Grace Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday B
The Real Joke
It doesn’t seem like Ash Wednesday was that long ago, and yet here it is Palm Sunday already.
You might remember, those weeks ago, that Ash Wednesday fell on February 14, Valentine’s Day. If you remember that, you might also recall hearing that the climax of the cycle of Lent, Easter Sunday, was going to fall on April 1, April Fool’s Day. One could go with all sorts of humor approaches to that confluence of events – say, Jesus coming out of the tomb saying something like “April Fool’s! I really got ya, didn’t I?”
In fact, though, I end up wishing the timing had been just a little different. April Fool’s Day shouldn’t really coincide with Easter Sunday, but with the occasion we mark today on the church’s calendar, Palm Sunday. Virtually everything about this event recorded here has some quality of joke to it, some element of incongruity, something displaced or nonsensical or even subversive. To a great degree this is, to borrow a phrase from the novelist Frederick Buechner, a sad and holy joke.
After years of healing and teaching in Galilee, Jesus and his band of followers have made their way to Jerusalem. The end of the previous chapter in Mark’s gospel records the joining of the group by one more follower, a formerly blind man named Bartimaeus, whose sight had been restored by Jesus at Jericho. Somehow, Bartimaeus had known who Jesus was then his party passed by, which suggests that Jesus has a reputation, one not limited to the remote reaches of Galilee where he spent much of his public ministry. As a result, the number of those with Jesus as he approached the gates of Jerusalem was well beyond the twelve who constituted his disciples. Furthermore, that reputation also meant that some number of people were probably coming out to see this itinerant rabbi from the sticks, out of curiosity perhaps, or maybe from more genuine interest. In short, this was a pretty good crowd at the east gate of Jerusalem, from the direction of the Mount of Olives where Bethany was located.
Some scholars have suggested that on this same day a party was also approaching Jerusalem from the west, the entourage of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, come to Jerusalem from his usual headquarters at Caesarea Philippi to exert the influence of the Roman Empire over the forthcoming Passover observances at the Temple. To me that smells a little too convenient – quite likely around the same time, and maybe the same day, but I don’t want to stake a sermon on that – but it does at least make the point that such a processional would not have been at all unfamiliar to those in the city of Jerusalem. Such a processional would be quite predictable. There would probably be trumpets blazing away, banners flying, rank upon rank of Roman soldiers, and Pilate at minimum on a noble war horse, the finest stallion available from among Rome’s garrison at Caesarea Philippi. It would be a scene from one of those numerous sword-and-sandals epic movies from the 1950s or so. You know the type.
If those who met Jesus at the eastern gate of the city, the opposite side from which Pilate’s processionals would have approached, were expecting a similar scene, they would have been at least surprised if not outright disappointed.
Jesus was accompanied by exactly zero trumpets. No banners, either, unless you count the branches people were cutting from the nearby field and laying before him. (John’s account specifically mentions palms, but it is the only one to do so – so much for the name “Palm Sunday.”) Those laying their cloaks across the path might have been adding a slightly more imperial touch to the proceedings, possibly. But maybe the most striking difference was how Jesus himself proceeded.
No war horse here. Instead Jesus rode on a “colt,” which could refer at the time to either a young horse or a young donkey. John specifically mentions a donkey, as do the other gospels, so we’ll go with that. It’s not hard to see a difference between a magnificent stallion and a young donkey, I’m guessing; the former is the conveyance of the empire, the latter of the people (or at least those who didn’t have to walk).
But for Mark that’s not all; it isn’t just a colt, it’s a colt “that has never been ridden.” Now students of the scriptures have interpreted this two different ways. Some have pointed out that such a creature might be interpreted as representing purity or unspoiled innocence of sort, others have pointed to a more practical consideration; how exactly is a young donkey that has never been ridden before going to react when somebody suddenly sits on it and expects to ride?
That’s a little outside my experience but it sounds risky, maybe even like a good way to get hurt if the colt panics or gets spooked by the crowds. Nonetheless there is Jesus (somehow having arranged for this specific colt if the first part of Mark’s account is to be trusted) riding this unbroken colt in the midst of excited, yelling crowds.
There are times when it’s dangerous simply to make a statement. To undermine and critique the pomp and noise of those grandiose processionals on the other side of the city, Jesus proceeds to enter the city on an untested and uncertain colt, surrounded only by his own rather ragged band of followers and the collection of onlookers seeking out the next curiosity, the next spectacle.
What they cry out is also interesting. Remember?
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
“Hosanna” is itself an interesting word. We have tended to render it as a more or less standard exclamation of praise (and you’ll notice that the hymns in today’s service use the word that way), but its older meaning is something like “save us.” Are the people really crying out to be saved, even to the highest heaven? And what about that “coming kingdom of our ancestor David”? That language comes up in other gospels, but it isn’t an idea that Mark has spent much time talking about in his gospel. So, what are we to make of this sudden interjection from the crowd? Are they really crying out for Jesus to Make Israel Great Again?
Still, of all the oddities of this event, the biggest joke was yet to come. This crowd, crying “Hosanna!” and waving branches and spreading their cloaks on the road, would just a few days later give way to a crowd crying “Crucify!” about this very same Jesus, calling for the life of a criminal to be spared so that this Jesus could be executed by the very empire he had satirized on that road into Jerusalem. The praise so quickly turns to condemnation.
Is that crowd us?
Are we the ones who pivot without warning from praise to scorn or, worse, outright dismissal?
Are we the ones who, though seeming to protest against it, are ultimately quite happy to bask in the shadow of the empire as long as it punishes those we don’t like and leaves us safe?
To borrow from today’s choir anthem, what will we cry tomorrow?
What are we looking for when we look for Jesus? Someone who will Make America (or Christianity) Great Again? Someone who will hate the people we hate? Someone who will reassure us that we’re good Christians and good Americans and we don’t need to worry about anything, everything will be alright?
Maybe we’d better look more closely at this Jesus at the gate of the city.
Maybe we’d better listen more clearly to words like “the time is at hand, and the kingdom of God is come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Maybe we’d better watch more closely the Jesus who shows up the next day at the Temple and clears it out and upsets all the business transactions and accuses the Temple authorities of turning it into a “den of robbers.”
That’s the Jesus at the city gate. Do we hear, or do we not get the joke?
What will we cry tomorrow?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #403, Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty; #197, Hosanna, Loud Hosanna; #198, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!