what Jesus knows. Here’s what Jesus says. “Now is the time for judgement on this world. Now the prince of this world will be driven out! But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” Amen.