You can’t say I didn’t warn you. Way back in my December “Servitor” article I warned you that this year would be a “politically charged and governmentally intrusive year” as we read through the Gospel of Matthew, and this is why.
Matthew will not let it be anything other than that, and we are brought face to face with it all particularly on this day, Palm Sunday.
The ministry in Galilee, which has been known far and wide, has portrayed Jesus as casting out demons, healing the sick, and confronting religious leaders and those in authority and putting them in their place.
Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom, and it has played very well in the places where people have largely come to him.
Those in need seek him out.
Those who have heard of the miracles he can do come to receive from him.
Those who are skeptical come to ask questions, and inquire further, and who are open to his message find in him a compelling alternative to the grind of Empire that is life under Roman occupation.
But now, Jesus is not in Galilee anymore, not out in the sticks where you can get by with a lot of things so long as you don’t make too many waves or draw to much attention.
Now he is entering Jerusalem, there is no mistaking how he is coming into town, how he is received by the people, and what this entry signals.
The waving of palm branches, and laying them down before him hearkens back to the most recent memory of action taken against occupying forces. It was during the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century B.C. that Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem having driven back the Greeks. They cut palm branches to celebrate his military victory when the temple was cleansed and restored. This was a story told, and a moment celebrated.
As Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
That is not just some generic greeting.
“Hosanna” is the Greek rendering of Rabbinical Hebrew “Hoshia-na” “save, rescue.”
So this is the expectation on this day by those crowds who welcome him. Here comes the one who is like King David of old, who will do battle here, who will “save” us from Roman occupation and the ineffectiveness of our current leaders.
This is an entry that signals a regime change.
It is the Inauguration day parade where the new leader is walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and as the crowds greet and wave at him, they also have expectations. Promises that are to be kept. Hopes that are to be fulfilled.
Look at Palm Sunday with those eyes, and begin to see all the expectations that come with it, and you will begin to understand how it was that expectations not met as anticipated could turn the crowds from cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify him.”
Even as eyes recognize the symbolism of the events, we have to acknowledge that there were details tucked into the story that were deviations from the norm.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem all right, but it is not on a prancing steed, or on a chariot of war as a conquering king would.
No, he comes on a beast of burden, saddled with the clothing of the poor, and it is either a young colt at that or perhaps is it a colt with a with a nursing foal accompanying. So, in Jesus’ entry we see not a conquering warrior, but a different kind of leader.
This is a leader whose intent is to nurture.
This is a savior who earlier in the Gospel invoked the image of hen and chicks, wanting to gather Jerusalem under her wings.
This is a clue that that battle to be engaged in Jerusalem is not like one of the kings of old, where the oppressor is driven out by force.
This is not a regime change, where once it is done the people will sit back again and evaluate how the leader did, and where we can judge the effectiveness of his leadership based on whether our lives are better off in this world than they were before.
No, this is a different kind of battle, but no less political.
In this battle the limitations of earthly kingdoms are laid bare, and exposed for what they truly are.
Governments and kings, Temple authorities, Chief Priests and Councils, even disciples are all the same.
They do not care.
This is Matthew’s take on the story of Jesus. If you are looking for some structure that will save, forget it. All have fallen short of that, and the characters in the story show us how.
For Pilate and Roman Authority … well Jesus Barabbas, Jesus of Nazareth, it’s all the same… One Jew looks like another to Pilate. He can’t be bothered with their intrusion into his well oiled machine of state. He washes his hands of the intrusion of Jesus. “Do with him what you will.”
For Caiaphas and the religious leaders, ridding themselves of Jesus is a political expediency. His presence agitates the crowds. They plot to have him killed, and are concerned not about the action itself, but rather the appearances. “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot.” There is no concern for the death of a fellow Jew, only how to hold on to power and keep the status quo at any cost.
For the Disciples, well it is one of them who betrays, which is a way of saying that very few groups (or congregations for that matter) are ever destroyed from without, it is always an “inside job.”
Judas may even have had noble motives, believing that he would be forcing Jesus’ hand to bring in the Kingdom.
Or, he may have just sold out, dissatisfied with the direction things ended up going, Jesus all talk and no action.
Peter tries to assist the uprising that will bring about the regime change, mobilize the masses to riot and violence by raising the sword at the garden. Let the bloody rebellion begin.
But Jesus forbids it, and he too has a moment of not understanding. How will this Kingdom come if no one engages the opposition?
The disciples all disappoint in the garden, they can’t even keep awake for an hour, and when the police show up, they all scatter, seeking to preserve their own skins.
The once bold sword swinger Peter, will become the thrice denier who skulks in shadows.
Matthew tells us this is the triumphant entry that signals the change of regimes, the Kingdom brought near now to intrude upon Empire, but when it happens, from all outward appearances, Empire comes out on top.
Pilate stays in his Palace.
Herod remains King of Judea.
Jesus ends up crucified for insurrection, and the guilty go free.
The disciples are scattered and the movement is lost.
So what are we to take away from this week? From this story?
Well, perhaps it is this.
You are who you are when Jesus comes into your midst.
This is how it is with the encounter with Jesus.
We don’t “clean ourselves up” to come into the presence of God, but rather the point is that Jesus comes and finds us exactly where we are, and your reaction to his intrusion on your life will vary.
Jesus rides into your world with all the outward signs of signaling a regime change, but tucked under that message is this desire to nurture you into a new way of living, and that’s what we miss.
We expect action from him, not transformation in ourselves.
And so it is, that when Jesus enters into this world of Empire in which we live, we have the same kinds of reactions that unfolded in the entry into Jerusalem.
Some will be filled with expectations that Jesus should do something to save, do something to straighten out this un-justice world. “Hosanna” – Save us!
Some will be angry that Jesus doesn’t fit the mold of what we expect a Messiah should be. His actions will seem strange. His follow-through on events erratic. Jesus remains unpredictable, not something we “get” all the time.
Some will be annoyed that he’s often just like any other would-be religious fanatic, they are ready to wash their hands of the whole church thing when expectations are unmet.
Some will be upset that Jesus doesn’t do what they want him to do. Despite their initial appearance of affection for him, betrayal is always just a “kiss off” away.
This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who wants to nurture but we will have none of that.
This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who does challenges political authority, and who he scares enough that they in the end to put a seal on the tomb and make good and sure he stays put.
You are who you are when you encounter this story, and your character is laid bare and exposed.
You are heartless politician.
You are expedient church leader.
You are a betrayer, a coward, a steadfast but powerless watcher, a questioner, a skeptic.
The triumphal entry turns tragedy, and you are exposed for who you are in the end.
But the story is not yet over, and no seal put on a tomb, even by Empire, will keep it shut.
Jesus’ time in Jerusalem becomes earth shaking, in more ways than one.
This day, the entry and the start of this week reveals us as we are when Jesus first comes riding into Empire as we have fashioned it.
But, we are not yet who this Savior will make of us after the earth-shaking events of graves opened.
That’s what Palm Sunday sets us up for, watching how it all unfolds this week, exposing us for who we are in the Empires we have fashioned or adopted.
I did warn you.
Jesus will come riding in, and Empire as you have fashioned it will fall.
It must, so that new life can be born from the grave