Sunday, April 1, 2007

(Palm Sunday) Jesus, the Donkey, and the Powers That Be

Luke 19:28-40 (with ref. to Isaiah 50:4-9; Philip. 2:5-11)

Here we are at Palm Sunday already.
A strange and wonderful day in the church year,
marking a strange and wonderful event in the life of Jesus.
We call it Jesus’ triumphal entry,
but it’s an odd sort of triumph.
In a few days Jesus will have more enemies than friends,
and the crowds who shouted Hosanna, will call for his death.

Let’s jump right into the text.
You might find it helpful to keep your Bibles open to Luke 19.

There are at least two different, valid ways to read this story,
both of which lead us to valid conclusions.

The first way we’re quite familiar with.
It’s a way of reading where we emphasize the symbolism,
in order to reach a conclusion about who Jesus is.
This is the first time Jesus publicly allows
the people to proclaim him as Messiah.
Before this, when anybody suggested Jesus was the Messiah,
he shushed them.
His Messiah-ship was a closely guarded secret.

But now, by reading the symbolism of this event,
we clearly see Jesus is owning his identity as Messiah,
as the anointed King of Israel, in David’s royal line.

He arranges to ride in a parade through the city gates,
just like a new king, about to be enthroned.
People hold palm branches, like they would to honor a king,
although we get that from John, rather than Luke.
And in Luke 19:36, people take their cloaks, their own clothing,
and spread them out on the road for the king to walk on;
an expression of submission to this royal figure.
And in v. 38, the crowds shout words from Psalm 118,
a psalm celebrating a king’s victory.
And the whole scene fulfills the words of Zechariah,
predicting a king who will come riding on a colt.
Everything about this story—both word and symbol—
declare the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

The only odd thing is he rides a donkey, instead of a royal stallion.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus denies his kingship.
I’ve read that in ancient times,
when a king and his entourage entered a city,
and they were approaching in peace,
he would ride a donkey to signal to the local ruler
that he wasn’t a threat.
Maybe Jesus was reassuring the occupying Roman authorities
that he wasn’t intending to storm the throne and take over.

But simply reading the symbols in the story,
we come to this valid conclusion
that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Anointed One who came to save the people of Israel.

And that’s all good.
It’s well to be reminded of the identity of Jesus.
But those of us who are believers already,
don’t need a whole Sunday every year,
to be re-convinced that Jesus is the Messiah.
We already accept that.

That’s where a second way of reading this story
can open new horizons.
There’s more to be mined from this wonderful narrative,
when we take seriously the larger context,
when we look at the events that preceded it, and followed it,
when we ask the question,
“What was going on in Jesus’ own mind,
and in the thinking and reactions of the disciples,
in the crowds, the civil and religious powers that be.”
This way of reading ingests this story,
finds a way to become part of it.
It’s not enough to read this story,
and only reach an intellectual conclusion
about Jesus’ identity as Messiah.
We need to discover why this event happened,
and what it led to,
and where it might lead us, if we allow it to.

So...what was really going on here,
in Jerusalem, in the days approaching Passover,
when Jesus was making his final approach to the Holy City?

Seems nearly everything that happened in Jesus’ ministry,
was setting the stage for this showdown in Jerusalem.
This grand entry into Jerusalem
is a huge turning point in the story.
It’s a moment, I believe, of great clarity for Jesus.
And the exact opposite for the people.
A moment when every misunderstood intention of Jesus,
every mistaken expectation people had,
every wishful thought,
every misplaced hope,
was confronted head on by Jesus himself.
This was true for his closest disciples,
for his larger circle of friends,
for those who were ambivalent,
and for those who saw him as a terrible threat.

Remember the social context here.
This was Jerusalem, the Holy City of the descendants of Abraham.
For generations now, this proud and independent people,
with a long and rich history of self-rule,
were living almost as prisoners in their own national capital.
Herod ruled with an iron fist.
Brutally murdering anyone who so much as threatened
to cause any trouble.
They were free to practice their own religion as they wished,
as long as they did it quietly, and kept to themselves.
But their royal palace,
the throne David once sat on,
was now being lived in by pagan Roman rulers,
henchmen of Caesar,
who called himself a god.
What an insult to these worshipers of Yahweh,
the God of their ancestors!
It was offensive beyond imagination.
Everyone...every Jew in Jerusalem and throughout Judea,
was waiting, desperately, for the Messiah.
The one who would put an end to this travesty.
Who would reclaim David’s throne and palace,
and be the new King of Israel.
They were eagerly studying the prophets, looking for signs.
Everyone was waiting for the Messiah,
the common people,
the scribes and Pharisees,
the Priests and Levites.
They wanted freedom. They wanted a Savior.

And during the last year or two,
and increasingly, in recent months,
rumors were rampant that Jesus was the one.
Many people loved him and followed him en masse,
soaking in every teaching,
witnessing every miracle,
hoping and believing in him.
But the religious authorities wrote him off, understandably.
He was soft on Jewish ritual law.
He didn’t keep himself pure.
He touched lepers and women.
Ate with sinners.
Broke the Sabbath.
That obviously disqualified him to be the Messiah,
no matter what the uneducated masses thought.
So the more crowds Jesus drew out,
the more nervous the religious leaders became.
The last thing they wanted was a Messianic pretender out there,
stirring up the people, and getting Rome on their back.
Their resistance to Jesus was both understandable, and noble.
They were protecting the people.
They knew how brutally violent Herod could be,
if things got out of hand.
They were trying to keep an orderly society,
for the good of everyone.

That is the kind of Jerusalem that Jesus rode into,
on the day we now call Palm Sunday.
That is why the crowds were lauding him as King,
and the Pharisees were telling Jesus
to order his followers to stop this dangerous nonsense.

Then, in about as much time as it took to organize the parade,
the tide turned against Jesus.
And it wasn’t because some evil and corrupt
Pharisees and High Priest found a way to manipulate the crowds
to turn against their hero.
It’s what Jesus did that turned the tide.
It was the clarity Jesus had about who he was,
and what his mission was,
the suddenly confronted all these misplaced expectations.
Jesus, in fact, turned out to be a huge disappointment to people.

You realize, don’t you,
where the people were expecting this parade to lead.
They were expecting Jesus to ride all the way to the palace,
and reclaim the throne.
They had seen all the other miracles.
Multitudes healed.
The dead raised.
Thousands fed with a few bread and fish.
This man was a proven miracle worker,
and he now accepted the title of Messiah, the deliverer.
They always knew that if they tried to seize the throne,
even if they had an army,
Caesar would crush them.
But a miracle-worker could do it.
They were about to witness Jesus’ greatest miracle to date.
And they were giddy with delight and anticipation.

But the parade ended prematurely.
Jesus got off his donkey not at the palace, but the temple.
Not at the headquarters of the pagan Roman oppressors.
But the headquarters of Jewish religious life,
the very center of Jewish peoplehood.
Jesus got off his donkey to confront the powers that be,
but they weren’t the powers that anyone else had in mind,
even his closest disciples.

In the verses immediately following this triumphal entry,
two significant things are recorded that give us a window
into Jesus’ mind and heart.

First thing we note, in v. 41 of Luke 19,
is that as the parade was approaching the city, Jesus wept.
He broke down in tears at the sight of Jerusalem.
And he voiced a lament in v. 42, “O Jerusalem,
if only you recognized today the things that make for peace.”
But you don’t see it! It’s hidden.
Because you are confused about who you are called to be.

And then in v. 45, Jesus enters the temple,
and starts driving out the people who were selling things there,
shouting out words of the prophet Jeremiah,
accusing the people of turning the house of God
into a den of robbers.

Why did Jesus do such a thing?
Why was Jesus so obsessed on some disorder at the temple,
when a foreign, pagan dictator
was oppressing his own people with the sword?
Weigh those two things in the balance—
the violent atrocities coming out of Herod’s palace,
and people selling doves in the temple courtyard,
so that worshipers would have something to sacrifice.
But Jesus confronted the temple, not the palace.
He rode in on a donkey,
so as to reassure Rome
that he wasn’t going to cause them trouble,
and then he attacked the temple of his own people.
And the next two chapters just continue the insults.
In one parable after another,
he challenges his own religious leaders.
He openly denounces the scribes and Pharisees.
And he conveniently avoids saying anything to offend Rome.
One time he was given a chance to, on the question of taxes.
But he was non-committal.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Is it any wonder,
that only days later,
his people were calling for his crucifixion.
It doesn’t surprise me.
He bitterly disappointed them all.
Every last one of them.
Even his disciples deserted him,
completely confused about what was going on.

Yet, it was the time of Jesus’ greatest clarity,
when the purpose for his being and identity were without question.
That is why it says that he “set his face toward Jerusalem.”
He knew what needed to happen.
He needed to remind the people of God who they were called to be.

Now don’t get me wrong.
I’m not suggesting Jesus didn’t care
about what Herod & Caesar were doing.
You could hardly be a Jew in first-century Palestine,
and not have deep feelings about the Roman oppression.
I believe he wanted his people to be free citizens again.
But despite all that, Jesus had an even deeper concern.
His own people were losing their way.
It wasn’t Rome that was keeping them from living fully.
They were doing it to themselves.
They had forgotten what it meant to love and serve God
with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
They had forgotten how to love and serve each other.
Their true faith and identity could survive and thrive,
even under the most brutal outside oppression.
But it wouldn’t stand a chance if they destroyed it themselves.

They were not treating each other with Godly justice and compassion.
The wealthy were taking advantage of the poor.
The widows and orphans were not being cared for.
Those who had position and power were luxuriating in it.
And those without were getting stepped on.

Jesus looked on the city of Jerusalem, and wept over his lost people,
a people who lost sight of who they were,
and what God desired of them—
a people too confused about their identity
to realize their biggest problem wasn’t Rome.
Their spiritual and ethical grounding
had eroded underneath their own feet.

But the only thing the people could see when they looked at Jesus,
was, Here is the one who will rescue us from Rome.
Here is one who will restore David’s throne.
Here is our savior.
“Hosanna to the Son of David.
The new king of the restored nation of Israel.”

I wonder.
I wonder if the church of today is not in a similar situation.
I wonder if today’s people of God
are not so focused on the external threats
to church traditions and institutions,
that we neglect to examine whether we are being faithful to God.
I wonder whether our own priorities as God’s people,
match up with the priorities of God.
I wonder whether the church is losing its way,
as Christendom falls around us;
whether we are busy shoring up the institution and structures,
while the heart of our faith is being overlooked.

At the very time we need the saving, transforming,
life-redeeming work of Jesus Christ,
to be let loose among us,
to help us practice an authentic life of worship,
of community,
and of mission—
at the very time we need the personal and collective salvation
offered us in Jesus Christ,
we are being distracted by external pressures.
We are focused on preservation and survival.

Yes, let us work, let us speak, let us advocate against injustice,
wherever it shows up,
whether in Iraq, or Darfur,
whether in Washington, D.C.,
whether in a Harrisonburg Minuteman rally,
or whether in our own church structures.
But let us do so with clarity about our calling,
to be a people formed in Jesus Christ,
a people obedient to the will of God revealed in Jesus,
even when that obedience is costly.

I’m amazed at Jesus.
That he could be so clear about his mission.
So secure in his identity.
Even when everyone, including his disciples,
tried their best to remake him into someone else,
he didn’t lose focus.
He never wavered.
He set his face toward Jerusalem.

I’m amazed at Isaiah, whose words we heard a few minutes ago.
When his detractors and persecutors put on the pressure,
Isaiah wrote,
“I did not turn backward...
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting . . .
I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

That’s the kind of clarity, in the face of resistance,
that gets people into trouble.
That’s what put Jesus on the cross.
His deep, unstoppable love and compassion for his lost people,
when others were more concerned about Rome.

We are called to same kind of clarity.
To have the mind-set of Christ.
To be willing to empty ourselves, as servants of God,
to bend the knee at the name of Jesus,
and confess with our tongues,
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, April 1, 2007

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