Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Liturgy of the Palms
  Matthew 21:1-11
  Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Today is Palm Sunday! Hopefully, that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone. This morning we actually only have two passages of scripture: the narrative of the Triumphal Entry of course, and the Psalm from which the crowd quotes. The Triumphal Entry is the high mark of Jesus' ministry, the irony is of course that one week later this same crowd will condemn him to death as if this day never happened. But for now, on the cusp of Holy Week let us take a look at how the events of this day set us up for what is to come.

The first important aspect is the fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout Matthew's Gospel he makes it abundantly clear that Jesus' life, both things outside his control (his birth and flight to Egypt) and things he does control (miracles and the Triumphal Entry for example), are purposefully done to fulfill Old Testament Scripture and prophecy. Matthew paints an image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and the colt. Why? Because in Zechariah, which he quotes, that is what the text says. (Zech. 9:9)Never mind the fact that this is an example of Hebrew Poetry "parallelism." If Zechariah said the Messiah would ride a colt and a donkey, Matthew says that is somehow what Jesus did. The crowd also quotes three separate passages of Old Testament scripture proclaiming that the King has come to Jerusalem.

This brings us to the second important aspect of the story. The story is steeped in royal imagery. In 2 Kings 9, Jehu is anointed by Elisha to be the new King of Israel. His followers immediately took off their cloaks and placed them for him to walk on, declaring "Jehu is King!" (2 Kings 9:13). The Palm waiving also is not incidental, and has historical precedent. In the Maccabean revolt 200 years before Jesus' day, Judas Maccabeus had also entered Jerusalem as king to set up a royal dynasty that would last for over a century. Judas Maccabeus was greeted by the crowd waiving palm branches in celebration of their new king. In addition, the use of the language of the "Son of David" obviously had royal undertones. The hopped for coming Messiah would be from the royal line of David and would restore Israel to it's rightful place. By calling Jesus the Son of David, they were saying that Jesus was the one in whom the prophets had declared. He was more than a king like Jehu, his line would last longer than the Maccabean kingship, he was the Messiah who would restore the royal line of David to the throne.

This got Jesus into trouble with the Jewish leaders who had no questions about the imagery Jesus was enacting. He was setting up a rival leadership structure over and against that of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. This act, along with many others in Jesus' ministry, set up the events of the crucixion and the Jewish leaders opposition to Jesus.

The third aspect of this story is what it is not. And that is Jesus riding into Jerusalem as a warrior king ready to throw off Roman rule. He came in as a king to be sure, but as he defined it, not as the crowd wanted it. Just as the donkey and other actions carried meaning, so too would have a mighty horse, Jesus disciples surrounding him, and weapons on display. This would have signaled Jesus intent to be a warrior in a way similar to Judas Maccabeus and even David. The fact that Jesus didn't do this and live up to the people's might partially explain why less then a week later they would condemn him to death. Certainly the crowd was swayed by the leadership, but perhaps they had a nagging sense that Jesus wasn't what they were looking for after all. Perhaps it would be better to get rid of this false messiah then to have the Romans punish all of them, they may have thought.

Finally, notice the question the crowd asks, "When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, "Who is this?"" It mirrors Jesus' questions to his disciples followed by Peter's confession of faith in Matthew ch. 13 and earlier John the Baptist's question in ch. 11. This is the question Matthew wants all of his readers to wrestle with. Throughout his gospel he provides the true answer to that question as well as the various false answers people give. Ultimately, Matthew wants his readers to not only affirm that Jesus is indeed the Christ, but also the head the final Great Commission he ends his gospel with. Matthew's hope is that, like him, we will become evangelists of the Good News about Jesus.

May we all catch a vision for this task and spread the good news that Jesus is indeed the savior of the world.

Grace and peace.

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