Liturgy of the Palms / Palm Sunday
April 2, 2023
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 21:1-11, The Message or Matthew 21:1-11, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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On this day in the life of Jesus, it is the beginning of the week in which Passover will be celebrated in Jerusalem. Passover is one of the festivals in which all of Israel are expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Passover is still celebrated by Jews to this day. Celebrated in synagogues, and most particularly in homes, where their salvation from slavery in Egypt is remembered and re-told:
The hardship of our oppression. The calling of Moses to lead us to freedom, to a promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The repeated agreement - and then reneging - of the Pharaoh, until the tenth and final and most deadly of the plagues - the angel of death that killed all first born males - except for the homes where we had used the blood of a lamb to mark our door posts - those homes were passed over. The hurried preparations to be ready to flee - no time for leavened bread. The flight from Egypt pursued by the Egyptian soldiers. The miraculous parting of the Red Sea to allow us to pass through, but drowning the pursuing soldiers. The hardship of the 40 years wandering in the wilderness. The giving of the 10 Commandments - now that we are free, how shall live? What does the Lord require of us?
And then as now, remembering that the journey from oppression to freedom, from corruption to purity, from unjust violence to just non-violence, has not been completed. Leave the door ajar and an empty chair at the table for Elijah! When Elijah comes the Messiah is on his way. And when the Messiah comes, finally the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Next year in Jerusalem!
But on this day in Jesus' life, this is the year, right now, right here in Jerusalem. At least that is what the crowd thinks. Listen to their shouts:
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
Now Jerusalem is not a large city. And what the authors of the Bible take for granted and fail to mention is that while Jesus is parading in on a donkey through one of the back gates, on the other side of the city Pilate is parading in on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers. (See Borg & Crossan, The Last Week, pages 1-30.) You can bet that he too is being acclaimed by a crowd. There'd be hell to pay if he wasn't.
The Bible doesn't tell us about that parade or what they shouted, but you can bet it wasn't, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." But what would Pilate make and the Judean authorities make of this being shouted at the Jesus parade if it came to their attention? "What a great and fitting tribute to Jesus?" No, not that. They would be thinking, "That is treason." And treason was punishable by? You guessed it, by torture followed by execution on a cross.
Do you think anyone at Pilate's parade heard about Jesus' parade? Heard what the crowd had shouted? Let's see what unfolds in the week ahead.
A few background comments ...
Verses 1 to 7. Matthew seems determined that Jesus will literally fulfill Zechariah 9:9 by having Jesus ride on both a donkey AND on her colt. Quite a trick! Mark, Luke and John are all content to have Jesus riding on one animal. But the imaginative point here is that a donkey is a pack animal, a low status animal, an animal of industry and peace. And, also importantly, a donkey is NOT a war horse which was the normal animal for a King to ride.
Verse 8. The spreading of cloaks and branches on the ground is like our modern "red carpet treatment." This extraordinary individual doesn't have their feet touch the ground that mere mortals walk on.
Verse 9. "Hosanna" means "Save us. Rescue us." "Son of David" is a title for the "Messiah."
Verse 10. Note the distinction Matthew makes between those outside the city who parade with Jesus, and those inside the city. Those outside the city are praising Jesus as the Messiah; those inside are in turmoil, and asking, "Who is this?"
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 105, see footnote below.) comment:
In Matthew's story, the last time there was commotion in Jerusalem about Jesus was at the time of his birth:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the (Judeans)? For we have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him;
Now, at the very outset of Jesus' activity in Jerusalem, there is another.
The city dwellers in Jerusalem would have been able to look over the city walls to the east and see the crowd hailing Jesus as he rode along. Given the conflict between city dwellers and outsiders that characterized ancient Mediterranean society, one is not surprised by the turmoil, or the question of the Jerusalemites, "Who is this?"
Matthew notes with some irony the assertion of the outsiders (to the city) about who Jesus is: he is no less than "the prophet Jesus."
Moreover, he is from "Nazareth in Galilee," that is, pointedly not from the city of Jerusalem.
I wonder how the outsider, Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, will fare in the week ahead as he confronts the insiders, the Judean authorities from the capital city Jerusalem?
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 105; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 "Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Matthew 21:1-11 (The Message)
1 When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples 2 with these instructions: "Go over to the village across from you. You'll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. 3 If anyone asks what you're doing, say, 'The Master needs them!' He will send them with you."
4 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
5 Tell Zion's daughter,
"Look, your king's on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal."
6 The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. 7 They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. 8 Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. 9 Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, "Hosanna to David's son!" "Blessed is he who comes in God's name!" "Hosanna in highest heaven!"
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, "What's going on here? Who is this?"
11 The parade crowd answered, "This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.