Grace Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday A (livestreaming)
The Saddest and Holiest Joke
The novelist, spiritual writer, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner made, in his collection Telling the Truth, a rather challenging observation about Jesus’s parables. Instead of the grave Repositories of Inviolable Sacred Truth we tend to make of them, Buechner wonders if they might have been something else, something much more bracing and vivid:
I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath. I don’t mean jokes for the joke’s sake, of course. I don’t mean the kind of godly jest the preacher starts his sermon with to warm people up and show them that despite his Geneva tabs or cassock he can laugh with the rest of them and is as human as everybody else. I mean the kind of joke Jesus told when he said it is harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door, harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank. And then added that though for man it is impossible, for God all things are possible because God is the master of the impossible, and [God] is a master of the impossible because in terms of what man thinks possible [God] is in the end a wild and impossible god. It seems to me that more often than not the parables can be read as high and holy jokes about God and about man and about the Gospel itself as the highest and holiest joke of them all.
I hope that Rev. Buechner will forgive me for borrowing and extending his metaphor beyond its original context. Actually, I hope he might agree that given such a setup, perhaps the saddest and holiest joke of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the one with the most outlandish setup and the most tragic punchline, is the event being commemorated today on the church’s calendar, the one known as Palm Sunday.
That’s hard for us to grasp; most years we turned it into something quite different, after all, with our waving palms and big processionals and putting the children all out front. But when you get right down to it, this was a pretty meager affair, especially considered against the spectacles promoted and perfected by the occupiers of Judea at this time, the Romans.
Now, the Romans knew from spectacle. Rank upon rank of Roman horsemen, riding the finest steeds that could be procured; banners flying, making absolutely clear you knew who was in power here (them) and who was not (you); a great place of honor for the chief figure of the procession, whether the commander of this unit or the political figure being honored, as one might be upon entering Jerusalem from Caesarea Philippi, the principal seat of Roman governance for the region. As Caesarea Philippi was nearer to the coast, such processions would have entered Jerusalem from its western-facing gate, where this impromptu processional likely came from its eastern-facing gate.
Had any Roman been sent out to investigate this suspicious activity, it is hard to imagine he’d have been all that impressed. The assembled crowd very likely did not consist of any “important” people, some of whom apparently didn’t have a cloak to spread out and were therefore committing vandalism to cut branches to spread on the road; the apparent guest of honor was some anonymous-looking rustic riding not on a fine horse, but a donkey (and apparently a borrowed donkey at that). The shouting of the crowd, about some “son of David” person, probably didn’t make much sense to our random Roman investigator (though a Jewish observer would have been much more intrigued by the claim of this man as “son of David”). Likely this hypothetical Roman would have reported back to his superiors that it was a pretty pathetic display.
The city of Jerusalem did have a bit more reaction, though, as Matthew describes Jerusalem as being “in turmoil.” Again, though, it’s not clear just how impressive the little parade was to them; a bunch of unsavory characters shouting about this prophet what’s-his-name from the backwater province of Galilee, as they might have described it.
If this is a sad and holy joke, to return to Frederick Buechner’s image, we’re still waiting for the punchline, and that might be the saddest and holiest part. By the end of the week, after a series of sometimes-provocative events to be recalled in our midday services this week, this backwater prophet would be nailed to a cross, and quite likely at least some of this same crowd shouting “hosanna” at his entry to the city would be part of the party shouting “crucify!” at his ultimate (or so they thought) end.
By our time, of course, this Palm Sunday procession has acquired a very different sheen, mostly because we can’t help but read ahead and view this parade not from the point of view of the sad and holy punchline to the sad and holy joke, but to the surprise plot twist that follows what was supposed to be the end of the story. For today, perhaps, it is enough to see this parade as it is, a little bit shabby-looking and kind of strange, and yet to hold in mind those words of the prophet that Matthew so loves to quote – in this case the prophet Zechariah speaking of your King “coming to you, humble, riding on a donkey.” It is in this humility that the joke turns out to be on that hypothetical Roman observer, so caught up in his world’s way of seeing power that the greatest power of all slipped by him completely unnoticed. We’d do well not to fall into his trap, and not to be deluded by the displays of power and authority being paraded before us daily, and instead to remember where, and with whom, ultimate authority lies.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #198, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty