9th April 2017 - Hugh Perry
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
This psalm belongs to the feast of Tabernacles with verses 1-4 being a thanksgiving of the people while 5-21 are an individual thanksgiving and 22-29 contain a mixture of motives.
What is important is that the psalm is performed at the temple gate and it is not hard to imagine Jesus joining the procession that was going to the temple for a festival rather than the people specifically cheering for Jesus. Bishop Spong uses that possibility to suggest that it was Tabernacles rather than Passover that brought Jesus to Jerusalem but such speculation could obscure the Gospels message.
Warren Carter heads this section of his commentary ‘Making An Ass Out of Rome’ and says that the scene employs a cluster of features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions. These entrances include triumphs, military victories, or the arrival of a king or governor at a city. We could add from our culture the arrival of gold medal winning athletes or pop stars at an international airport.
Jesus on the other hand understands human greatness in terms of service and his entrance into the centre of power, Jerusalem, is a prophetic sign, action or choreographed street theatre. He adopts some of the trappings of Greco-Roman processions but reframes them in a different context. Jesus’ goal is to stress the divine realm based on service rather than empire that is based on conquest and domination. This is a protest action against Rome that proposes a better way than empire to fulfil human destiny.
Jesus comes on a commonly scorned animal not a war horse, is not welcomed by the powerful local elite and the city does not know who he is. He offers no sacrifice in the temple but instead he judges it.
It is worth noting that, even though all four gospels carry this incident, each make changes to suit their own focus and only John has palms (John 12:13). Here in Matthew they cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
April 9th 2017 Psalm 118, Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm Sunday) Like all the Christian festivals Palm Sunday is a story we visit ever year and it is a crucial part in understanding the Christian story. As noted in the introduction the story varies in each gospel as each writer adds their understanding to it.
Matthew has the odd distinction of having Jesus ride two donkeys. The quote about the donkeys comes from Zechariah 9 where the parallelism, which is such a feature of Hebrew Poetry, speaks of the donkey in two different ways in parallel verses. ‘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.’ (Zechariah 9:9b)
Perhaps Matthew didn’t understand the unique way Hebrew poets used to give rhythm to their poetry and believed that Zechariah was predicting a future king that would ride two animals. As scholars often refer to Matthew as the most Jewish of the four gospel writers it is more likely he felt his gentile readers would not understand the issue of parallelism. He therefore wanted to make it quite clear that Jesus as messiah was following a course predicted by the prophets of the past. Matthew may have thought the description of the donkey in two different ways might cast doubt in the mind of his readers about his claim that Jesus came out of the Hebrew tradition.
It was important to Matthew that Jesus was building a new people of God by following the divine pattern laid out in the Hebrew tradition.
As the gospel story winds from Jesus’ baptism to today’s reading we see Jesus in the wilderness facing the temptations of leadership, giving law on a mountain and feeding the people in a different wilderness, each time being a new and better Moses forming a new people of God.
Today’s reading is an affirmation of Jesus’ status as Messiah as predicted by the prophets and leads into Jesus entering into the temple, not to worship, but in another acted parable, rebutting the temple’s exploitation of vulnerable people.
However the most significant feature of the Palm Sunday story is that, despite the variations, all four gospels include it and it has become part of the church calendar. Therefore we should conclude that regardless of what happened the Palm Sunday story is important in understanding our faith. There are numerous theories about the events described. It could have been that Jesus was joining the groups of people going to a festival. It could also be that as Jesus and the disciples approached the city Jesus produced an acted parable to try and make the disciples understand that he was not a military messiah about to take Jerusalem by force.
What is important is that all the gospel writers believed this episode told something important about Jesus and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
By riding the donkey there is the obvious symbolic rejection of the image of a conquering Roman emperor riding a war horse. Coupled with the rejection of Jesus by the crowd in chapter twenty seven who demand that he be crucified there is the suggestion that, although following Jesus may seem a good option initially, people can soon become disenchanted.
That is also a comment about the difference between what people expect from leadership and what leadership is actually offering.
The gospels show Jesus growing in popularity and today’s reading can be read as the climax of that popularity. The gospels, particularly Mark, also show the disciples not understanding Jesus’ ministry and his vision of a Messiah.
The disciples, and presumably other followers of Jesus, saw him as the son of David, a super warrior, who with divine help would banish the Romans and more than likely lead them to world domination. When they realised that was not going to happen Jesus’ support quickly fell away.
Would be leaders have a lot more appeal than those actually appointed to leadership roles. Donald Trump attracted a big enough following to elect him president of the United States because he managed to inspire the imagination of a vast multitude of disaffected Americans. They were people who were quite convinced that he was going to make America great again. More importantly they imagined he would do it their way. In the first poll since the election his popularity has dropped to 37% as people begin to realise he is working off his agenda, not theirs.
Comic book heroes are popular because they fight evil in spite of democratic and court process and quickly defeat the bad guys.
Comic book heroes are always right and the bad guys are always wrong. What is the point of procrastinating time wasters like long winded democratic processes, police departments and judiciary that demand evidence before an arrest or conviction. Superheroes can sort it out in a couple of biff, bang wallops and take the villains straight to jail.
For the crowds who waved the leafy branches then shouted crucify him that was the sort of messiah they wanted. Someone who would make Jerusalem great again!
They thought that was what they had with Jesus. They were convinced that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem to kick out the Romans and the corrupt temple authority and rule the world their way, which is always the way of the god people create in their own image.
However our recent history has a number of successful revolutions where leader and ideologies have inspired rebel armies to rise up from the dispossessed underclass and march into capital cities with great cheering parades. The new revered leaders then use the same revolutionary violence to maintain their position and protect the revolutionary ideology.
In Iraqi foreign invasion removed a despotic regime and, after initial fighting, were enthusiastically welcomed as liberators. However with the withdrawal of the invaders the struggle for supremacy among opposing factions is reducing cities to wildernesses.
In Matthew’s story Jesus faced those temptations in his forty days in the wilderness. Mark simply notes that Jesus was tempted but Matthew spells out the temptations Jesus faced. Most significantly the Devil showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and told Jesus he could rule them all as long as he worshiped the Devil. (Matthew 4:8)
Clearly the message in that verse and supported by the other specific temptations is that popularity can propel a person into a leadership position. But retaining such a leadership position in the face of a whole host of alternative opinions and conflicting needs and agendas creates opportunities for evil to prosper.
In the face of alternative agendas leadership is often driven to defend its position with violence or give favours to powerful interest groups at the expense of the more marginalised minority.
So in Matthew’s story Jesus had rejected the popular idea of a superhero messiah, God’s chosen warrior king. Riding on a donkey made that point abundantly clear.
For those who look to a better world by eliminating the group they see as other Jesus had the unfortunate habit of forgiving sinners. Instead Jesus instructed his disciples on a long difficult road towards a changed the world. Travelling that road involved small caring actions by individual people. Caring for people, sharing food with strangers, resolving disputes by asking both parties to empathise with each other and compromise in ways that honour both points of view. The Jesus way calls all people to change the world by being better people themselves. That is a much harder road than judging the shortcomings of others. Loving our enemies as well as our neighbours is too hard a call for most people and they try to change the meaning of the word ‘love.’ Folk think they can love people but hate what they do. In reality that puts us on a high horse of the self-righteous rather than the lowly donkey of the servant Christ.
Our world today is full of wars where people have chosen to make a better place for themselves by eliminating those they see as different. Both sides in such wars see themselves as fighting to eliminate evil. In fact they are all guilty of creating a greater evil that results in the death of children who simply want the chance to live. Opposing armies are wiping out cities, devastating the environment and leaving unexploded bombs and land mines to rob people of life and limbs well into the future.
Regrettably even churches and card carrying Christians choose the high horse of self-righteousness by selecting a few texts to reinforce their prejudice on particular issues. They then focus on eliminating those issues and even going to the point of psychologically, if not physically, destroying individuals and groups involved in those issues.
But Jesus’ mission was not about eliminating evil. The temptations in the wilderness were about resisting being seduced by evil and the Palm Sunday episode acts out the slow plod of the Jesus way of justice and righteousness.
It matters little if today’s gospel reading is an historical event, an acted parable or Jesus and his followers simply being part of the festival procession. As we remember that Robin Miers suggests that our call is to follow Jesus rather than worship Jesus we should remember that, as Jesus rides a borrowed donkey to Jerusalem, he calls us to follow him.
That is a calls to us to follow the hard donkey plod through our own unjust world. It is not a call to wave the branches and shout the hosannas but a call to be followers of Jesus who act as Jesus in our troubled world.
We are called to make our own slow donkey plod, the gentle Jesus revolution that will transform the world.
 A.A Anderson Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans, London: Morgan & Scott, 1972) p.797
 Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.413-415.