Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 21:1-17
Palm Sunday presents Christianity in conflict with itself. It can’t decide who Jesus is. Listen to our worship today: we start with hosannas and end with betrayal. We will sing, “Ride on! Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die.”
What’ll it be – palms for Jesus or the passion of the Christ? Is Jesus the triumphant one who enters the city to great fanfare, or is he the humiliated one whose life will end as a common criminal? Should we feel hopeful about this Jesus or afraid? If he is who some say he is, why is the world in such an awful, violent, overheated mess?
This week the Westminster Town Hall Forum welcomed the fourth speaker in its spring series on climate change, and it was by far the gloomiest yet. Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker and Pulitzer winner for her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction, presented a depressing scenario on global warming.
Efforts to limit the use of fossil fuels will not happen soon enough, she said, to make much of a difference. Her latest work examines various technological attempts to intervene in nature before it’s too late, one of which is projecting billions of tiny particles into the stratosphere to shade the earth and cool it, turning the sky from blue to white. Her book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, doesn’t show much promise in any of these creative efforts.
It was the perfect talk to precede Good Friday by ten days, because she left us little hope. I told her that and I’m not sure she understood. It felt as if the creation itself had been nailed to the cross.
She told us that people working on solutions to our warming planet now say the biggest challenge with the public is not trying to convince people of the science, but to keep people who trust the science from giving up. They’re called doomers. A recent NY Times article describes the way young people – one group is called OK Doomers – are countering the doom narrative and its fatalism. (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/climate/climate-change-ok-doomer.html)
The struggle to find hope in fighting climate change, or to see some way out of the deep divisions in American culture, or to move beyond the violence in Cameroon and Syria and Sudan and Ukraine parallels the movement of Holy Week toward the awful hanging tree on Golgotha.
Can we find a way through the contradictions of life and death, hope and fear? The tension between victory on Palm Sunday and defeat at the cross fuels the question on everyone’s mind in Jerusalem the first day of that week.
Dare we see this as a moment when hope is rising, or will human sin prevail? Who is this Jesus?
It’s not a new question. When Mary gives birth in Bethlehem, Herod wants to know who it is that people are calling “a newborn king.” The shepherds and Magi go to see for themselves, not knowing what to expect.
A lifetime later, the question accompanies Jesus from the manger to the cross. Pilate and all Jerusalem want to know: who is this Jesus? Even today, it’s the animating inquiry of our faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisting the rise of fascism in 1930s Nazi Germany called it the singular question for Christians in every age: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?
The gospels contain various answers; some are obvious: It’s Jesus, Mary’s boy, a stonecutter raised in Nazareth of Galilee – but those in power are not satisfied with that answer. They suspect there’s more to Jesus than that. They perceive him as a threat to their status and privilege.
Some of the people following Mary’s son agree with the authorities: they see him as a revolutionary who will finally bring down the empire. That view of Jesus is visible – and audible – in Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday. As someone plotting to take over would do, Jesus sends an advance scouting party ahead to get the lay of the land. Then he selects a donkey as his means of conveyance – a symbol not lost on the Jews greeting him. Matthew even quotes the prophet Zechariah who wrote 600 years before Jesus that the king of Israel would come riding “on a donkey and a colt.”
Here we find some comic relief in an otherwise serious narrative. Matthew ignores the fact that the ancient prophet is simply employing the common convention in Hebrew poetry of using parallel phrases to emphasize a point. He takes Zechariah literally and reports, apparently with a straight face, that Jesus enters Jerusalem on both a donkey and a colt, giving us a rodeo image of Jesus as a Palm Sunday trick rider, astride two animals at once.
The parade enters the city in raucous fashion, much as we did this morning. People line the streets, throwing down their coats and waving palm branches – more signs of respect for this one who comes as a king. They shout Hoshianna – Hebrew for Save us! It’s what you would cry out to a conquering king. Then Jesus clears the Temple of moneychangers, surely a sign that change is coming.
Matthew goes to great lengths to be sure we get the point. If the question is, Who is this Jesus? Matthew wants us to conclude that he is the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews who will return the House of David to the throne. Hope is ascendant; the Messiah has come.
At last Sunday’s Interfaith panel at Plymouth Church, the question of the identity of Jesus came up. Rabbi Zimmerman of Temple Israel said, “We don’t see Jesus as Messiah. You see a Second Coming. One of us is going to be surprised.”
At a key point in the gospel, as we heard I the text in worship last week, even Jesus wants to know: Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Peter responds, You are the Messiah, but that doesn’t resolve the question. There’s more to Jesus than that. People see him then – and now – as a healer, a teacher, a miracle-worker, a rabbi, a prophet, an advocate for the oppressed and excluded.
As a pastor I see the range of interpretations of Jesus in our congregation. The activist sees Jesus as a champion of radical change. The person facing a terminal diagnosis wants Jesus to work a miracle. Those who’ve lost a loved one need healing comfort and peace from Jesus. Someone trying to find their way through a difficult decision wants Jesus the ethical teacher to help them make the right choice.
It’s not so much that we’re confused about Jesus; it’s that we’re all seeking him, and there’s no one way to find him. We each come to our own conclusions – which is good, because ultimately, our quest is to know God through Jesus, and no one can do that for us.
But sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our Jesus is the only Jesus. We force onto him our own agenda and assume he’s on our side only. That Jesus is beholden to us, and not we to him. We make him over in our own image and lay on him our convictions and expect him to follow us.
If nothing else is clear about who Jesus is, let us at least know this much: in the gospels, Jesus calls us to follow him, not the other way around. The Christian life – our life – is spent trying to pursue that calling.
The Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino served among the poor in El Salvador many years ago. His book, Christology at the Crossroads, addresses the Palm Sunday question:
“The only way to get to know Jesus is to follow…him in one’s own real life… to try to fashion his kingdom in our midst. In other words, only through Christian action is it possible for us to draw close to Jesus. Following Jesus is the precondition for knowing Jesus.” (Christology at the Crossroads [Maryknoll, NY; Orbis, 1978), p. xiii]
To know Jesus, Sobrino says, is to follow him in our lives. The Jesuit was later sanctioned by the Vatican for teaching theology that focused too much on the humanity of Jesus at the expense of the divinity of Christ.
In every age the church has wrestled with the question raised that palmy Sunday in Jerusalem. And it doesn’t get any easier by the end of the week.
The crowd will be fickle in Jerusalem, welcoming him as a king one day, and then turning on him and calling for his crucifixion soon thereafter. We in the church are fickle today, as well. Some of us see Jesus as concerned primarily with life after death, while others see him preoccupied mostly with life on this earth. We lose balance at the extremes.
No one knows what to make of Jesus – except, of course, those who are healed by him, those welcomed by him, those taught by him, the little children whom he welcomes, the women and foreigners he respects, the outcasts with whom he eats, and anyone whose life is changed by their encounter with him. They may not know precisely who Jesus is, but they know what he does. He is love in the flesh, compassion in person, the embodiment of hope.
But following him is not easy.
Jesus may have turned over tables in the Temple that day, but soon the tables will turn on him. Will we abandon him there, overcome by the sense of doom brought on by the cross and our own betrayal? Or will we follow him into the crucifixion, into the gloom where we can barely make out the light?
Will we face the contradictions of this week in our city, our nation, our world and lose hope? Or can we go to the places where the tables have turned on us – where goodness seems to have been defeated, where our oneness as a human community appears to be gone, and where our stewardship of creation is such a disaster – can we go there, and not give up on God?
Who is this Jesus we follow?
Leave it to the children to know. Did you notice them in the story? There they are at the end of that first Palm Sunday, watching the confrontation at the Temple between Jesus and those in power. Anger is in the air. People are starting to turn on him. The shadow of coming events has begun to grow.
Yet, in that place and in that moment, where hope is ebbing away, the children start to sing. Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!
They know the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.