Grace Presbyterian Church
April 10, 2022, Palm Sunday C
The Colt, The Cloaks, and the Crying Out
Here we are again, time for another iteration of an extremely familiar story out of the gospels. Each one has its own quirks, as is generally true of any event that is covered in multiple gospels, and yet the fundamental outline and thrust of the story is immediately recognizable, perhaps to the point that we don’t always catch the differences and nuances of each gospel’s account, and therefore we might miss the particular and specific things that each gospel writer is being moved by the Spirit to convey to us.
So, let us pay particular attention to Luke’s account this morning, even if – in defiance to everything that has come to represent this particular occasion on the church calendar – Luke gives us a “Palm” Sunday without any actual palms of any kind. Go back and read it again if you don’t believe me. No palms mentioned.
You could divide this story into three decidedly unequal parts, at least unequal in terms of length. The account of the two disciples fetching a colt is the longest part of the story by number of verses, longer than the actual processional part of the story and substantially so. The section at the end, added to the appointed lectionary reading for the day, is also quite substantial.
Luke begins this account, after a couple of challenging parables earlier in the chapter, with the dispatch of two unnamed disciples to fetch a colt, for reasons we don’t yet know if we’re following Luke’s account without all that we already know about this story. Jesus’s instructions are almost painfully specific: which town to go to, a colt that has never been ridden, what to say if anyone catches you in the act. Sure enough, everything plays out exactly as Jesus seems to have scripted it, down to telling the owners of the colt “The Lord needs it.”
Why so specific? In John’s gospel Jesus “found a young donkey” – none of the elaborate scheme found in Luke. Matthew, on the other hand, has the disciples fetching an older donkey and her foal, while Mark at least includes a promise that the colt would be returned immediately.
One could suggest that Luke, even though he doesn’t include the specific reference, is alluding to the same prophetic source as his fellow gospelers Mark and Matthew. Zechariah 9:9 describes the entry of a king into Jerusalem, in a time of judgment on God’s enemies, with the description” “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” While Matthew actually quotes from this account in his description, it’s pretty clear that this snippet of prophetic oracle figures heavily into how this processional account is reported, and perhaps it’s also on Jesus’s mind.
One could also argue that there’s a certain amount of parody going on. Jerusalem was fairly well accustomed at this point in its history to large, rather bombastic processionals into the city heralding the arrival of whatever important Roman official was coming into town for whatever occasion. Given the impending observance of Passover and the Roman tendency to suspect an uprising might break out during that festival, it’s quite possible that such a processional might be taking place this same day as Jesus’s entry.
Whatever the case, we move from the carefully prepared procurement of the colt to what at first looks like a rather haphazard start to the processional itself; Jesus’s followers are first found placing their cloaks on the colt for Jesus to sit on, and then spreading more cloaks on the road as Jesus rode along on the road. Again, no palms in Luke’s account.
While this might seem a bit out of nowhere, even the cloaks have precedent in Hebrew scripture. 2 Kings 9 contains an account of the prophet Elisha appointing one of his company to go to a man named Jehu, a commander in the military, and anoint him as king of Israel, finally removing the house of the notorious king Ahab from rule. The prophet does as he is told, and when Jehu’s fellow officers learn what has happened, verse 13 of that chapter records that the commanders “all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.'” Again, what looks a bit random turns out to be a marker of a king’s arrival. While can’t be certain that everyone in Luke’s intended audience would have automatically known these references from Hebrew scripture, for those who did, the signs are clear.
More scripture references come into play in the cries of the followers of Jesus who accompanied this processional. The first part of their proclamation takes us to Psalm 118:26, heard in today’s first reading. There is a difference, though; here, the disciples are making explicit what has been implied so far, in proclaiming “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The next part sounds recognizable without reference to Hebrew scripture; one can simply think back to the angelic proclamation to the shepherds in chapter 2 of this very gospel to remember why this sounds familiar. Again, though, there is a difference; we now hear “peace in heaven” instead of “peace on earth.”
But there is more crying out to come. When some of the Pharisees who are in the crowd, probably fearing Roman retribution, try to prevail upon Jesus to quiet this chant, he responds that the stones would cry out if they did not – suggesting, on the surface, that all of nature would be in on this praise. Again, though, Hebrew scripture gives us a reference to think about. Habakkuk 2:9-11 describes those who “get evil gain for their houses” for their own gain at the expense others; the prophet proclaims that “the very stones will cry out from the wall and the plaster will respond from the woodwork” at the shame those have brought upon themselves. Maybe the stones would be crying out if the disciples were silent not in praise, but calling out the shame of not acclaiming Jesus as king here?
There is one more bit of crying out to hear. Jesus himself weeps as Jerusalem comes within sight, lamenting how that city, so long favored of God, had never truly lived up to what God had called it to be. The description of the destruction of the city in verses 43-44 indeed recalls prophetic accounts of the city’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, as found in Isaiah (29:3, 37:33) and Jeremiah (6:6, 15).
For Luke’s readers, though, there might be a more immediate image in mind. Luke’s gospel was likely written years after the burning of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in the year 70. Quite likely the stones of those buildings and streets still bore the burn scars from that event. Indeed, even in Luke’s own time, one might say the stones were crying out.
What to make of this web of seemingly random scripture somehow being knitted together in this odd story of Jesus’s ride towards Jerusalem? Simply this: this is no random cute story. If anything, this is a quite subversive action, full of pointers to this Jesus as nothing less than a king; not just some random rabbi from the Galilean hinterlands, but a king. Those Pharisees weren’t wrong about the potential for the Romans to be ticked off by such a thing, if they saw and heard it. And of course, those claims of Jesus as king would indeed come back into prominence by the end of this week, when Jesus is arrested; when he is tried before Pilate, who asks him “are you the king of the Jews?“; when at his crucifixion an inscription was posted on his cross, just above his head, proclaiming “This is the King of the Jews.”
What happens on this day reverberates all through this week, this last week in the earthly ministry of Jesus. And the claims that this day makes are strong; though they may be scorned and mocked and ultimately punished by the end of this week, they are irreversibly and unmistakably redeemed by what happens on the first day of the following week.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #504, Soul, Adorn Yourself With Gladness; #199, Filled With Excitement