Laying Palms before the Lord – March 9, 2014 – Matthew 21: 1 – 11

This sermon was inspired by the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Cross. All quotes that are not from Scripture can be found in the first chapter titled “Palm Sunday.” I encourage you to read the book for more history of Jerusalem and the Temple during the 1st century. I chose my words very carefully so as to not get too political about a story that is politically charged.

This is a familiar story about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and John tell this story in the Gospels. All of the Gospels spend a great deal of their story telling about Jesus’ path to Jerusalem. And, the day finally came for Jesus to enter Jerusalem and face His fate. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most holy week of the Jewish year.

One of 2 processions that entered Jerusalem that day. Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey while His followers laid their coats and palm branches on the road before Him shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest Heaven!” Hosanna can be translated save or save us now or please save. It is a word used in the synagogue or in church – it wasn’t common vernacular. In essence, the crowd was asking Jesus to save them in a churchy way.

The parade of Jesus was for the peasants. He himself was a peasant and His followers were peasants. You might remember that in Luke 4: 18, Jesus reads in the synagogue from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” In Matthew 11, John the Baptist’s followers come to Jesus asking if He is the one who is to come and Jesus responds that He proclaims good news to the poor. Jesus’ message was for the poor and they are the ones who welcome Him into Jerusalem and ask for salvation. The kingdom of God is a message for the peasants.

On the opposite side of Jerusalem, there is a second procession coming in from the west. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leads the way of the imperial calvary and soldiers.

I want to do a meditation on what this parade would have been like. Please close your eyes and imagine standing at the edge of an ancient city. Soldiers on horses and foot soldiers enter wearing leather armor and helmets carrying weapons. Dust swirls up under their feet. Banners fly high overhead with golden eagles mounted atop. The sun shines off all the metal and gold. You hear the sounds of marching feet, the cracking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. Please open your eyes.

It was common practice for the Roman army to come to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals and holidays. There were always guards in the city, especially at the Temple. However, for a holiday, like Passover, the city guards would be reinforced by additional troops and the presence of the governor to quell any possible uprisings.

These two parades are at odds embodying 2 very different messages of power. The parade of the imperial guard represents the power of the Roman empire. The parade of Jesus represents the power of the Kingdom of God. The 2 parades will eventually lead to the city center where the conflict will come to a head. Looking forward to Good Friday and Easter, we already know how it ends.

Jesus’ parade is a planned protest against the imperial power of Rome and the Temple priests, scribes, and elders who perpetuated the oppression. Roman presence, not only represented the empire’s power, Roman presence represented Roman theology. In Roman mythology, the emperor was believed to be the son of god. The Jewish people were allowed to worship the God we know as the One True Living God only as a means to appease the people and so long as they paid homage to the emperor. Jesus’ parade was a “planned political demonstration” showing His rival social order and rival theology. The Kingdom of God which He proclaimed to could govern the people by the Mighty God through His Son, the Prince of peace.

The message of Jesus’ entrance riding on a donkey is clear to His Jewish followers gathered to welcome Him to Jerusalem. Matthew 21: 4 – 5 tells us Jesus riding a donkey is to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which is quoted. The prophecy says,
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The 9th chapter of Zechariah begins with a judgment against Israel’s enemies then announces that a new king of Israel is coming. Zechariah says that the coming king will take away the chariots, war horses, and bows from the enemy and his reign will extend to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem riding on a colt invites the Jewish imagination of a savior to challenge the imperial enemy. The Kingdom of God was an alternate vision of rule of the Jewish people and a direct threat to the Roman empire. There was a stark contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Ceasar. By the end of the week, the 2 powers will collide. We already know how the story ends and we know who ultimately wins.

The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus opposing the elders, chief priests, and scribes of the Temple. Jesus was a Jew. He didn’t necessarily have a problem with Temple practice and Temple sacrifice. He opposed the leadership of the Temple, because of the corrupt system and duality. Jesus was concerned that the Temple leaders exploited the poor and legitimized by role by religion.

For a thousand years before Christ and thousands of years after Christ, nations had been governed by monarchies who claimed to have been chosen by whatever god they worship to rule their nation. A book I am reading called The Last Week described the historical governing rule as “the political economic domination of the many by a few and the use of religious claim to justify it.” We could easily say that the government still is a few rich people governing many who often claim to be convicted by their religious beliefs.

God had first given Israel a king as they requested, first King Saul, then the revered King David. Beginning with the kings, even King David, and carrying through the monarchical history, prophets rose up to speak on behalf of God’s judgment against the corrupt rule. King after king after king failed to keep God’s covenant leading the people astray and exploiting the people to fill their coffers. All the prophets speak of the sins of Israel as ignoring the poor, widows, and orphans. The justice of the kingdom could only be restored by the repentance of the king and people and the restoration of caring for the disadvantaged. The prophets spoke of a time of peace and justice when everyone would subsist and survive on their own land. All the kings failed to varying degrees until Israel finally fell in 586 BC and the Temple was destroyed.

Over centuries the people returned from Exile and rebuilt the Temple still rule by foreign empires. It was common practice for a foreign king to allow localities to be governed by the local elite who would pay their allegiance as long as they were able to keep their wealth. Rome ruled Jerusalem through the Temple high priest. The Temple was responsible for maintaining order and collecting the annual tax to Rome. Due to continued unrest in the region, the emperor appointed King Herod to rule Israel, but he continued to govern the people of Jerusalem through the Temple.

The Temple high priest not only had to perform his religious duties; he had to pay allegiance to Rome. During King Herod’s reign, he appointed and deposed 7 high priests, even though the position was to be one held for life. The Temple was the center of religious practice, but under Roman rule, it became the center of economics and politics for the region. Individual Temple leaders may or may not have been corrupt, but they corrupted the Temple by collaborating with Rome.

This corrupt Temple system was the one Jesus confronted and challenged when He entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The Temple remained the place for sins to be forgiven through sacrifice, but Jesus’ message of forgiveness outside Temple practice called to question its permanency and relevancy. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins is for the peasants who are exploited by Rome through the Temple. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus comes to confront the authorities.

It is hard not to be political preaching this text when this very scene is one of political protest. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all lean politically based on our Christian conviction of how government should run and how influential Christian faith should be in the law of the land. I could tell you why I think Jesus would be a Republican or why He would be a Democrat, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not our government lives up to the ideals of the Kingdom of God.

God is judging the sin of America just as God judged the sin of Israel. The sin of Israel was that they exploited the poor and didn’t care for the disadvantaged. They were ruled by a wealthy few who were convinced that their authority was given to them by God.

By the time of Jesus, the center of religion had become the center of corrupt government. Jesus confronted religious and political corruption when He entered Jerusalem and was willing to die for His trust in the Kingdom of God to rule justly and righteously.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: “would we be at the east gate welcoming Jesus or would we be on the west side paying homage to the imperial government?”

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