And here we come to the triumphal entry, just like we do this time every year. Those of us who have grown up in the church have had some version of this story in our heads since we were small. What each of us may or may not realize at this point is that the story in each of our heads is really a compilation. Our head cannon has bits and pieces of the way each of the Gospels record the event and then most of us have thrown in some imagined details, we don’t even realize are not even in scripture.
As a pastor who has been at this for some years to now, I think it is fair to say that I have preached some version of the triumphal entry . . . once or twice. Finding a new way to think about this passage, a new way to approach it so that my sermon this year is in some way different from the nearly 20 others I have, is hard for me.
When I see the scripture reference, I can instantaneously identify which “Triumphal Entry” passage this is, before I even open my Bible. Before I even read one word, I already know what I think. I know all the preaching points I have used over the years and which ones like the best, and which ones have fallen flat in years past. I know all the background information for this passage. At this time Jews would come pouring into the city. I know what and how they would have been celebrating.
I know there was another procession of Romans coming into the city to “keep the peace”, which was most likely going on simultaneously with Jesus’. I know about the Romans, I know about the Jews, I know about the Passover and the various meals and celebrations that took place around it. I know what is going on in the temple, what is going on in the streets and what is going on in homes all across that city. And if I can’t bring the information to the forefront of my memory, I know where I can to find it.
The fact may very well be that I KNOW TOO MUCH. I am not just familiar with this passage, I already know what I think about it, what I am supposed to think about it and even before I read the passage this week, I was already cycling through the different angles I could take on it.
With this passage and so many like it, it would be nice to come to it not really knowing what to expect, seeing it as if it were for the first time, so I can perhaps really see it. But I can’t, I can just look at it, read it, listen to it and try to really hear it and I tried this week. I really did make a valiant attempt to look at the passage, to allow the passage to just be and, not forget, but put on the back burner what I know, or I think I know and just live with this passage, what it says and what is going on here on this day, at this time and what Matthew has to say about it.
So I decided to imagine that I was a stranger visiting a strange town and I happened up this procession. And tried to ask myself the same kinds of questions some might ask if they happened upon these events. What are some of the questions one might have if one were seeing this procession for the first time?
As I rounded the corner in my imagination and saw what the Gospel writer says was happening first question I would have is, “Why is that man trying to ride two mounts?” Now that’s weird. No seriously look at the passage.
“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”
Why in the world is Matthew giving us the impression that Jesus is riding two mounts?
The easy answer is, well because Matthew is quoting: Zechariah 9:9
“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.”
Zechariah is speaking of a king coming in peace and humility. The passage uses a Hebraic redundancy of wording which when used was supposed to highlight the point being made. The King will come, triumphant in humility and victorious in peace and this is pointed out by the fact that he is riding a “colt, a foal of a donkey,” and not a war horse, not even a horse, but a donkey.
But still come on why two animals?
There is also an historical/cultural answer. It was also common practice for a military leader to ride in a procession with a secondary mount, one which was there just in case your primary mount went lame, or if it was a particularly long procession, to ride when the primary mount was tired and needed to rest. To process in riding a donkey, not a particularly grand mount and to have a colt or a foal as your secondary mount would further emphasize the humility and peaceful nature of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem
But then you might want to know, come on pastor, did Jesus really ride two animals?
I don’t know. Matthew is the only one which includes two animals. He could be right, Jesus might have come in with two animals, but none of the other gospel writers thought it was important enough to mention, or Matthew could just be trying to make a point about the nature of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. I think it is alright to not know for sure.
So the next questions we might have is, “What is going on with the palms and cloaks?” I am mean this is what Palm Sunday is all about. It is the one Sunday a year when, if we were all in our sanctuaries, we would lay our dignity aside and march around the sanctuary singing Hosanna. But, why? Why palms? Why cloaks?
Jesus was processing in a humble, peaceful manner, but the crowds were seeing this as something else. The crowds were welcoming a conquering king. They were showing signs of reverence and celebration that was common when the new ruler came to town. You put your cloaks on the ground to show reverence and respect for a dignitary. You waved branches and sung praises to let the new ruler know that you loved and adored him and welcomed him and his rule into the city. He is coming to set up a Davidic kingdom; to set things “right;” to restore their nationhood and set himself up on its throne.
The next question many might have is, “What does even Hosanna mean?”
It is a Hebrew word which we just bring right over into English without translating. It means “save us.” It is a prayer, a cry to God. Save us! Seem about right doesn’t it.
I think we all could get on board with dancing around our homes singing, “Save us!”
They are crying, but they are celebrating this prayer, this cry. They are saying it as if their cry has been heard, as if their prayers have been answered. Can we say, “Hosanna,” with the same kind of assurances? When we cry, “Hosanna,” this morning can we do it, knowing our prayer is heard, is being answered?
We all know what we would like God to save us from right now, but what did those singing that day need saving from? Why have they been crying out to God?
The Romans: at this time the people of Israel identified most with their ancient ancestors in Egyptian slavery. They wanted to be released from Roman oppression. They were crying out to God from their “enslavement,” Hosanna, God save us, release us from our Roman tyrants.
This is happening at the beginning of Passover week, when they are about to celebrate how God used Moses to bring them up out of Egyptian slavery, to “save them.”
Does knowing that they are saying these words at the beginning of Passover week add any meaning to this?
This is a huge celebration in which the Hebrews celebrate how they won independence from the Egyptians how they were saved from their oppressors.
Let’s say the United States falls apart from all this, and various parts of it are now a part of other countries and New England is annexed into Canada. What if we here in the new New England providence of Canada continued to celebrate Independence Day – July 4th?
Let’s say the officials of Canada put up with our celebration because it is mostly harmless and they just increase police presence in New England’s capital city, Boston, where all the “Americans” like to go every year to celebrate together with picnics along the Charles and fireworks. For three days Boston is full. There are reenactments all over town of various “Independence events”. We reenact the Tea Party, the Massacre, the first shots fired on Bunker Hill, the lantern lighting, it is HUGE. And then on July 4th both sides the river are lined with people picnicking, cooking on small grills, children running up and down the grass, families gathered together, it is a wonderful celebration when we remember when we were once a fine nation and we once won a revolution.
But imagine one year a man from Western Mass or perhaps Northern Vermont, comes to town. Some of us have heard of him, he has some interesting things to say. He seems harmless in and of himself, but some people seem to think he has come to bring about a new revolution, to set us free from our tyrannical Canadian overlords, so that New England can be the seed of re-envisioned, re-instated United States of America!
Can you imagine that? Well that is basically what these people think Jesus is up to. They are celebrating because they think Jesus is coming to set them free, from their Roman oppressors.
Jesus is coming in riding a donkey (and a foal?) he is processing as one who is coming in peace, who is coming in humility. The people are welcoming him as a military hero, as a new king, as a revolutionary.
They say with their words that he is a prophet, but their actions say he is coming to set things “right,” in the way they see things being set right, as a prophet of revolution. So he is one of those radical prophets who have come to stir things up and make trouble for the status quo, to shake up the regime and turn everything on its head, over throw the empire and set up a Davidic dynasty. They had a lot of expectations of Jesus. They really thought they knew what he was about and what he was about to do.
But this is not what Jesus is doing, not at all. We know what the people think Jesus is up to, but what does Jesus really want to do and to say with his entry into Jerusalem?
Most of us can be on board with Jesus not trying to come as a military or a revolutionary hero, or even a rabble rousing prophet. Jesus was not telling the people that he was their conquering hero, coming to regain the Kingdom and set himself up as the new king of the new country of Israel. And we can know this by what Jesus does next. He does not come into town and storm the castle. He does nothing that could lead anyone to believe that he is a revolutionary attempting to overthrow anything.
I know this as an outside observer because, nothing he does next does anything to accomplish these goals. He rides into town and he goes into the temple and clears out those who are buying and selling in the market place, quoting Isaiah and saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” and then he goes on to declare, but you are making it a den of robbers. Now that is harsh.
But why does he do this? What is he so angry about?
Well, in the outer most court of the temple merchants set up booths, to do several things, change money, and sell animals that would be needed by those who had come too far to bring their own, to make their sacrifices. For the Jews who have come to Jerusalem for Passover, money changing and having animals to purchase for their sacrifice, are much need amenities. Jesus is not upset about people needing to do this, he is upset that it is happening in the temple court.
In theory there is nothing wrong with these people doing these things. But it was also pretty common practice for money changers to short change their customers. There was no standard rate of currency exchange. There was no central body determining how many Roman gold pieces equal a denarii. So the money would determine how gullible or knowledgeable about what the exchange rate should be they believed their client to be, and would change the rate accordingly. Then at the animals stalls it was common for the price of the animals to have gone up steeply right about the time of Passover, when there were more people “from away” who would not know that a pigeon cost half as much last week. So Jesus is upset that “robbing” others in that way, was common practice in the temple court.
But that is not all he is upset about. You may or may not remember that the temple is set up in a series of courts. The inner most section is the Holy of Holies, only the high priest went in there once a year. Outside of that is the Holy Place where only the priests were allowed. Outside that was the Inner Court where only the Jewish men came to pray and to worship. The court directly outside of that was the Outer Court, or the Court of Women, which is where the Jewish women came to worship and pray. The outer most court of the Temple was the court of Gentiles where Gentile followers of God, known as God Fearers, were allowed to worship.
All this money changing and all these animals and all these booths and all the hub bub and commotion of a marketplace and of commerce was located in this outer most court. The only place that people who were not Jews, but who had come to know God as the one and only living God of the universe, we allowed to worship. They were basically told the only place they were allowed to worship and was in the chaos and commotion out on the corner of Prospect and Mass Ave, out there in Central Square, or some other busy city intersection, you know like it use to be, back when there was traffic and people, not like it is right now. I am sure if you or I wanted to do that we could figure out a way to worship and pray there on one of the benches, but it would not be ideal.
And that is why Jesus is angry. Is that some people are blatantly disregarding others, putting their own convenience above the needs of others.
When Jesus is finished doing this, he sets to heals people. You, know like ever good conquering hero does, when he attempts to take down a tyrannical regime. He heals the blind and the lame. He comes into town, is received like a conquering hero and then he heals people. Again this does nothing to set him up as the new king, it does nothing to start a revolution, or anything like that.
Ok, but then what is with the conversation between Jesus and the Chief priest and scribes?
Jesus is the temple healing people and something interesting happens. The chief priests and the scribes, who seem to not be able to keep up with Jesus, and what he has been doing, come in questioning him about what the people had been singing when he was outside. I mean he just kicked some people out of temple and they are still upset about the songs the crowd was singing. It is almost as if they are just as confused about who Jesus is and what he is all about as the crowd who were thinking they were welcoming their conquering hero.
Passover, at this time was the most volatile time period in Jerusalem. Jews from all over the Roman Empire come to Jerusalem to celebrate the time when God emancipated the Jewish people from a ruling empire. There were extra soldiers in town to “keep the peace” and there was all this pressure from the government for the Jewish leaders to keep “their people” under control. The last thing they needed was some kind of rabble rouser to incite the people to a revolutionary riot. That would not go well for anyone.
So they ask, “Jesus do you hear them out there?” You can’t do this, it is not going to end well. You need to get them to stop before this all goes south and we stuck in it and have no way out.
And Jesus’ answer is odd. He quotes a psalm declaring that even the smallest children, infants and babes will give praise to God. Jesus is choosing to interpret the singing as worship and praise. And is not a too surreptitious way of saying that he is God, and is thus deserving of such worship and praise.
But then he just goes away?
Then Jesus just goes to Bethany (presumably to the house of Mary and Martha, since that is where they live and we know from other gospels that he spent some time there about this time doing something, you know mildly remarkable. But that is another passage in another gospel) Jesus comes into town, does all these things and then leaves. Leaving those of us who witnessed these events, wondering what has just happened? What is going on? Who is this Jesus person anyway?
We are there this series of events this morning? Who are we most like? Whose thoughts and feelings most align with ours? If we were in the streets of Jerusalem that day, with whom would we most relate? Are we a part of the gathered crowd who sees Jesus as a conquering hero coming to fulfill our hopes and our dreams. Is Jesus, for us, a prophet who proclaims the words we want to hear?
Are we one of chief priests or scribes; he is a trouble maker going to create a bad situation with the authorities and the powers that be, when all we want to do is to keep our heads down, be good citizens and live peacefully, making due the best we can with the situation we are currently in?
Are we money changers, trying to get ahead the best we can and see him as an impediment to our livelihood and messing up our way of living?
Are we just another Jewish person there for the Passover, who worried about how change our money and buy our Passover lamb from the merchants in the temple, not thinking about or even realizing we are participating in a broken system that is allowing us this convenience while disregarding the humanity, and the needs of others, whom we many not even realize are disadvantaged by our activities, and here is this man who is disrupting OUR lives, OUR way of doing things, making things more difficult so that others are no longer disadvantaged by our activities? Are we here to be healed?
We are there this morning; we are someone in this story. How do we see what Jesus is doing, what he has done?
And however we see Jesus’ activities in this passage, what does it mean for our conquering hero, the prophet, the rabble rouser, the trouble maker, the weird guy over throwing a broken and oppressive system, whomever we presume him to be; what does it mean for him to die? What if he really is God, as he himself more than kind of implies here? What does is mean for God to die? What does it mean for the Jesus we find in this passage, who we know and understand, or misunderstand to shortly die?
And Jesus goes off to Bethany to spend the night and we are left to wonder who do we think Jesus is? Who is he? What is he doing? What is his purpose?