Grace Presbyterian Church
March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday B (recorded)
The Colt and the Crowd
One of the great challenges of Holy Week is that, to be blunt, the stories featured in the major services of the week – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – are awfully familiar. After all, we tell them every year, and they do represent the climactic events of the life of Jesus, events that shape the faith and theology of Christianity itself (at least when we’re doing it right.
It is the final three, of course, that are the focus; today, Palm Sunday, is something of a curtain-raiser on this final act of the drama of Jesus’s life and ministry. That is not to say, however, that this event is itself devoid of significance for our faith or our theology, nor that it is devoid of significance to us who seek to live out our lives as disciples of this Jesus, not merely name-droppers of Christ whose lives and actions adhere far more to social attitudes and customs than to anything biblical or spiritual.
Every gospel tells this story slightly differently – for example, the palms that give this day its name are mentioned only In John’s retelling of the story. There are a couple of particular elements of Mark’s account that might hold greater significance for us than we are accustomed to hearing. One of those has to do with how Jesus specifically entered into Jerusalem; the other, with those (in addition to the disciples) who joined him on the way.
We get in the first half of this account the curious story of Jesus sending two of his followers to find and bring a colt, specifically one that “has never been ridden.” If anyone questions their taking the colt, they are told what to say; they say it and are able to proceed.
Now other gospel accounts differ here. Matthew has the two followers going to fetch a donkey *and* her colt. John specifically mentions a donkey. But taking Mark at his word, we have only the word “colt” (especially one that “has never been ridden”) to work from, which could indicate a young donkey or even a young horse. Here’s the thing, though: either way, choosing to enter the city on a colt is a strange choice.
A horse would have been the likely choice for an important person, say, the Roman governor of this district, who would likely have been riding into Jerusalem from the Roman seat of government at Caesarea Philippi to serve as a reminder that, while y’all may be having your big festival and all this coming week, don’t forget that we’re in charge. If you do, we have ways of reminding you, ways that you won’t enjoy.
A donkey was much more likely to be the mode of conveyance for an average joe, if such an average person were riding any animal at all. Not flashy or fancy, but dependable, reliable, all that.
Of course, many people simply walked wherever they went, including (for most of their time together) Jesus and his disciples.
Riding an untrained colt, though, messes with all these pictures. The degree to which it undermines the pomp and spectacle of a Roman triumphal entry is likely clear enough, but even the average joe on his well-trained donkey gets called into question here, if for no other reason than the comfort or safety of the old donkey over the young colt. And for all the humility of the entry otherwise, Jesus is still riding – that is a gesture of a person of some significance, on some level worthy of the adoration to come, as a crowd of people gather around and begin to prepare the path.
Ah, yes, the “crowd.” Again, different gospel accounts portray it differently. John’s story suggests that the “great crowd” that had come to Jerusalem for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to town migrated over to greet him (12:12). Matthew speaks of a “very large crowd” in 21:8. Even Luke (19:37) speaks of the “whole multitude of the disciples” cheering and shouting their “hosannas” to Jesus.
Mark, on the other hand, speaks of “many people” who were spreading their cloaks on the ground, or breaking off branches to mark the way for Jesus to ride. “Many people.” So we know that there are more than just the twelve disciples, but this doesn’t quite carry the force of numbers that phrases like “great crowd” or “very large crowd” or even “whole multitude” have.
Even more cautious is the relating of what happens when Jesus and his followers and the “many people” get into Jerusalem. They went into the city, Jesus looked around at the Temple, and then…he went back to Bethany with the disciples. No sign of the “many people from before. The fireworks wouldn’t start until the next day, in Mark’s reading, when Jesus came back to the Temple and disrupted the commercial establishment there.
In short, the way Mark tells the story, it’s a pretty decent crowd, but not quite anything like the “multitude” other gospel accounts suggest. Hearing the story from this perspective might cause us to consider another question, one that should give us caution: which crowd are we with?
As noted earlier, it would not have been uncommon for large-scale processionals to enter Jerusalem, particularly coming from the Roman center of Caesarea Philippi, with numerous soldiers and horses and chariots and all the fine stuff that makes a tremendous impression on, well, impressionable crowds. Such processions would enter Jerusalem at a different gate, not the same portal to the city that Jesus and his followers used coming from Bethany and the Mount of Olives to the east. Such processions tended to attract large crowds, maybe even “very large crowds,” because it was sometimes useful to stay on the good side of the Romans, or because the procession overtook you and you had no way to get away from it, or frankly because they were large and impressive. While there’s no way to know for certain if such a processional was entering Jerusalem the same day or even the same time as Jesus and his followers, it’s not necessarily impossible that this was the case, or that such a processional might have entered days before or would enter days thereafter.
Which crowd are we with? Are we spreading out branches and cloaks on Jesus’s way, or are we out there paying homage to the Empire and its claim to ultimate power?
If we expand our view, however, there’s one more crowd we might need to ask ourselves about: the crowd that calls for Jesus’s crucifixion, after Pontius Pilate has questioned him.
The chief priests and other religious authorities had brought Jesus in and questioned him, frankly to no avail, nonetheless they handed him over to that Roman governor of the time with their charges against him. Pilate, frankly, wasn’t terribly impressed, even though Jesus mostly kept silent before him. Rather than release him outright, though, he decided to play a political card and offer him as part of a traditional release for Passover, one of those ways he (like any skilled politician) curried favor with the people.
Behind Pilate’s back, though, those religious authorities had already been playing those crowds gathered to witness that spectacle. In a scene that is unbearably resonant with contemporary culture, they persuade the crowd to demand that, instead of Jesus, Pilate release to them Barabbas, an insurrectionist and killer. Blindsided by this turn of the crowd, Pilate finds himself backed into a p.r. corner, and orders Barabbas released and Jesus crucified.
The hymn “My song is love unknown” seems to allude to this contrast of crowds in its third stanza (as we have it in our hymnal):
Sometimes we strew his way and his sweet praises sing,
Resounding all the day hosannas to our king.
Then “Crucify!” is all our breath, and for his death we thirst and cry.
Which crowd are we with? The ones resounding “hosanna” to Jesus all the day, or the ones stirred up by madly jealous religious leaders to demand that Pilate “Crucify!”?
Do we let ourselves be swayed by the big-name preachers, with all the book sales and TV broadcasts, into letting our faith be hijacked by our political desires or cultural fetishes? Is our faith in our Christ or our country? Who do we follow, and who do we bend into unrecognizable knots to conform to the other? Which crowd are we with?
Indeed, Pilate, ever calculating for his own advantage, gives in to the pressure and condemns Jesus to death, and sets loose the insurrectionist and killer. So, yeah, there’s some relevance in our text for today.
We tend to read this narrative, in the longer form, as if to suggest that the “many people” following Jesus on what we call Palm Sunday turned against him by the end of the week and were demanding his death only those few days later, but we don’t know that for certain. Jerusalem was a large city for its time, and with numerous visitors coming into the city for Passover, there were plenty of people around to make up the angry and violent crowd – good religious folks, too, the lot of them – at the trial before Pilate. We should not therefore excuse ourselves with the “everybody else did it” excuse that is rather popular among human beings. No, we can’t assume that everybody else did it. We can’t justify ourselves by claiming to have gotten caught up in the hysteria and claiming that ‘we didn’t really mean it’. Our call is to follow, right to the very end, no matter what other crowds or Important People demand of us.
What crowd are we with, as we come to this week of weeks? What is our cry?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #197, Hosanna, Loud Hosanna; #198, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty.