Sixth Sunday in Lent
Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
March 20, 2016
Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion
Commentary on the Texts
The long journey of Jesus to Jerusalem that began in Luke 9:51 is finally coming to an end in this Sunday's lectionary reading. The passage marks the end of the middle section of the Gospel, known as the travel narrative, and the beginning of the final section known as the passion narrative.
Our passage begins with the opening words of v. 28, "After he had said this." Luke apparently wants to indicate some connection as well as distance between the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the preceding section, the parable of the Ten Pounds (19:11-27), which may be another version of the parable of Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. The parable of the Ten Pounds is about a king who gives ten pounds to ten of his slaves and goes to a distant country to get royal power for himself. While he is away there is a sedition against him. When he gets back the slaves are summoned to give an account of what they gained through trading. When he is done with that he gives orders to have his enemies that started the sedition against him to be brought before him and slaughtered in his presence.
The hearers in the lifetime of Jesus would have allegorized the king in the parable as the Messiah returning in the role of a glorious king and judge who would vanquish his enemies and establish his kingdom once and for all. In fact, Luke tells us in 19:11 that the reason Jesus told the parable was that as Jesus got closer to Jerusalem people "supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately." That implies that Luke wants to correct a mistaken notion. The kingdom of God will not appear immediately, at least not in the sense of a nationalistic triumphalism in which Jesus the Messiah would finally set up the kingdom and vanquish the enemies of Israel. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was anything but vengeful or triumphant over enemies.
Throughout the travel narrative Luke has given the reader clear indications that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to face rejection, suffering, and death. Nevertheless, there was a lack of understanding of this issue among the disciples in the lifetime of Jesus. The two disciples on the Emmaus road tell the resurrected Jesus, who walks along with them and whom they do not recognize, that they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21). When Jesus appears to his disciples before his ascension, the disciples are still asking, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Such a nationalistic interpretation of the kingdom of God was apparently the only way that the disciples were able to view Jesus and his mission. It was not until after they were filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they finally came to the realization that the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, or even the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, was not to be understood as the final consummation of the kingdom of God or a time of judgment over the enemies of God.
The Jewish Passover was an annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Jewish people in the time of Jesus were under the dictatorial power of the Roman Empire. No doubt when pilgrims came to Jerusalem for this annual festival, which is the context of these final chapters of Luke's Gospel (22:1), nationalistic feelings and longing for liberation ran high. Roman authorities were particularly on the lookout for possible agitation against Roman power as Jewish pilgrims flocked into Jerusalem. It is important to note that Jesus deliberately wanted to find a donkey to ride the last two miles into Jerusalem.
English translations obscure the delightful play on words in verses 33-34. When Jesus sends the two disciples to fetch the colt, he instructs them to say to anyone that asks what they are doing, "[t]he Lord needs it" (NRSV). As the disciples untie the colt, its owners ask why they are untying it. The disciples say, "The Lord needs it." In Greek the word used for owners is kurioi, which is the plural of the word kurios used for the Lord. Not only that, but in Greek there is a possessive pronoun with Lord, thus "Its Lord needs it." Very clearly, Jesus is in charge here. He is the Lord, and he knows what he is doing.
Jesus and his followers had probably come by foot all the way from Galilee. But now for the last two miles he wanted to ride a donkey. How can we explain this? There is only one answer: Jesus was deliberately acting out the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which states:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Even though this word of the prophet is not quoted in Luke, as it is in Matthew and John, there can be no doubt that Luke, as well as Mark before him, clearly understood this entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as an enactment of the prophecy of Zechariah.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in accord with the messianic prophecy of Zechariah, his disciples could clearly catch the messianic import of this act. Given the highly charged atmosphere of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the annual festival of the Passover, one wonders why Jesus entered Jerusalem in such an intentionally conspicuous manner as to evoke feelings of national liberation. In fact, when the Pharisees in the crowd see and hear the crowd rejoicing, shouting and saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord," they say to Jesus, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." Apparently they were afraid that such an tumultuous activity would attract the attention of Roman authorities.
Throughout his ministry Jesus was extremely hesitant to speak of his messianic identity and he sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Luke 9:20-21). Yet, as he enters Jerusalem he does so in a manner that would clearly be interpreted as a messianic act. The crowd of disciples jubilantly proclaim Jesus as the royal Messiah. Why is it that now Jesus allows and seemingly encourages such uninhibited acclaim of him as Messiah when all along he had been extremely reticent? Perhaps one reason why Jesus had earlier been so silent about his identity and had urged his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah was that he did not want to encourage messianic expectations that were nationalistic and political in nature and therefore contrary to his own understanding of suffering messiahship. But now that he was about to enter Jerusalem and face rejection, hostility, humiliation and death, the possibility of misunderstanding the nature of his messiahship was no longer an issue. Now that the time of his suffering and death drew near, he could expressly demonstrate that he indeed was the Messiah.
To Jewish ears that was, of course, an oxymoron. The Messiah does not suffer. The Messiah comes to conquer and judge. It was necessary that the disciples of Jesus openly accept and proclaim his messiahship on the eve of his suffering and death. Jesus acted out the role of the Messiah in unmistakable terms to create a situation in which the disciples would face and experience the devastating realization that this Messiah was the anointed servant of God who would suffer and die. The world of the disciples will be shattered before they are able to experience a new revelation of God and a new understanding of what it means to follow a suffering Messiah.
Incidentally, the crowd in Pilate's court in chapter 24 that demanded the death of Jesus was not the crowd of disciples that followed him from Galilee. The disciples, to be sure, were not all that they should have been while Jesus was on trial. But they certainly did not make a hundred-eighty degree turn and demand their Master's death.
The acclamation of the multitude of disciples, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (v. 38a), which is a quote from Psalm 118:26, is the usual greeting for Passover pilgrims entering Jerusalem, except that the word "king" has been added. What is so intriguing about this whole event is that in some ways Luke wants us to understand it as a normal pilgrimage to Jerusalem for an annual celebration that commemorates the exodus event. Yet within the story there are clear hints that this is not a normal event at all. The visit of Jesus to Jerusalem has already been identified by Luke as the "exodus" that Jesus himself will experience (9:31). This is a royal visit to a royal city. At the same time, Luke has given us hints all along that this visit will be ominous. There will be rejection, humiliation, and even death. This king comes to his royal city not to be crowned with glory and honor but to suffer.
The second half of the acclamation, "Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (v. 38b), is an echo of the Gloria in excelsis Deo that the heavenly host sang at the birth of Jesus in chapter 2. But there is a difference. At the birth of Jesus the angels said, "Peace on earth." Now the crowd says, "Peace in heaven." Why the change? One could presumably take this to mean that the disciples are pronouncing peace on the cosmic realm and wishing that the enemies of God will finally be conquered and God in heaven will have peace.
However, there may be another, more telling reason for the change from peace on earth to peace in heaven. It may be that the response to the message and ministry of Jesus has been such that it has prevented peace from being realized on earth. The most that can be hoped for now is peace in heaven. The peace that the birth of Jesus was to usher into the world has not happened, not because God was unwilling or unable to pull it off, but because human beings have not received and acted on the message of Jesus. The people of Nazareth wanted to kill him (ch. 4). The message of Jesus has created division, tension, and crisis. "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?" Jesus asks. "No, I tell you, but rather division!" (14:51). Jesus has done all that he could to bring peace. He sent his disciples out on a peace mission (10:5-6). When he healed people he granted them peace (7:50; 8:48). Even Zechariah, John's father, prayed for peace at the birth of his son (1:79). But will there be peace?
One is reminded of a stanza in the song, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day":
When Jesus at last enters Jerusalem and sees the city, he weeps over it and says, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes" (19:42). Even the disciples in a few days will abandon Jesus. Peter will deny him and go into hiding. Yet that will not be the end of the story. The resurrected Lord will come to the disciples as they are hiding behind closed doors and say, "Peace to you" (24:36, my translation). Empowered by the presence of Christ and filled by the Holy Spirit, Peter will one day stand before Cornelius and his household and preach a sermon in which he will say, "You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all" (Acts 10:36).
In a day when Christians in America are increasingly in a crusading posture to capture more political, social, and economic power, the picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey and anticipating intense opposition, rejection, and death makes us rather uneasy. We want a Messiah who comes in power, not in weakness, a Messiah who judges the wicked, a Messiah who conquers the Romans and establishes Israel. We want a nationalist Messiah. "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" We are too much like James and John who want to sit on the right hand and on the left hand of Jesus in his kingdom. We are too much like the disciples who argue as to who is the greatest among them, while Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem riding on a common, ordinary donkey. Zechariah 9:9 is well known to us as a prophecy of an anointed king who would come into Jerusalem on a young donkey.
And yet we do not stop to realize how ridiculous a picture that is. A king does not ride donkeys. He rides horses. The next verse in Zechariah clearly states what 9:9 presents metaphorically. The ridiculous picture of a donkey-riding king is explained in v. 10 as one who "will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations." What? No more weapons of war? Dismantle our arsenals? Turn in our guns? Turn the other cheek? Be a pacifist? How will we curb evil people without a police force? How will we resist an enemy nation if we do not have aircraft, missiles and nuclear weapons? This peaceful Messiah coming on a donkey does not fit our agenda.
The story of Palm Sunday is not merely a rebuke of national policy that seeks power and domination. It is also a rebuke of individual ambition to dominate others on the basis of power rather than love. Pride, arrogance, self-centered ambition and self-seeking are brought out into the open and judged. In the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who rides a donkey, all feelings of superiority, competitiveness, power struggle and strife become all too evident as manifestations of sinfulness. Jesus on a donkey calls us into accountability, if indeed we are serious about making him our model and paradigm.
However, there is another aspect to this story of the "triumphal entry." Jesus wants to make a point of his messiahship publicly. The time has come. He had all along avoided making public announcements and claims of messiahship, not out of fear or cowardice, but because of the likelihood that it would be interpreted wrongly. But now, on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem and at a time when the probability of his arrest and execution would be the greatest, he gives an unmistakable sign that he indeed is the one to come, and apparently he wants the disciples to affirm it publicly and openly. If they don't, the stones will shout. It is precisely at a time when his suffering and death are looming on the horizon that he elicits from his disciples the confession that he is the Messiah. His death a few days hence will shatter the last vestiges of a faulty understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is a Messiah who dies. When he dies, something will also die in the disciples. Their old conceptions and cherished dreams will be dashed to pieces. It is only then that God can do in them what He could not do before. It is only then that they will be able to experience the resurrected Lord and be raised to new life themselves.
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